What happened to the trees?
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