The National Pinetum at Bedgebury was established as the National Conifer Collection in 1925. It is now recognised as the most complete collection of conifers on one site anywhere in the world and is a Historic Arboretum Grade II. The collection has over 10,000 trees specimens growing across 320 acres; including rare, endangered and historically important specimens. The Pinetum is home to some 91 vulnerable or critically endangered species and five NCCPG National Collections (Yew, Juniper, Thuja, Lawson Cypress and Leyland Cypress) and contains some of the oldest and largest examples of conifers in Britain.
Origins of the Collection
The Pinetum is the unlikely bi-product of London’s notorious smog. The poor soils and air pollution in London rendered the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew an unsuitable site for a new conifer collection. Bedgebury was selected for its marshy land and drier ridges, as well as its streams, lakes and valleys. Purchased by the Crown in 1919 as part of Bedgebury Forest for the newly established Forestry Commission, it was developed jointly by Kew Gardens and the Forestry Commission from 1923 until 1965, when the Pinetum reverted solely to the Forestry Commission. The first plants for the Pinetum were raised at Kew in 1921 and transferred to Bedgebury in 1925 and 1926, to stand alongside existing plantings carried out by Viscount Marshall Beresford, the former owner of the Bedgebury estate.
Owned and managed by the Forestry Commission, the Pinetum’s 10,000 specimens consists of conifers and other species that grow in the temperate zones. Set in 130 hectares of parkland surrounded by the 770 hectares of Bedgebury Forest, each tree is treated as an individual, its history painstakingly documented.
The Pinetum at Goudhurst was the brainchild of Kew botanist William Dallimore, who worked tirelessly on the project beyond his retirement from Kew in 1936. A world-renowned conifer expert, he oversaw the early developments until 1945, marrying his original planting to the earlier work of the Beresfords. He planned and supervised the work personally, overcoming financial limitations and latterly the problems of wartime. Some authorities have hailed Dallimore as a landscape genius, highlighting his skill in blending the most spectacular species with less shapely ones which were nonetheless essential in creating a balanced collection. He was not only interested in the scientific potential of the Pinetum but in its value as an attractive landscape, designing it to highlight the form, colour and texture of mature conifers.
The Manor of Bedgebury was first mentioned in a deed of Kenwulf, King of Mercia, in AD 815. Its large woodland area has remained continuously under forest until the present day. The manor was owned by six generations of the de Bedgebury family from Norman times to about 1450. It then passed through marriage to seven generations of Colepeppers (Culpeppers), who were prominent in the politics of Tudor and Stuart times and lived in the original Manor house. The estate was sold in about 1680 to Sir James Hayes, who is said to have gained his fortune from a wrecked Spanish galleon. He built the manor (now a girls' school) on its present drier, more elevated site. The manor has passed through several owners, including Viscount Lord Beresford, who bought it in 1836. He served as a Field Marshal under the Duke of Wellington in the Spanish Peninsula wars. The main estate was purchased by the Crown in 1919 for forestry purposes, while the house in its parkland was purchased by the Church Educational Corporation and is now a language school. When the Forestry Commission was established after the First World War, Bedgebury became one of its first acquisitions, specifically as a location for the national conifer collection.
Some species of conifer are now extinct and many others extremely rare. 50% of all species worldwide are threatened. Whilst the rainforest receives a lot of publicity, conifers are generally ignored. The useful aspects of the conifer are not recognized - the supply of resins, turpentine and natural oils are enough to justify attention; not to mention its contribution to furniture, construction, fencing, paper, MDF, chipboard, plywood, etc. The perfume industry also visits Bedgebury from time-to-time to seek inspiration for new fragrances. The anti-cancer drug Taxol is derived from the Yew Tree. As custodian of the National Yew Collection, the pInetum has played an important part in identifying the most efficient and productive trees for the creation of this important drug.
What are Conifers? What is a Pinetum?
Conifers are cone-bearing trees, and a Pinetum is a collection of cone-bearing trees. Cone-bearers include pines (Pinus.), spruces (Picea), larches (Larix), firs (Abies) and cedars (Cedrus) among others. Most, but not all, are 'evergreen' and conifers account for the largest (Sequoiadendron giganteum) ,the giant redwood, and the oldest trees on our planet (Pinus longaeva), at 4767 years old.
