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Go on, stroke a larch

My friend Dee loves to stroke a larch. Often, in the smoking area she nicknames the leper colony, she manages to persuade reluctant horticultural trainees to accompany her to the nearby larch and give it a stroke. The bemused trainees nearly always react positively to the experience and one thing's for sure, they never forget what a larch looks like, or feels like.

The European larch is central Europe's only native deciduous conifer and was introduced to the UK in the 17th century. Since then, it has made itself at home, providing food for red squirrels and many birds. Every year, in late spring, it produces a fresh crop of leaves and, though they look like needles, they are deceptively soft and extremely strokable.

European larches are pyramidal in habit and they're fairly commonplace. Most of us probably walk past them all the time without so much as a second glance. A few weeks ago, however, I reacquainted myself with a larch you couldn't possibly fail to notice. When I first saw the Weeping Larch at Kelburn Country Park near Largs, I remember thinking Dee would love to meet this guy.

The Weeping Larch at Kelburn is one of Scotland's 100 Heritage Trees. It covers an area of around a quarter of an acre and is thought to be about 180 years old. Its massive tangle of arms lie across the ground and reminds me of a giant, sleeping octopus.

The list of Scotland's 100 Heritage Trees was compiled by the Forestry Commission and voted for by the public who chose as their no.1 tree, The Fortingall Yew which, at around 3000 years old, is said to be the oldest growing piece of vegetation in Europe. Rumour has it, Pontius Pilate was born under this ancient tree.

Second on the list is my own personal favourite, the iron-eating Bicycle Tree. The Bicycle Tree can be found at Brig o' Turk in The Trossachs next to the site of an old smiddy. Over the years, the sycamore with a hunger for iron has eaten any piece of metal discarded by the smiddy, including an anchor and a bike said to have been left leaning against it by a soldier who went to fight in WW1 and never came back. All that can be seen of the bike is its handlebars sticking out of the tree's trunk.

This is why we love trees so much. The oldest of them have a unique history and, no doubt, many a story to tell. The Weeping Larch at Kelburn was born around the year of Queen Victoria's coronation and was in its early twenties when Darwin's On the Origin of the Species was first published. It was planted in the shadow of one of Scotland's oldest castles and has been looked after by the same family ever since. When it was around 140 years old, the Boyle family opened the estate grounds to the public and now the tree spends most of its time in the company of children who love to explore amongst its branches.

The optimum larch-stroking season is when the tree has just put on its new growth but I recommend a visit to the Weeping Larch at any time of the year and, while you're there, why not give it a stroke? I'm pretty sure the tree would want you to.

Julie Kilpatrick is author of The Plant Listener. She is a lecturer in landscape design and horticulture and editor of online gardening magazine 'Gardenzine'.

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