What hap­pened to the trees?

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

MY daugh­ter Camilla lives in the Falk­lands —not by choice, but be­cause her hus­band was posted there. They love it and have enor­mous re­spect for the is­lan­ders, but Camilla says she rather misses one thing that we take for granted— trees. It’s some­thing upon which botanists pon­der and pon­tif­i­cate: why did the trees that flour­ish in Tierra del Fuego across the Straits of Mag­el­lan never find their way to colonise these South At­lantic is­lands? They ask the same ques­tion —why are there so few trees?— about the Shet­land Is­lands, al­though some ex­perts main­tain that all the large trees that once cov­ered our Scot­tish is­lands were cut down by set­tlers thou­sands of years ago, and that the scrubby trees that sur­vive to­day are ex­otic in­tro­duc­tions.

I thought about trees in cool cli­mates when we spent a few days in Ber­gen in Nor­way in July. It’s on the same lat­i­tude as the Shet­lands and fur­ther away from the equa­tor than Port Stan­ley, which is on more or less the same level as Ox­ford or Chelmsford, on the other side of the world. Ber­gen is sur­rounded by na­tive trees—pines, rowans, wil­lows, alders and much else be­sides— and the old botan­i­cal gar­den there has a splen­did col­lec­tion.

I never ex­pected to see mag­nif­i­cent mon­key puz­zles (Arau­caria arau­cana) or Ja­panese um­brella pines (Sci­ado­pi­tys ver­ti­cil­lata) at such a lat­i­tude where frosts can take the tem­per­a­ture down to –20˚C. Five years ago, Ber­gen ex­pe­ri­enced one such frost, late in the win­ter, and all the wild ju­nipers (Ju­nipe­rus com­mu­nis) on the sur­round­ing hills were killed.

How­ever, the great flo­ral dis­play in Ber­gen’s old botan­i­cal gar­den came from a shady hill­side, where forms of Prim­ula florindae and P. alpi­cola had in­ter­bred, seed­ing freely and giv­ing rise to some sump­tu­ous pur­ple forms with tall stems and large flow­ers. Givena free rein, they will cover the en­tire gar­den in 100 years’ time.

The botanist Mar­tyn Rix tells me that the ‘typ­i­cal’ yel­low form of P. florindae has nat­u­ralised all along the banks of some of the best sal­mon and sea-trout rivers in north­ern Scot­land. It was first in­tro­duced into cul­ti­va­tion in 1924 by Frank King­don-ward, an in­de­fati­ga­ble plant hunter in the Ti­betan Hi­malayas, and named af­ter his wife, Florinda. The mar­riage wasn’t a suc­cess, but there’s no go­ing back on a botan­i­cal name once it’s been validly pub­lished.

We used to grow masses of P. florindae, and val­ued them for their late flow­er­ing and their strong, sweet scent, which catches you from quite a dis­tance on a muggy evening in high sum­mer. They won’t grow in our dry, chalky soil in Hamp­shire, but Ber­gen in­spires me to try again; they should flour­ish on the edges of a fairly aw­ful pond that we in­her­ited.

How does this tie in with trees in the Falk­lands? If you fly there with the RAF from Brize Norton, you touch down for re­fu­elling on As­cen­sion Is­land. When the Bri­tish first set­tled on it in 1815, it was al­most com­pletely bar­ren—no trees and only one fee­ble spring for water. The botanist and ex­plorer Sir Joseph Hooker de­cided, in 1847, to create an ar­ti­fi­cial tree canopy by in­tro­duc­ing species from all over the world that might take kindly to the hos­tile con­di­tions. Now, 169 years later, the is­land

‘Trees might make bet­ter use of the land than sheep

has a thick, self-sup­port­ing trop­i­cal rain­for­est com­posed of species such as Prosopis juliflora from Mex­ico. Food crops, such as guavas and ba­nanas, are now abun­dant, as are birds and in­sects. The na­tive veg­e­ta­tion is, how­ever, un­der threat and the de­bate to­day is all about keep­ing the right bal­ance.

I told the Gover­nor of the Falk­land Is­lands, who is my son-in-law, that here is a model for cre­at­ing wood­lands on those bar­ren South At­lantic is­lands. He wasn’t im­pressed, mainly be­cause he’d al­ready asked the ex­perts at Kew for ad­vice. I said that trees might make bet­ter use of the land than sheep and ob­vi­ate the need to im­port ev­ery piece of wood. Yes, there are some im­por­tant en­demics, such as the em­blem­atic Cal­ceo­laria fothergillii, which need to be con­served, but we don’t have to cover the whole ar­chi­pel­ago with trees.

In­deed, we must en­sure that the rivers in the Falk­lands re­main ac­ces­si­ble to fish­er­men—they’re richly stocked with sea trout. Then, per­haps we ought to see whether we can nat­u­ralise Prim­ula florindae along the banks. Charles Quest-rit­son wrote the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses

Trees could be grown all over the Falk­lands (above) based on the model of As­cen­sion Is­land

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