The Importance of Conifers
Conifers are highly important ecologically, economically, scientifically and not least aesthetically. They have existed in various forms for over 250 million years, twice as long as the flowering plants. They are important sequesters of carbon and vital to the regulation of the earth's climate and air quality. In many places conifers secure sand and soil to stop desert encroachment, or retain water in soil, root and branch to prevent natural catastrophes such as mud slides and flooding.
Many conifers are tolerant of adverse climatic or soil conditions unsuitable for other trees such as sandy, rocky, acid peats, dry or wet soils and even those toxic with heavy metals. This tolerance is unique and cannot be achieved by most broad-leaved trees. For these reasons conifers are very important ecologically as they provide forest cover and other permanent or periodic vegetation to animals and humans in all these habitats.
Conifers dominate many of the world’s forests. They are the major source of timber products for construction and housing throughout the world. They are also exploited as sources of fuel, shelter, food and medicine. Products derived from conifers are many and varied; from the basic necessities of shelter, food and fuel to luxury consumer products. In most instances the use of coniferous timber as a raw material is environmentally less damaging than its alternatives of steel, concrete, oil or plastic. In some cases, there is no substitute.
Why Conifers Need Conserving
Conifers are one of the most important groups of plants in horticulture, dominating many gardens and landscapes. Today 354 of the world’s 662 species are listed as threatened by the IUCN – The World Conservation Union. Of the 354 conifer species listed as of conservation concern, 200 are threatened with extinction and 70 are likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future if current trends prevail.
Many species occupy very small areas, often as relict populations of once greater abundance, and are particularly vulnerable to disturbance and exploitation. Endemic genera are particularly important since they represent taxa of high generic distinction often represented by a single species. A great deal of genetic diversity has been lost and species with restricted distribution or scattered populations combined with slow regeneration and growth to maturity, teeter on the brink of extinction. The Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), one of the most recognisable and admired coniferous trees, is now reduced to only 14 small native populations in the Middle East.
This century has seen a dramatic increase in the exploitation of timber resources on every continent where conifer forests occur. The main threats to conifer species are the common litany of ills accompanying the overpopulation of this planet with humans and their impact on the natural environment: exploitation, conversion of woods to farmland and urbanisation, degradation of woodland vegetation by excessive grazing of livestock, burning etc… The plight of tropical rainforests is widely publicised, however many conifer dominated forests, especially those known as the temperate rainforests, are equally threatened. Primary old-growth forest is being rapidly destroyed outside nature reserves. Where reforestation is being attempted, it is almost invariably with species alien to the site and most often in monoculture. In many countries changes in land use after cutting of forests precludes reforestation altogether. The situation is bleak in many parts of the world. The ever-increasing rate of destruction means that action must be taken quickly to conserve the remaining species and forests.
The Importance of Bedgebury Pinetum
Since its inception, the aim of Bedgebury Pinetum has been "to grow as many species of conifers as the climatic conditions will allow, planted in generic groupings, using geographically associated plantings where possible" (W. Dallimore, 1923). As such it has established collections of threatened species that act as living gene-banks and as a genetic resource for future restoration programmes. Indeed many of the older plantings were collected from forests that no longer exist and may represent lost genotypes.
The Pinetum lies three miles south of Goudhurst, near the Kent-Sussex border, covers an area of 127 hectares and contains about 7,000 trees. These comprise 2,300 different types of conifer (taxa) with authentic botanical names. If one includes the subspecies there are 810 conifer species that exist worldwide, 607 can be grown in the temperate zone and Bedgebury has 488 of them in its collection. It also has 56 species that have been officially declared ‘vulnerable’ or ‘critically endangered’. This Collection is therefore extremely important and receives visitors from all over the world in search of rare and unusual specimens.
Bedgebury is also at the forefront of horticulture and currently holds several national collections of conifer cultivars and genera. These collections, so painstakingly assembled and maintained, have recently shown their hidden potential with the discovery of Yew (Taxus) cultivars that give high yields of anti-cancer agents.
The scale and quality of Bedgebury Pinetum's conifer collection make it an ideal 'safe site' for the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) run by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. The ICCP aims to promote the conservation of conifers through in-situ conservation work, ex-situ conservation work, research and education and Bedgebury Pinetum plays a vital role in conserving the genetic diversity of conifers, particularly those from temperate rainforests.
