The park that we know as Sunray Gardens was originally the water garden of Casina House which was built in 1796 on the Casina Estate. Casina House was demolished in 1906 and most of the land was acquired for social housing as the Sunray Estate which was formed in 1920. The area around the lake was preserved as open space for recreational purposes and was first known as the Casino Open Space, then renamed Sunray Gardens in 1923.
Sunray Gardens was therefore already well planted with Elms, Limes, Ashes, Weeping Willows, Alders, Horse Chestnuts, Sycamores, London Planes, Beeches, Hawthorns and Hazels all of which are still very much present in the park. Some of the larger trees were lost in the great storm of 1987, but many are still with us.
In 2001 the newly formed Friends of Sunray Gardens were awarded a lottery grant which with matched funding from Southwark Council provided £220k to refurbish the park. The Friends organisation disbanded after the park had been substantially improved. In the last few years Southwark Council have introduced some very attractive new trees to Sunray Gardens, including several species that originate from China.
Overhanging the Netball Court is an attractive Japanese Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum). Despite its name the Japanese Pagoda tree is native to China but for a long time had been cultivated and naturalised in Japan, where the trees were often planted in the grounds of Buddhist temples. Known in China as the Scholar Tree it has been planted in Chinese gardens and temple grounds for over 2,000 years. The tree has beautiful white flowers in August but flowering normally only commences when the tree is 30-40 years old. This year we were fortunate to see these white flowers. Fruits form after the flowers fade, looking like bright green strings of pearls.
Also close to the hardcourt area are three Maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba. These were introduced to the UK from China in 1758. Fossils show that they existed over 270 million years ago. They are elegantly shaped trees and the leaves have a very distinctive fan shape split down the middle. Ginkgos are now widely planted in parks and in streets as they tolerate pollution and seem to thrive in built up areas. The tallest of these three Ginkgo is a relatively rare female tree which produces large yellow ovules containing seeds. These ovules litter the path in the autumn, and have the most unpleasant pungent smell. There is another mature Ginkgo tucked into the corner at the Elmwood Road entrance. The leaves from the Ginkgo turn golden yellow in autumn and form a yellow carpet on the ground.
Also just inside the Elmwood Road gate is another very attractive tree that is native to China - a Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) - also known for some reason as Pride of India although they did originate in China. The delicately shaped leaves have from 7 to 15 leaflets with deeply serrated margins, unfolding red in late May, turning pale yellow then green, and in autumn yellow and brown with dramatic flowers of mustard-yellow plumes. The pinkish bladders, like Chinese lanterns, turn deep orange in the autumn, each holding 3 pea-size seeds.
Along the back of the park we are very fortunate to have four White Mulberries (Morus alba) - they are fast growing trees, native to Northern China but have been widely cultivated across the world for silk production. Cultivation of white mulberry trees for silkworms began over 4,000 years ago in China where they had discovered that White Mulberry leaves were the food required for the tiny caterpillars that produce the precious silk fibres. China maintained a monopoly on silk production for 2,000 years until Japan acquired the secret.
Amongst the Mulberries is a strange looking tree - a Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) - also known as Chinese plum or Japanese plum, but it is a native of south-central China. It is a large evergreen shrub or tree with a rounded crown, short trunk and woolly new twigs. Leaves are long, dark-green, tough and leathery. Loquats are unusual among fruit trees in that the flowers appear in the autumn or early winter, and the fruits are ripe between early spring and early summer, but seldom in the UK. The flowers are white with five petals and have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelt from a distance. The fruits grow in clusters, are pear-shaped with a yellow or orange skin, and the flavour is a mixture of peach, citrus and mango.
A recent addition to the park is a young Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) - a deciduous conifer from China. It is an ancient tree and while known about from fossil records it was thought to be extinct. It was re-discovered and the first specimens were brought to Britain in 1948. They have pale green leaves with opposite leaflets, which turn into a rust colour in the autumn. They have a neat shape and have become very popular in parks. This tree was an orphan that was originally located towards the top of Red Post Hill, but had been planted in the shade of an oak tree where it would not have thrived. It was relocated out of season just a few months ago so we have been regularly watering this tree during the very dry summer, and hoping that it will survive.
