The Leyland Cypress

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Illustration by Lucille Clerc

The story of the Leyland cypress turns on the peculiarly English preoccupations with privacy, gardening and, of course, class. In the nineteenth century, when British plant hunters brought back the hardy yellow cedar from Oregon and the faster-growing but more feeble Monterey cypress from California, they had no idea of the mayhem they would cause more than 100 years later. These conifers are not closely related, and in their native habitats, 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) apart, they would never have hybridized. In mid-Wales, however, they were planted close together and managed to breed. The monster offspring is popularly called Leylandii after Christopher Leyland, who owned the estate where the fateful mating occurred.

Slim, upright and resistant to both salt spray and pollution, Leylandii is alarmingly vigorous – able to leap more than 1 metre (3 feet) a year, often to a height of 35 metres (115 feet) or more. Planted in a row, the trees quickly form an oppressively dense, dark-green wall. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when garden centres became widespread and improved propagation techniques enabled Leylandii to be mass-produced reliably from cuttings, that the tree became available to all. And that’s when the trouble started.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

In the English suburbs, where people live close together yet have private gardens, prying neighbours and being overlooked are obsessions. But the UK has planning laws that limit the height of man-made fences between properties to 2 metres (6-1/2 feet). What the paranoid suburban householder needed was a living fence that would be beyond the scope of regulation and which would grow at breakneck speed into an immensely tall, impenetrable screen. Leylandii perfectly ? lled that gap in the hedge market, and over the next 20 years it became the go-to solution for anyone seeking seclusion. By the early 1990s, half of all trees being planted by the English public were Leylandii.

Instant privacy came at a price, however. Neighbours discovered that precious little would survive in gardens overshadowed and acidi?ed by Leylandii. The angry occupants of lower ? oors complained of perpetual twilight and obstructed views. Adding insult to injury, Leylandii was regarded suspiciously by ‘proper gardeners’ and the upmarket press as a vulgar tool of incomers and the nouveau riche, fuelling a feud among the class-conscious.

By the late 1990s, Leylandii hedges were a cause célèbre. The media loved publishing stories of feuding neighbours coming to ?sticuffs over lost light. Hedge strife caused a suicide and at least two murders. One politician, representing the leafy west London suburb of North Ealing, observed that, ‘for those who were driven more by hate than a desire for privacy, Leylandii had become a weapon of choice, as much as a gun or a knife’.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

Repeated debate and discussion of Leylandii ensued in both houses of Parliament; the House of Commons returned frequently to the subject and spent a total of 22 hours in solemn consideration. In the House of Lords, the matter was raised by the encouragingly named Lady Gardner of Parkes. By 2005 there were more than 17,000 concurrent known hedge disputes between neighbours (and doubtless many others unreported). That year, district authorities were given new powers to use Anti-Social Behaviour Orders against nuisance hedges. Known to the English as ASBOs, these somewhat controversial restraints on citizens have been associated, often unfairly, with working-class problems, such as reining in delinquent teenagers on public housing estates and curtailing the behaviour of Staffordshire pit-bull terriers – dogs that, come to think of it, are another aggressive and problematic hybrid.

(Cover Illustration by Lucille Clerc. Cover Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing).

By 2011 the total British Leylandii population was a staggering 55 million, and by now it is likely that the trees outnumber humans. But at least there’s a rather British compromise between privacy and the right to light – for now.

More from Around the World in 80 Trees:

Excerpted from Around the World In 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Drori. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Mother Earth Gardener
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