Trees | Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted


There is a surprisingly wide range of species in Rectory Lane Cemetery. Some are native to Britain, others have more exotic origins, many are associated with long-forgotten folklore, all are vital to the natural environment. Trees provide a natural habitat for wildlife, encourage birds and insects to thrive, and provide a canopy over the cemetery. Trees also improve air quality and a sense of well-being for everyone who comes to the cemetery.


We are managing the trees in Rectory Lane Cemetery carefully, working to improve tree condition, encourage healthy growth and reduce overcrowding. Most of this work involves crown lifting and thinning out, ivy removal, as well as removing trees that have damaged memorials and walls. We are also encouraging better arboreal species diversity by planting new trees to create a more attractive landscape.


Yew trees

The yew trees in Rectory Lane Cemetery are especially important.  The yew is a beautiful evergreen that can live up to 600 years and is often planted in graveyards. The presence of yew trees in burial grounds is an ancient Northern European tradition, as their long life and evergreen needle-like leaves symbolise everlasting life. 

In the 1840s, 15 Common Yew and Irish Yew were planted out in formal avenues here. Laying out cemeteries with lines of trees became very fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was advocated by noted landscape gardeners of the day such as John Claudius Loudon, a friend of the Countess of Bridgewater, and Humphrey Repton, who landscaped much of the Ashridge Estate in the 1810s. Here in Rectory Lane Cemetery, Victorian families would take a solemn promenade along yew-tree lined paths, mourning their loved ones.


Comparison of yew tree shapes

The Common (or European) yew trees behind the Rex used to border Egerton House, and JM Barrie would have played with the Lewellyn Davis children in their shadow. The avenue crossing the middle of the cemetery near the Memorial Arch is lined with Irish yews. These have more upright growth and darker foliage and, unlike the common yew, the needles grow around the twig, rather than in rows.

Yews are a primitive form of conifer, and bear small red berry-like fruits (called arisl) rather than cones. Thrushes, blackbirds, waxwings and even squirrels love to feed on these fruits in the autumn.


American Cypress

A Cypress in the upper cemetery

A native of California, this graceful evergreen tree is often planted in churchyards, parks and gardens.  It was introduced to Britain in 1854 by Victorian landscape gardeners. It is easy to identify by its tall, conical shape. 

In spring, when many of our native deciduous trees are still budding, the dense foliage of the cypress provides shelter for nesting birds. The tree produces tiny flowers; red ones are male flowers and blue ones are female.



The ash is the third most common tree in Britain and it found all across Europe.

Its light green, slender leaves grow in groups of up to 6 pairs, with a single ‘terminal’ leaflet at the end. 

Sometimes the leaves move in the direction of the sun, and the whole crown of the tree can even follow the sun across the sky. The ash is one of the last trees to bud in the spring, and often the last to lose its leaves in the autumn. They drop brown winged seeds in spring and winter.

Ash trees support many wildlife species, such as woodpeckers, owls, redstarts, nuthatches, stag beetles, dormice, and many species of moth. The trees encourage wildflowers on the ground that attract insects such as the rare high brown fritillary butterfly. The winged seeds also attract colourful bullfinches.



Sloes, ready to make sloe gin

A blackthorn tree can be found in the upper cemetery. This small, deciduous tree is a native species. It is thorny with oval, pointed leaves. In spring it sprouts clusters of small, white flowers which attract bees. 

Caterpillars feed on its leaves, encouraging black and brown hairstreak butterflies, as well as many moth species such as the lackey, magpie, common emerald, small eggar, swallow-tailed and yellow-tailed moths.

This thorny tree is excellent for cattle-proof hedging. The blackthorn is probably best known by its other name, the sloe. The fruit, which resemble small plums, are used for making jam and wine ,and most commonly, for flavouring sloe gin.



A pair of ornamental box trees

A pair of ornamental box trees make an interesting feature in the upper cemetery. This slow-growing evergreen tree is native to Britain and is commonly used for topiary and hedging. It has dark green, waxy oval leaves which give off a beautiful sweet smell.

Box grows wild all over Europe. Box Hill in Surrey is named after the tree, and the nearby Chiltern Hills are famous for their wild box population.

