The trees they are a changin’- Rick Milsom

by | May 11, 2015 | Features, Opinion

As an arboricultural officer for Southend-on-Sea, Rick Milsom gets to see changing tastes in trees and shrubs first hand

At the time of writing it looks like spring has sprung down in Essex. The sun is out, the magnolias are blooming and the Prunus cerasifera and its cultivars ‘Pissardii’ and ‘Nigra’ are almost done flowering. I must admit I am not a great lover of these purple leaved cultivars. It can be a bit of a problem replacing one tree in a line of these, as whatever you plant looks a bit odd unless it’s another of the same.

Many other Prunus now take over flowering and I for one welcome their flowers in the spring. I still plant cherries with some regularity and with some consideration of cultivars you can get a good few weeks flowering period in the spring and intermittently through the winter.

There are also at least a couple with ornamental bark and many have good autumn colour as well. There are many fastigiate cultivars, small spreading trees, native species good for wildlife, weeping trees. The list goes on.


There are some I would avoid as they’re too fluffy, but that’s only my opinion. I would even say ghastly, but I once got a telling off by the examiner when I used that word to describe a certain species of tree in an exam. I thought it was justified and summed it up beautifully, but I digress.

The reason I started with the Prunus ramble is that it seems the Prunus ‘Pissardii’ and ‘Nigra’ might have been all the rage about 50 years ago but they don’t seem to be so commonly planted now.

As part of my job I find myself wandering the streets inspecting trees and to keep my ident skills up to scratch, I often peer into people’s gardens to see what the ‘in vogue’ plant is at the moment. You can actually find some gems and it’s a good way to learn new plants. We all know how important good tree and shrub identification skills are, don’t we?

But it is true, plant fashions change and the same is true of trees and shrubs. Some of it is probably to do with climate change and a lot with ease of maintenance.

There is a huge amount of Photinia ‘Red Robin’ planted everywhere, which shouts red at this time of year. Phormiums and various palms like Trachycarpus and ornamental grasses are popular in gardens, giving them a tropical feel and they are no doubt up to our dry climate in Essex. Olives are also popular and I’ve seen quite a few mature specimens planted that must have cost a fair amount.

I was recently watching a programme where they were talking about grasses. They said if you had pampas grass in the seventies you had arrived! These seem to have largely disappeared now from what I can see.

It was apparent to me during the winter, when looking out of the window of the top floor of our offices just how many eucalyptus there are in gardens and how big some are getting. There were also many Leyland cypress dotted around. Together these two species made quite a visual impact in the winter landscape which I doubt would have been there not too many years ago. It just goes to show how we can influence the look of a place a few years down the line with our species selection.

Starting out as an apprentice, Rick has worked in horticulture and arboriculture for 30 years, and is currently an arboricultural officer at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council.