Latest news from the National Pinetum team
Pinetum staff make Vietnamese breakthrough
Curatorial staff from the National Pinetum at Bedgebury have broken new ground by achieving the first ever successful propagation of a rare and critically endangered Vietnamese conifer.
In 2008 Chris Reynolds and Dan Luscombe from Bedgebury National Pinetum in Kent (the world's leading conifer collection, managed by the Forestry Commission) travelled to Vietnam as part of Fauna & Flora International's Global Trees Campaign, which works to save threatened trees from extinction1. Their task was to offer advice and expertise to the Centre for Plant Conservation (CPC) in Hanoi on measures to conserve five rare and highly endangered conifer species, all of which have been seriously affected by logging and habitat loss, and are likely to be further threatened by climate change.
Amongst these was the Vietnamese Golden Cypress (Xanthocyparis vietnamensis), which in 1999 became the world's most recently discovered conifer genus (its predecessor was Australia's Wollemi Pine in 1994 - only three or four new conifer species have been discovered in the last fifty years).
Basing themselves at the Bat Dai Son Nature Reserve in Northern Vietnam and accompanied by staff from CPC, Chris and Dan scaled the remote limestone karst mountains to where the few remaining known Golden Cypresses are still growing (fewer than 500 individual trees in two small pockets - making it a very high priority for conservation).
Field surveys by CPC, supported by the Global Trees Campaign, had established that low reproduction in the wild was one of the problems facing the species and attempts by CPC to produce seedlings in a special tree nursery at Bat Dai Son to supplement the wild population had met with no long-term success. In 2009 Matt Parratt from the Alice Holt Forest Research centre in Surrey made a follow-up trip to Vietnam to try and establish why the Vietnamese Golden Cypress was not reproducing from seed. He was able to advise on the optimum time to collect seed from the species and on identifying which cones might potentially provide viable seed. During the following year Nguyen Quang Hieu from CPC visited Bedgebury Pinetum with seed from the Golden Cypress. Using X ray equipment from Alice Holt, they identified which seeds appeared to contain embryos. These were sown in seed trays in the nursery at Bedgebury in May 2011.
On October 19th six seedlings geminated successfully for the first time ever (since then this has increased to 18). In four years time they will hopefully have matured enough to be planted out in the Pinetum, joining nine other Golden Cypresses grown from cuttings donated by Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and planted in 2005 - possibly the first ever planted outside Vietnam. Despite the much colder British climate, these specimens are doing well. The lessons learnt on how to germinate and grow these rare trees from seed will be shared with CPC in Vietnam to enable them to produce seedlings to reinforce populations in Vietnam and support the conservation of the species in the wild.
While the successful germination was taking place, CPC discovered a new stand of just 11 Golden Cypresses. Although most of them were dead or badly damaged, one surviving tree stood at 20 metres tall (60 ft), with a diameter of 1.2m, making it much the largest specimen yet discovered. The Bedgebury team hopes to have the chance to collect seed from this new source, which would give a more diverse - and therefore robust - gene bank of material for future propagation.
1. The Global Trees Campaign, a joint initiative between Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), works to secure the future of the world’s threatened tree species and their benefits for humans and the wider environment. As well as working to save rare conifers in Vietnam, the Global Trees Campaign and its local partners are also saving baobabs in Madagascar, magnolias in China and other highly threatened trees around the world. www.globaltrees.org.
Chris Reynolds, Curator of the National Pinetum
One of the most important parts of our work as curators of the National Pinetum is to plan for the future. While we put a lot of effort into keeping the tree collection attractive and healthy for today’s visitors, we are also conscious of generations to come. Trees take a long time to grow and can live for hundreds of years. Much of our current planting, clearing and landscaping will only reach fruition long after we are gone, to be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren.
We are working with a tree collection that has its roots in the Victorian era and we need to have a vision of how the Pinetum will look in a hundred years’ time. This year’s Winter Trail aims to put the visitor in our shoes – deciding where to create new views, clearing space for new plantings, moving plants to locations that suit them better. We have to use our imagination to picture how the trees will look when they are fully grown.
We also need to take climate change into account. Certain species that haven’t previously prospered in Britain may do well in future and some traditional species may struggle. Using a combination of scientific research and educated guesswork, we are already experimenting with some adventurous new plantings.
We are also working on opening up less discovered areas of the Pinetum with new paths and tracks. At the same time we need to balance human interventions with the Pinetum’s natural beauty and integrity. All this makes the job of curator both fascinating and challenging!