In some old traditions, box was associated with mourning and at funerals, box sprigs were thrown by mourners onto the coffin. Box wood is very dense and is often used to make chess pieces, violin pegs and period woodwind instruments.



Holly berries

Holly is one of the most common woodland shrubs. It has shiny, spiky leaves and late in the year, “the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red”.

Holly provides nesting cover for birds. In winter, dry holly leaves on the ground are used by hibernating hedgehogs, and the berries are a vital food source for birds, wood mice and dormice. In summer, the tiny white holly flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees. Holly also supports the holly blue butterfly and  yellow barred brindle, double-striped pug and holly tortrix moths.

Holly bushes can be seen sprouting out of a number of old graves in the cemetery. In pre-Christian folklore, holly was a fertility symbol and could be used to ward off witches, goblins and the devil. Its branches are used to decorate homes in winter, and today no Christmas card is complete without a robin and a sprig of holly. 



English Oak leaves and acorns

The Oak is a national symbol of many countries including England, with symbolic significance in pre-Christian cultures of Europe. English Oaks play an important environmental role as they support more life forms than any other native trees, hosting hundreds of insect species which provide food for birds. Badgers and squirrels feed on falling acorns, although Oaks do not produce acorns the tree is at least 40 years old. 

In the lower cemetery there is a Turkey Oak. This  native of southern Europe and Asia Minor was introduced to Britain as an ornamental tree in the 18th century. Its acorns are different to the English Oak as they are covered in a hairy coating. 

Monkey Puzzle

The monkey puzzle tree in the lower cemetery

This native species of South America was introduced to Britain by the Victorians as an ornamental tree. It is an ancient species that existed 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs were alive. It got its nickname because the Victorians thought it would be difficult for monkeys to climb its strange, spiky branches.

There is an old superstition that planting a monkey puzzle on the edge of a cemetery would stop the Devil from coming into the graveyard during a burial.

The specimen in Rectory Lane Cemetery was probably planted before the cemetery was opened, when this area was open parkland. 


Silver birch

Silver Birch in the top part of the cemetery

The silver birch trees found at the top part of the cemetery are easy to identify by their white, silvery bark drooping branches and abundant small leaves. This deciduous native species grows deep roots which help to bring nutrients from deep within the soil.  When its leaves fall in autumn, this fertilises the topsoil to encourage wildflowers such as cowslips, bluebells and violets. In spring, it bears small catkins coloured yellow-brown (male) or bright green (female). 

Siskins, greenfinches and redpolls enjoy eating the seed, and woodpeckers sometimes nest in trunk. Silver birch also provides a habitat for over 300 insect species, including many moths, including angle-shades, buff tip, pebble hook-tip, and Kentish glory. 

In Celtic mythology, the birch symbolised renewal and purification. At new year, bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. Birch twigs are still used to make besoms, which gardeners use to sweep their gardens.




Although sycamore is a common tree, it is not originally a native species. It was possibly introduced to Britain from southern Europe by the Romans, or in the Medieval period. It has large, five-lobed (“palmate”) leaves which are are hairy on the underside. It seeds readily and uncultivated specimens often grow in a group of trunks, instead of a single trunk.

Sycamores attract aphids, which in turn attract predators, such as ladybirds, hoverflies and birds. Caterpillars like to eat the leaves, and this encourages a variety of moths, including the sycamore moth, plumed prominent and maple prominent. The pollen of the small, yellow spike flowers attract  bees and other insects.


Wych elm

Wych elm

Wych elm is the only native British elm. It is fairly rare after most elms were killed off by Dutch elm disease in the 20th century. 

Its leaves are oval with a saw-toothed edge and are larger than other elm leaves. Wych elm supports many species of moth and the rare white letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillars feed on the leaves. Birds enjoy eating elm seeds.

Elms are traditionally associated with death and mourning, and elm wood was once a popular choice for coffins.

An ancient tradition at Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire was to carry elm twigs in procession on Ascension Day, and to throw them into the font.



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photo of Jeremy Biddle

 Jeremy Biddle

Founder volunteer and tree specialist