The Melbourne treemail phenomenon

By Shaun Ley
BBC Radio 4

  • Published
Elm treeImage source, ALAMY

Some people talk to their plants. In Melbourne, they email the trees. This became possible thanks to a decision to map every tree in the city and give it a unique ID number.

"Dearest Golden Elm", wrote one correspondent earlier this month, "I finally found you! I see you every day on my way to uni, but I had no idea of what kind of tree you are. You are the most beautiful tree in the city and I love you."

About 3,000 emails have been sent to individual trees in the last two years. This didn't start out as an exercise in sentiment, but a hard-headed attempt by Melbourne city council to manage an urban forest in decline - as a result of drought, by 2009 40% of the 77,000 trees in Australia's "garden city" were struggling or dying.

"Many of these trees were in a severe state of decline and we were staring down the barrel of losing up to 50% of our beautiful tree population. That would have fundamentally changed the way that Melbourne looked, the way it performed environmentally, the way people felt about it socially and even economically as well," says councillor Arron Wood, who leads on the environment.

"So what we did is we actually mapped all the trees in the city… In doing so we had to assign each of them an individual tree ID and it was a logical step then to allow our residents to actually interact on a digital platform. And they could email whether a tree was dropping limbs or if it was in a severe state of decline and we could easily locate that tree and come out and intervene."

Image source, Other

It was then that something extraordinary happened. Instead of identifying a tree in need of attention and emailing the council to get it done, people in Melbourne began sending personal messages to the trees.

"As I was leaving St Mary's College today I was struck , not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You're such an attractive tree," reads one profession of love - and according to Wood it is quite typical.

"People literally are talking to these trees as if they are people, telling them how much they love them, thanking them for protecting them against the sun, apologising when their dog pees on them in the morning," he says.

"So there are some quite humorous ones but also some really heartfelt emails as well."

There have been emails from former residents living in Germany and the United States, telling the trees how much they miss them. English elms have been asked for their views on the Ashes series.

Soon, there could be a lot more emails. The council believes planting additional trees could bring down Melbourne's sizzling summer temperatures by four degrees Celsius.

As well as cooling its citizens, planting 3,000 new trees a year will help the city to breathe more easily. Individual trees have received emails thanking them for extracting carbon dioxide from the air.

Image source, Thinkstock

My favourite email was sent to tree number 1022165 at the end of May of this year:

"Dear Green Leaf Elm, I hope you like living at St Mary's. Most of the time I like it too. I have exams coming up and I should be busy studying. You do not have exams because you are a tree. I don't think there is much more to talk about as we don't have a lot in common, you being a tree and such. But I'm glad we're in this together."

In 1975, the singer Don Estelle, advised "whispering grass don't tell the trees, because the trees don't need to know". Well, maybe they do.

Selected treemail (July 2015)

Weeping Myrtle, Tree ID 1494392

5 July 2015

Hello Weeping Myrtle,

I'm sitting inside near you and I noticed on the urban tree map you don't have many friends nearby. I think that's sad so I want you to know I'm thinking of you. I also want to thank you for providing oxygen for us to breath in the hustle and bustle of the city.

Best Regards, N

Gum, Tree ID 1032002

11 July 2015

Dear Gum,

Apologies if that's not the form of address you prefer. I wanted very much to tell you how much I miss your family. I've lived in Texas for two and a half years now, and I so fervently miss the heady scent of your cologne as the morning sun warms you.

I miss your gentle swish swish as the wind tousles your leaves playfully. I miss your strong white trunk, rising majestically from the earth, striking up towards the clouds. I miss the dappled shade you so generously provide.

The sound of magpies, harbouring in your foliage, does not grace my ears. The silver green of your long, lithe leaves does not appear in my current surrounds.

I miss you, Gum. I miss all that you represent for me. Stand tall and strong, and know that my heart reaches out to you across the seas.

With immense fondness, A

Golden Elm Tree ID 1040779

11 July 2015

Dearest Golden Elm Tree, I finally found you! As in I see you everyday on my way to uni, but I had no idea of what kind of tree you are. You are the most beautiful tree in the city and I love you ^_^ It always makes me so happy to see you standing there minding your own business. I have to say, you have the most beautiful canopy and I love how the light green leaves on your branches contrast with the darkness of your trunk. We really should have more trees of your kind in our city.

Stay awesome.

Hugs! A

Variegated Elm, Tree ID 1033102

13 July 2015

Dear Elm, I was delighted to find you alive and flourishing, because a lot of your family used to live in the UK, but they all caught a terrible infection and died. Do be very careful, and if you notice any unfamiliar insects e-mail an arboriculturist at once. I miss your characteristic silhouettes and beautifully shaped branches - used to be one of the glories of the English landscape - more than I can say. Melbourne must be a beautiful city.

Sincere good wishes, D

English Elm, Tree ID 1032245

14 July 2015

Are you and your fellow English Elms enjoying the Ashes series as much as we in England are, and are you giving the native Aussie trees some stick over their team's performance?


[Note: Two days after this email was sent, Australia ended the first day of the second Ashes test on 337-1- "the most one-sided day of Test cricket you could ever see", as the BBC's Stephan Shemilt put it.]

Brush Box, Tree ID 1039919

14 July 2015

Hello, dear Tree. I read about this wonderful project and suppose to write you from another side of Earth - Russia. I hope you have a good care and don't sick. One day we will meet, may be.

Yours truly, R

Image source, ALAMY

Councillor Arron Wood speaks to Shaun Ley on The World Tonight at 2200 BST on BBC Radio Four tonight. You can find out more about the project at

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