In the Summer Guide I talked about the important international role that Bedgebury plays in conifer conservation. Nevertheless we must not lose sight of our work on the home front. This autumn we will be concentrating our efforts on planting the newly restructured car park, and adding to the plantings on the entrance and driveway. First impressions are important. We want everyone, especially new visitors, to understand and appreciate our trees - whatever your reason for visiting Bedgebury.
Our objectives are threefold. First we want to make the car park as attractive, interesting and user friendly as possible, as well as screening it off from the rest of the Pinetum. Secondly we want to create a blueprint that can be used for urban planting - selecting trees that are hardy and robust enough to cope with a hostile environment that includes heat, tarmac, fumes, wind, rabbits - not to mention visitors! We are also aiming to plant geographically; with European, American and Asian sections to showcase the wide variety of international conifer species. It must also be easy to maintain. As well as conserving conifers, we aim to show people how they can use conifers themselves - whether in their terraced house, stately home, or municipal park.
As autumn is our prime planting season, we will also be restocking the areas we have cleared around Churchill's Wood (near the Walled Garden), giving the new plants plenty of time to settle in over winter.
The threat to our tropical rainforests receives a lot of publicity. However, the world's temperate forests are equally under threat from both human and natural interventions. An important part of our work at Bedgebury is to find ways to protect the evergreen and mixed deciduous forests that stretch across large expanses of North America, northern Europe and China, as well as the lower regions of the Southern Hemisphere.
The Forestry Commission aims to set a high standard in forest management. In 2001 it received the WWF Gift to the Earth award for its commitment to independent forest certification (making Britain the first country in the world where the state forest has achieved 100 per cent certification to Forest Stewardship Council standards). The International Year of Forests is all about highlighting priorities and sharing experience and expertise. It is vital that all forests are managed sustainably, and not just for profit. We help to solve problems, offer advice and support other countries in tackling issues such as climate change, pests and diseases. The fact that the Pinetum has the world's most comprehensive collection of conifers makes it the ideal place to study a wide range of trees, several of which are endangered.
Our chief function is to conserve as many species as possible, even though we need to concentrate on areas where we can achieve the best results - for instance in creating a gene bank for species that are obsolete in their natural environment. One of our great advantages over other botanical collections is that we have plenty of space for new and experimental plantings.
While you are enjoying the beauty of the Summer Trail, please give a thought to the important conservation work that's going on behind the scenes at Bedgebury.
We're continuing our work on conifer conservation in Vietnam. Bedgebury and the Global Trees Campaign (FFl) co-hosted a visit form the Director of the Centre for Plant Conservation, Hanoi. This was part of our capacity building role to train and share knowledge with organisations and individuals undertaking in-situ conservation of rare plants. My Hieu Nguyen visited a number of gardens including the Millennium Seed Bank. He also brought seed of the critically endangered Vietnamese Golden Cypress (Xanthocyparis vietnamensis) with him for x-ray and seed viability testing at Alice Holt Forest Research. This species was only recently discovered and these were the first seed to be allowed out of Vietnam. We are hoping to germinate them this spring.
Winter is may people's favourite time of year in the Pinetum. The conifers look spectacular with a coating of frost spotlighted by the low winter sun. The hawfinches return to nest. The lakes freeze over. And most other gardens are closed.
It's also a time of vigorous activity for the Tree Team. This year we are concentrating our efforts on creating a showcase for conifers at the main entrance, down the drive and all round the visitor centre. This planting and landscaping work will give visitors a much more attractive and impressive first glimpse into the tree collection. As well as planting five hundred new trees, we will be thinning out the leyland cypress collection and tidying up the spruce bank in Dallimore Valley. We also use the winter months to carry our vital health checks on vulnerable trees.
This autumn has been a busy and exciting one at Bedgebury. As well as wonderful colour and fungi, it featured the Electric Forest - the first ever illuminated trail round the Pinetum - and a very successful lecture lunch and guided walk by celebrated plantsman and broadcaster Roy Lancaster.
Dan Luscombe, our head of propagation, is hopefully returning to China for ten days this December to undertake a Red List assessment of 100 of the rarest and most endangered species in Eastern Asia. Working with experts from China and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, he will be based at the Fairy Lake Botanic Garden in Guang Dong close to the Honk Kong border.
This summer the Bedgebury Tree Team will be taking out a few large trees this summer, as a result of survey work into tree damage from fungi. While we are always reluctant to lose trees, anything that might be a danger to visitors must be removed. We are also doing a lot of thinning amongst the cypresses and in the plots area, to free up space for more conservation planting this autumn.
