curiosity about the ways of the world

Turning leaves of the Poetry Tree

‘And so, let’s pause a moment here, draw strength –

and reclaim what is ours.’

Reclaiming St Andrew Square Ron Butlin

Green, gold, gone. Any day soon the leaves will turn and fall. And in a shady corner of Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square a young tree will reflect the colour of its relatives on distant mountains of Japan. Here’s a good news story for the telling.

Every time I pass through the still-leafy square I pause to check on the progress of the sapling Kobushi Magnolia. Not far from the exit – on the way to Jenners, say, or The Dome – it flowered for the first time this spring. Three fragrant white flowers braving the westerly winds that blow along George Street through the heart of the City of Literature. Towards the end of September the leaves will turn yellow and for the next few months the bare branches of the Poetry Tree will become almost invisible.

Not many people know about the Poetry Tree but it is a gift from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) to the Poetry Garden in St Andrew Square –  and all who enjoy a welcome green public space in the commercial heart of Scotland’s capital city.

There is a debate to be had about the use and development of public space in the city (the local community council is concerned about commercial activities like Christmas festivals impacting ground and causing potential damage to the trees in St Andrew Square).  But for now let’s concentrate on one small tree, leaning towards the light from beneath the shade of mature trees.

The young Magnolia with laminated sign

Magnolia kobus when it was newly planted and  ‘dedicated to grow in friendship with the people of Japan’

The tree was planted by RBGE staff with official recognition of the Japanese consul in July 2011.  That was a year of the devastating earthquake and tsunami when more than 15,000 lives were lost in Japan. For a while a laminated sign explained the origins of the tree and noted that it was dedicated to grow in friendship with the people of Japan.

Pause and reflect

Not many people know about the Poetry Garden either but it was officially launched at the end of August 2008. The dedication of the newly opened square as a place for public enjoyment and quiet reflection is recorded in a memorandum of agreement filed in the Scottish Poetry Library with an impressive list of signatories representing the City of Literature, Scottish Poetry Library, Scottish Book Trust, Edinburgh Book Festival, Edinburgh Makar, Coffee Republic, who ran the pavilion then, and Edinburgh City Centre Marketing (the predecessor to Essential Edinburgh which manages St Andrew Square – as I was then a director of ECCM, and a member of the steering group, I had the great treat of adding my name too).

‘…the wonderful thing about having a poetry garden in a famous square in a beautiful city is the way it will help people to pause for a minute or two and let poetry into their lives.’ Richard Holloway

A gentle launching ceremony, co-ordinated by the Scottish Poetry Library, had origami lotus flowers floated on the pond, a speech by Richard Holloway (then acting chair of the Scottish Arts Council, predecessor to Creative Scotland) and a poem specially written and spoken by Ron Butlin (then Makar of Edinburgh).

Launching the poetry garden in St Andrew Square with origami lotus blossoms

Floating the poetry garden with home-made lotus blossoms…there’s Ron Butlin, far left, behind Richard Holloway

Reclaiming St Andrew Square

Almost ten years have passed since the August 2008 launch was quietly acknowledged with some coverage on the BBC, posts on City of Literature (HERE) and SPL websites and (ahem) a few blogposts (HERE and HERE). A series of quietly delightful activities organised by Scottish Poetry Library and City of Literature have taken place with the help of willing volunteers and support of Essential Edinburgh.

Poetry readings were performed here for Refugee Week.  Poetry postcards offered to passers by on National Poetry Day. Poetry twirled on willow stakes in the garden. Poetry projected on to the plinth of the Melville Monument and hung on buildings under construction around the square. As far as I know the last public activity was the planting of the Poetry Tree. I can find no coverage of the event but it was well attended and featured the making of origami cranes (for good luck).

The gift of the tree from RBGE had special significance; a symbol of co-operation connecting different parts of the city with each other and with a wider world.

Possibilities and prohibitions

Wild seeds of Magnolia kobus have been collected by Garden staff working in partnership with local collaborators in the mountains of Honshu and Hokkaido. In the Botanics young trees grow as part of their global plant conservation work. In favourable conditions Magnolia kobus grows up to 15m tall with abundant spring blossoms and a good show of autumn gold. Or as the RBGE website says: ‘When this large tree is in full flower in the spring it is a truly spectacular sight to behold.’

There’s a great deal to celebrate here.  So far the young Poetry Tree has weathered five winters – and changing seasons of commercial activities – in St Andrew Square. As the Poetry Garden enters its tenth year perhaps we could mark the occasion with a permanent plaque inside a decorative protective enclosure for the Poetry Tree? And a poem too.  A haiku of course.

Last words for now to Ron Butlin from Reclaiming St Andrew Square (published in the Magicians of Edinburgh).

Ours is a city of possibilities and prohibitions where

we do our best to find the best way forward

and to seek out kindness where we can.

but only in these very public gardens,

only in the green spaces of these very public gardens,

can we feel the reassurance of the Earth beneath us.


And so, let’s pause a moment here, draw strength –

and reclaim what is ours.


Spring blossom on Magnolia kobus image by PROTANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) CC By 2.0

Spectacular spring blossoms on the Kobushi Magnolia in Japan: image by PROTANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) CC By 2.0


  1. fay

    Thanks Gordon!

  2. Gordon Munro

    Let’s do something for National Poetry Day Fay . I’m in . Anyone else ?

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