“Excuse me,” I said to one of the young female assistants at a big garden centre near Leeds. “Do you sell magic money trees?”
“Oh… erm… er.” It was clear she thought I was a madman. “I’ll… um… get my supervisor,” she managed before making a hasty exit.
While waiting, I strolled through the outdoor arboretum with its trees of every size and shape. Then suddenly my heart leapt, for at the far end of an aisle I could see one. It stood 5ft tall and was absolutely plastered with £10 notes. Closer inspection revealed it to be an ornamental tree from Japan called a Katsura, which sported nothing more than delicate pinkish orange leaves. An easy mistake from a distance, I thought. And let’s face it, if anyone can grow magic money trees it’s the Japanese.
Still, I knew they had to be somewhere, even though their existence was publicly denied by Theresa May last June. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” she told a nurse who pointed out she hadn’t received a pay rise for eight years.
Since then it has become increasingly obvious there are such trees. Where else did the Conservatives find £1 billion to pay protection money to the DUP and keep themselves in power? Where did £369 million come from to refurbish Buckingham Palace, or £61 million to restore Big Ben? And at last week’s Tory party conference in Manchester, how else could they stump up £10 billion for the help-to-buy housing scheme, £400 million for northern transport, a billion for the Royal Navy and hundreds of millions more for Nato? If they couldn’t afford to give vital hospital workers a wage increase in June, surely they must have found an entire forest of money trees over the summer.
Labour, of course, knew where they were growing all along. The party’s general election manifesto promised £48.6 billion extra spending, and John McDonnell repeated his pledges at its Brighton conference to pay for things like ending tuition fees, increased spending on healthcare and education. Oh yes, there’s plenty of money trees out there just waiting to be shaken.
Anyway, the garden centre supervisor duly appeared, and with what can best be described as a wry smile he gamely entered into the spirit of my quest. “Ah, yes, magic money trees. Lot of folks have asked about those, and we’ve got loads on back order,” he winked. “Unfortunately, though, our supplier’s clean out of stock.”
Back home, I dropped an email to Jeff Lunn, a woodland consultant and co-author of the South Yorkshire Plant Atlas. He made an interesting suggestion: the magic money tree might actually be one with the scientific name Arborio Eldorado. I got excited. I could be on the right track. Eldorado is the mythical land positively abounding in gold. However, Jeff cautioned that trees are prone to producing very variable crops. “Sometimes they’re full of fruit, for sure,” he said. “But sometimes they produce absolutely nothing.”
There’s another problem too. Trees are highly susceptible to fatal diseases like Dutch elm, ash dieback and horse chestnut canker. As for magic money trees, they may fall foul of a new and potentially lethal infection scientists are calling Europa Brexitus.