Usefulness and services of the tree :
Features and characters of the individual
This tree is a survivor. It was planted in the garden of a large property, in the countryside surrounding Brussels. Its beauty has saved it from being cut down, despite all of the redevelopment space around it. Today, it stands isolated in the midst of a commercial area, sitting on the top of a small hill. Behind its curtain of branches, it's almost like being in the forest...
Survivor on the commercial strip
In the centre of a spacious lawn, behind the long arc of a white stone bench, an imposing weeping beech grows in an open lot along the chaussée de Louvain. What could a tree of this species be doing in a place like this?
This individual belongs to a species of trees that were used as windbreaks to line the alleys and parks of large estates throughout Europe. Probably planted in 1876, when one of these parks was designed, it is the sole remaining vestige of the countryside that once surrounded Brussels. A landscape that has vanished from view.
In the meantime, the tree has survived a ‘war zone’: it witnessed the construction of the chaussée de Louvain, saw increasing numbers of cars whizzing by and aeroplanes roaring through the sky above it, while the communications tower of the national broadcasters VRT/ RTBF rose in the distance, shops and car dealerships cropped up on all sides, the ground around it was excavated, returned, compacted, reshaped… And now, this veteran sits atop a fully manmade embankment, surrounded by a commercial/industrial zone.
The pressures of the city are at maximum intensity here: if you happen to pass by, take the time to stop and admire this green wonder.
A fountain of leaves
From a distance, the tree seems all the more alive in contrast to its inert surroundings. Its branches sprout from within, growing densely packed as they reach the summit, and then cascade all around the tree down to the lawn. This weeping profile misleads most passers-by. As they hurry past on the road, they probably barely notice the tree or else absentmindedly mistake its silhouette for that of a willow.
But it only takes a moment to stop and discover that these are not the long, thin, lance-shaped leaves of the weeping willow. You do not have to be a great botanist to see that the leaves of this tree are oval. If you come closer to the curtain of branches you will discover that their edges are smooth and attractively wavy (or slightly barbed on the outer 2/3 of the leaves) and the surface is slightly fuzzy (in springtime): this is the typical leaf of the beech.
In common beech trees, the crown often grows so high that it is difficult to clearly see the leaves, twigs and buds. But here, it is all within reach: why not enjoy it. The growth of the young twigs follows the typical zigzag path, angling slightly at each node. The buds project on alternate sides along the branch. They are long, thin and pointed, encased in scales of a rich ochre-brown.
The foliage seems strangely alive. That's surely because of the way it sways in the breeze or the gusts of wind that form in this area of turbulence. But that's not the only reason: there is something interesting about the way this foliage is organised. It’s as if this tree does not arrange its leaves haphazardly but instead, it seems to position them according to size in order to capture the slightest ray of sun. It’s then no surprise that the beech is the champion of photosynthesis. In the forest, is one of the most efficient trees in the quest for light. So much so that it tends to overshadow other species that struggle to grow beneath it.
Behind the curtain
It is hard to resist the curiosity to find out what it’s like behind this curtain of leaves. If you are tempted, enter respectfully, gently spreading the branches and avoiding breaking them or walking on the roots. It is a living being.
You are instantly plunged into a different world: the chaos of the city vanishes completely and the noise of the traffic fades, a flock of songbirds suddenly scatters and then, if you stay patient and still, one by one, they will return to twitter nearby.
Once behind the curtain of leaves, the first thing you notice are the seemingly tangled roots. They look strangely strong and alive. They hug the mound on which the tree has been installed, overlapping and fusing together to strengthen the tree’s stability.
This impression of power is also created by the stout aspect of the foot of the tree. The trunk measures four metres around. Its centre of gravity is close to the ground, further increasing its stability. The wood’s mass is concentrated at a low level, which allows it to sprout branches and support the incredible weight of its weeping foliage. Especially when it becomes saturated with rainwater: increasing it to a colossal weight. Or when buffeted by the wind: it has to be able to resist incredible forces in all directions.
You can gently take a seat on one of its thick roots and feel their ‘power’. The bark is thin, smooth and grey like that of the common beech. It's the perfect vantage point to observe the architecture inside the crown, which consists of several trunks that split off from the base and many branches sprouting from them.
In various places, the branches become welded to each other. This phenomenon is the result of their crowding. Some branches come into contact and rub against each other. This friction creates a wound on each of them. The protective pads that grow over their wounds become merged, so tightly that two or three branches may be combined into a single branch. In this way they act like strong cable-stays between the vertical axes: thus reinforcing the entire structure of the tree. The sap is shared between the fused branches.
All these circumstances, together with wood that is very hard and strong, certainly position this tree well to withstand many challenges. If it is not edged out by a building designed to fill the last unbuilt open lot in the zone, this tree should live to a ripe old age.
Strength that deserves encouragement
Is it out of a need to defend itself against all that it has endured that this tree has reinforced its branches and roots so robustly?
This individual commands all the more respect for overcoming its trials. Considering its age and what it has been through and the way that it gives shape to this ultra-urban landscape, it certainly deserves to be part of the living heritage of the Region. It was therefore added to the scientific inventory of notable trees in 2002, and its protection is pending.
In light of this architectural feat, one might well wonder why such a specimen has not yet been added to the preservation list. But when it was discovered, there were already many major urban development projects surrounding it. The authorities feared that the impact of the construction sites would threaten its survival. It is difficult to elevate a tree to the rank of a living monument when building permits have already been issued that are likely to eclipse it.
Today, in principle, all of the construction work is over. And it is difficult to imagine where yet another commercial space could be added to the district. From atop its little mound, the weeping beech has fought like a lion. So it's really high time to grant it listed status. The next step would be to provide regular care, and possibly to institute measures for supporting its natural strength: for example, by providing it with a wilder type of soil, similar to what it would have once known in the countryside long ago.
This portrait is enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden. See attached. Thanks to the library (heritage collection) for this contribution. https://www.plantentuinmeise.be/en/home/