Landscaping work will also continue. Stakes around the site mark the position of new autumn plantings. Summer is also the time we plan our future international seed-collecting trips. We are hoping to arrange a short trip to Morocco. We are hoping to gain a licence to collect seed in China. There are also plans to visit Japan for the first time in 2012.
This spring we will be gauging the impact of the unusually severe winter weather on the tree collection. The heavy snow did particular damage to the multi-branched species such as yew and juniper. Yews regenerate well, but we have lost some of the junipers. We won't know how many trees have dead branches until we can monitor their new growth in May.
A cold snap can have benefits too. Some seeds germinate better in low temperatures (we store some of our wild-collected seed in freezers to aid germination). Cold weather also kills off some of the insects that prey on trees. One of the potential perils of global warming is an increase in destructive aphids. Spring is full of surprises - hopefully mostly pleasant ones. Late frosts are the main threat to our more vulnerable trees.
We'll be doing a lot of planting this spring. The high water content in the soil will be beneficial, particularly for eucalyptus, maples and magnolias - helping to counter the effects of the drier spring weather of recent years. Keep a look out for all the new growth, contrasting foliage colour and young cones - especially on the larches.
In many ways winter is my favourite season in the Pinetum. The conifers really come into their own when other plants and trees are hibernating - giving us a chance to see the wood from the trees. The broadleaves in the collection also look dramatic, for instance the white of the birches contrasting with the green of the Leyland cypress hedge. Winter is an opportunity to look at the trees when they haven't got their clothes on. You can really see their architecture - their structure and scale and bark formation. This edition of the Winter Trail looks particularly at bark in its many forms.
We are hopeful that this winter will also be a good one for wildlife. The bumper crop of fruit will hopefully attract the Hawfinches, regular visitors to the Pinetum, as well as Fieldfares, Redwings and perhaps even Waxwings if there is a cold spell. Unlike deciduous trees, conifers provide birds with year round shelter.
Winter is also a good opportunity for using GPS to map the tree collection. It is more effective when there is less dense foliage cover, giving better access to satellite links. Julian, our Tree Team Supervisor, carries out much of his tree survey work in winter; monitoring fungi on trees, and undertaking structural inspections for cracks, holes cavities, and, of course, residents. He now has his bat licence and an endoscope.
We are also doing more felling, clearing and planting round the Visitor Centre. By thinning out the chestnuts we can open up the back of the building to more sunlight, both to brighten it up and to encourage new growth. We want to use this area as a showcase for conifers, particularly varieties that will work well in anyone's garden. We will also plant other species for spring and autumn colour and scent, to give our visitors an impressive first taste of the collection. Unlike much of nature, the Pinetum and its team of human custodians do not hibernate in winter!
Seed is at its most mature and fertile in autumn, making it the optimum time for plant-hunting. We are currently planting out material collected between 2006 and 2008, from east and west coast USA, Japan and Tasmania - including 300 trees into our conifer conservation plots. A lot of our current planting is for aesthetic effect, to maximise seasonal interest. Conifers provide a perfect green backdrop for the spectacular autumn colour.
Look out for the bumper crop of berries and cones. The cold winter and lack of spring frost has resulted in a 'mast' year (contrary to popular belief, an abundance of berries doesn't necessarily mean a hard winter to come). While natural regeneration happens all the time, we generally get the best results if we propagate from collected seed, as we carefully document its origin and ensure wherever possible that we use seeds from different locations and habitats in order to create a broad gene pool.
We have been planting various native aquatic species in and around the lake by the Visitor Centre, alongside the tupelo and swamp cypress that went in two years ago. As well as improving its appearance, the vegetation also offers a habitat for wildlife.
Bedgebury is currently buzzing with wildlife. Keep a look out for reptile and amphibian activity - particularly toads, frogs, newts and grass snakes around the lake and slow worms and common lizards amongst the dwarf conifers. We are in the middle of a reptile monitoring survey on behalf of the Kent Reptile and Amphibian Group. Dragonflies and damselflies are also abundant.
Wild flowers are thriving in the grassland areas - ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle, birdsfoot trefoil; which in turn helps to attract butterflies. Don't miss the common spotted orchids along the juniper bank, easy to spot with the big black blotches on their leaves.
It promises to be a bumper year for cones, especially on the larches and firs (we are planning an exhibition of cones in the Education Room this summer). There are indications that 2009 could prove to be a 'mast year' - an especially good seed year with lots of evidence of vigorous plant reproduction