Through the determination of The Friends of Bedgebury Pinetum and the support of the Forestry Commission the Pinetum is set to augment its already considerable collection of conifers. The charity aims to increase the collection to 100% of the conifer species able to be grown in the temperate zones, focussing on the establishment of groups of threatened conifers, in order to provide a focus for education, research and more extensive ex-situ conservation.
Bedgebury Pinetum supports, protects and is increasing the population of UK Red Data Book species: those species of flora, fauna and fungi identified as in need of particular conservation effort. The Kent Trust for Nature conservation cites Bedgebury as the "richest area for fungi in Kent with some very rare species, some unique and some only usually found in Scotland. Stream sites are important for ferns including the lemon scented fern and royal fern, both of which are scarce in Kent. Veteran broadleaves within the Pinetum and dry heathland areas are good sites for lichens." The Biodiversity Action Plan for Kent specifically mentions Bedgebury as a target area and priority habitat for lowland acid grassland and native heathland, both threatened in the UK. At certain times of the year the Pinetum is awash with orchids, bluebells, irises, lilies, rhododendrons, azaleas and many other flowering plants, native and introduced.
The Pinetum displays to great effect the tallest tree in Kent (Abies grandis) and the 3 tallest Leyland cypresses in the country. Given the space to grow, the Leyland cypress is a magnificent tree and is known as the "sky-scraper for birds". Bedgebury is an important habitat for birds. Of particular note are our crossbills, firecrests, nightjars and over-wintering hawfinches which are drawn to our site specifically because of our conifer species.
The chain of lakes in the valley floor afford a perfect habitat for water dependent species and Bedgebury has a healthy population of the endangered Golden Ringed Dragonfly, while old buildings dotted around the Pinetum house pipistrelle and brown long-eared bats.
A large forest of mixed conifer and broadleaf species surrounds the Pinetum. As part of the Friend of Bedgebury Pinetum's development project, 40 hectares of sweet-chestnut coppice will be harvested on a 20-year rotation to feed a biomass boiler that will heat new visitor and education centres. This demonstrates on a replicable scale, a new market for a traditional Kent timber crop, and a renewable energy generating system suitable for areas without immediate wind or hydro electricity generating opportunities.
The Old Man of Kent
The tallest tree in Kent is a Grand Fir (Abies grandis). It was planted in 1840 by Viscount Marshall Beresford, former owner of the Bedgebury estate and a Field Marshall in Wellington’s army. It has been adopted by the Kent Men of the Trees. It measures 167 ft in height (51 metres), 131cm in diameter and over 30 cubic metres in volume.
The Grand Fir is native to America's Pacific coast and the Rocky Mountains. It was first discovered by David Douglas in 1825 and introduced to Britain in 1830.
The Great Storm at Bedgebury
The great storm of October 1987 had a devastating effect on the National Pinetum at Bedgebury, destroying 30% of the National Conifer Collection. But, while the loss of so many historically important trees was a huge blow, it also threw up an opportunity. It gave the Pinetum staff a chance to take a close look at what remained and to restructure the collection - a process that continues to this day.
The storm took a particular toll on the Cedar and Mexican collections, and also decimated the research plots. This damage galvanised the rejuvenation of the plots planting as part of the International Conifer Conservation Project. Since the storm the National Pinetum has acquired new land, allowing the expansion of the collection to meet its full potential. Prior to the storm the collection predominantly consisted of mature trees, with a shortage of younger specimens. Support came in from all over the world; notably the Redwoods that now flank the boardwalk near the new Visitor Centre which were donated by Tulare County, California. They were planted in 1989 and now measure some 15 metres.
"Every disaster throws up opportunities." Says Curator Chris Reynolds. "We lost lots of fine specimens of irreplaceable historical importance. However, once the mess was cleared up, there was lots of room for the next generation. The storm gave us the impetus to plant more trees as part of the long-term conservation of specimens to tie in with the global strategy for plant conservation. It has also given us the chance to make the National Pinetum more accessible and user-friendly for the visiting public."
The International Conifer Conference describes Bedgebury Pinetum as "the best conifer collection in the world on one site". It serves a vital role in the conservation and propagation of conifer species, is a unique resource for education, research and development, and is a beautiful and tranquil place that gives enormous pleasure to all those who visit it.