A friend of mine works at Kew gardens. This morning she and lots of others stood for the two minute silence by the war memorial and right next to this very sad looking tree.

The tree has a very relevant history for an Armistice Day Story and whilst it appeared to have survived the severe storm a couple of weeks ago, it had obviously suffered structural damage and when the staff came in last Thursday morning they discovered that a large limb had ripped off. (Narrowly missing decapitating the Chinese guardian lion-dog.) The split goes even deeper down the trunk, all the weight is now on one side so it is unstable and they don’t think the tree can be saved – we are awaiting the final verdict but the prognosis is not looking good.

The really poignant story is this: A soldier involved in the battle of Verdun in France during the First World War, scooped an acorn out of the mud and put it in his pocket. It returned with him to Britain in 1919 and it was germinated and the young sapling planted at Kew. It’s not an “old oak tree”, as oak trees go, but it is a wonderful story and was always known as the Verdun Oak. A sign of hope and ongoing life from the devastation and carnage of the battlefield and a living link to the First World War. For it to be damaged just before November 11 and with 2014 so close is really very sad.

Verdun oak

  1. Alan Brittan on

    Your article re the Oak Tree at Kew recently caught my eye. Having visted the Verdun battlesite on many occasions. I am under interested to know… how an English soldier was involved. The main battles were always between the French and German armies. Any information would be welcome. Regards Thank You.

  2. Family Affairs on

    Hello, in answer to your question – here is the response from my friend who works at Kew Gardens – hope it helps:-

    “Your blog commenter is, of course, absolutely correct that Verdun was a French/German battle. The official history of Kew book doesn’t mention the Verdun Oak at all, so no clues there. The RBG website mentions the Verdun Oak much as I did. Interestingly, a Google search brings up the information (Great War Forum website) that a box of acorns was sent from Verdun and there are other Verdun Oaks planted around the country.

    However the Kew oak appears to have been more individual than that and there is a suggestion that it may have been a member of Kew’s staff who brought the acorn back. Obviously many of them saw service in both world wars. And they were familiar with the idea of seed collection overseas. I think that exactly whose hand scooped up the acorn is probably lost in the mists but the acorn definitely came from Verdun. Sadly, to make the tree safe, it has been reduced to a tall trunk only. We haven’t been told what the plans are but we’re hoping that it can remain like this for the 1914-18 commemorative years as a rather stark memorial. It now looks more like the trees depicted in Nash’s paintings of the battlefields”.

  3. The Verdun Oak lives on not only in truncated form (excuse pun) but also in its children (see below) and also may have a Gallipoli cousin>

    Thanks for your picture of the Verdun oaks at Kew Gardens – I am there in a few weeks preparing for a talk at University of London about my World War Zoo Gardens project research into zoos and botanic gardens in wartime.
    I will check out the background of the Verdun oaks in the published histories and Kew Guild Journal, http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/garden-attractions-A-Z/temple-of-arethusa.htm and pictured in health at http://apps.kew.org/trees/assets/pdf/KS4_Gazingatoaks.pdf

    I know sometimes seeds and herbarium specimens were sent back in wartime from overseas by gardens staff on active service, whilst others were sent in a more ceremonial function sent from mayors of blighted regions. There are some Verdun Oaks at Lichfield, Coventry etc

    Kew Gardens are preparing to mark the WW1 centenary in different ways and I recently received the following email from Seamus O’Brien at Kilmacurragh and Glasenevin Botnaic Gardens in Ireland realted to the Verdun oaks.

    “Mark, I was recently forwarded your email regarding commemorating the Great War. Here at Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens and the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin (both gardens form the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland) we plan to plant a seedling from Kew’s famous Verdun oak (Quercus petraea) as a mark of respect to Charles and Reginald Annesley Ball-Acton, successive owners of the Kilmacurragh Estate, who were killed within months of each other, and also Charles Frederick Ball, formely of Kew, the Assistant Keeper at the NBG, Glasnevin, before his death at Gallipoli. I am very keen to hear what other Botanic Gardens are doing to commemorate their War Dead and hope we can mark the event across both our Islands.
    With very best wishes. Seamus O’Brien.www.botanicgardens.ie”

    I am working on a blog post and Wikipedia article for C F Ball, although his “Escallonia C F Ball” forms a lasting floral legacy:

    This blog post features a section from the Kew Guild Journal (now online back to 1893) which also lists oaks sent back to Kew from Gallipolli:

    “In the Arboretum Nursery there are several young plants of Quercus Aegilops grown from acorns sent home by an officer from Gallipoli. Perhaps it will be possible to plant one of these also in the vicinity, especially as it is in Gallipoli that the first two of our members to lose their lives,Messrs. C. F. Ball and W. H. Morland, lie buried.”

    Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo (World War Zoo Gardens Project)

    • Family Affairs on

      Gosh how all very interesting – thanks for the comment and I will make sure the expert at Kew Gardens is aware of it and can comment if required. Thanks Lx

  4. As of c. 31 March 2014 whilst being shown round by staff I found that The Verdun Oak at Kew Gardens is sadly no more.

    When I was there after my London talk in March 2014 (and returning there to talk as part of the KMIS talks in October 2014 ), I understand that the tree stump has been removed (for possible future use).

    Kew have lots of interesting exhibitions and tours planned for 2014 to 2018, http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/whats-on/first-world-war-tribute

    • Family Affairs on

      That is sad, but thanks for adding a link re other interesting exhibitions at Kew Gardens Lx

  5. Pingback:The Verdun Oak at Kew Gardens | Worldwarzoogardener1939's Blog

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