Another newly planted tree is a Turkish Hazel (Corylus colurna) - this was another displaced tree that had to moved from the pavement of Dog Kennel Hill because of the building work beside East Dulwich Station. This was relocated behind the swings in the middle of the summer, so we have also been watering this newcomer regularly and hoping that we have done enough to make it feel welcome. If this tree does survive, the nuts will be larger than the Common Hazel and very popular with the squirrels, with cups that are very bristly and contorted.
There are also many of the more traditional British trees in Sunray Gardens.
On the bank of the lake are several English Elms (Ulmus procera) - These Elms are the remains of the Elm Wood of Elmwood Road. They are all less than 20 years old, and unfortunately this year seven of these taller elm trees reached a height of around nine metres at which point they came to the attention of the beetle Scolytus scolytus that carries the fungal pathogen known as Ophistoma novi -ulmi which causes what we know as Dutch Elm Disease.
However Elm trees continue to renew themselves by sending out suckers to produce many more young Elm trees. There are quite a few very young Elms here which should remain healthy until they also reach maturity. These Elms have small leaves that are hairy, scrubby and uneven, with a pimple leaf gall that is unsightly but not harmful to the tree. These immature Elms are sadly nothing like the magnificent Elms that Constable used to paint to depict a typical English landscape.
There are a great many common ash trees in the park - Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) - they have distinctive leaflets in pairs on either side of a leaf stalk and have winged fruits in the form of single wings known as ‘keys’ and they are often seen hanging in large bunches late into the autumn. These ash trees spread their seeds everywhere and there are very many self-seeded ash trees now growing around the nearside bank of the lake. These will need to be thinned out very soon before they completely dominate the park. There are concerns in the country about ash tree diseases as a fungal infection Chalara fraxinea, also known as Ash Dieback, which has ravaged other European countries has now spread to the UK, killing 90 per cent of the trees it affects. The Common Ash is also under attack from the emerald ash borer beetle. There are fears that between these two threats many of the country’s Common Ash trees may be eventually lost. One of our tallest Ash trees has been attacked by the wood decaying fungi Inonotus hispidus, and will soon have to be taken down.
In the middle of the park are three Weeping Ashes (Fraxinus excelsior pendula) - these are formed by grafting on to a Common Ash trunk an umbrella-shaped crown of hanging branches arching to the ground.
There is also a very attractive ash tree near the boundary fence of the grassy area - a Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus) - or South European flowering ash. It is an attractive medium-sized domed tree that in early May is smothered in fragrant creamy-white flowers which have delicate, skinny petals. The Manna Ash is smaller than most other Ash trees, but flowers earlier and more spectacularly, but the autumn foliage display is just as attractive with the leaves turning green to yellow to red to purple and then falling. It is also not vulnerable to the various diseases afflicting other Ash trees.
The magnificent tree at the Red Post Hill entrance is a Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). They are native British trees that produce male catkins in spring, and the fruit is a small nut held in a leafy bract that is slightly asymmetrical which makes it spin as it falls, improving wind dispersal. They can live for 300 years. There is another fine Common Hornbeam just a little further round on the boundary fence, plus several smaller Hornbeams along the boundary.
Alongside the lake amongst the many Common Alders is a very tall and upright Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum) which produces small cones each with many seeds. In the middle of the park are four small upright Irish Yews (Taxus baccata fastigiata) - an upright growth of the Common Yew grown as an ornamental tree.
If you wish to further explore our trees there is a Sunray Gardens Tree Trail together with a map that can be downloaded from the Friends of Sunray Gardens website at https://friendsofsunray.com
The Friends organisation has recently been re-established to help develop the park with Southwark Council. There are plans to continue the planting of interesting and attractive trees in Sunray Gardens over the next year.