Then the invasion began -on purpose or by accident, the humans brought with them new plants and animals to “colonise” the natural environment. With little competition some of these plants have spread vigorously. One of the most prolific, indeed it has been cited as a national flower, is the arum lily. These beautifully formed green leaves with the lantern white flowers cluster in little damp patches up in the higher altitudes, but spread prolifically. Two sorts of fuchsia – more commonly known to me as a garden plant, entangle themselves into every other type of plant on top of the Peaks. To see a little burst of purple up here in the mist is charming and pretty, but symptomatic of an invasive species going rampant.
So back in the 1990s, the abandoned flax fields on the top of the mountains were declared a national park. In little pockets in amongst the mass of huge spiny leaves, the endemic species were clinging on. They were tucked away in the deepest of the guts, on steep slopes or maybe had clustered together for safety and kept other species out. One or two of the larger tree species had examples that were just tall enough to stay above the height of the invasive weeds. But they were growing older and becoming susceptible to disease. They were often slow growing and no younger trees were able to get enough height above the more vigorous invasives to survive into adulthood.
A long term plan was put in place to restore the old flax fields to endemic plantations. It had to be done carefully and methodically. Just clearing the flax once was not enough – the other weeds and indeed the flax too would have a habit of coming back even more strongly. And also some of the endemics were in a seriously endangered state – only a few specimens had been identified.
A pioneer in the efforts to log all the endemic species and first preserve then reintroduce them was George Benjamin. George could be called a poacher turned gamekeeper; he worked in one of the mills processing the dreaded invasive flax, but after several career turns had become a conservation officer at the Department of Forestry, a place which I got to know well on my trips to St Helena. He scoured the island looking for examples of the different endemic species, and with various pieces of support from the UK including Kew Gardens, learnt how to propagate plants and build up a nursery of saplings. Rebecca had been working closely with George and others at the Department of Forestry (now part of a combined Agriculture and Natural Resources Department or ANRD) in an area called Scotland in the west of the island. She took me over to their wonderful site. I am used to government department buildings being stuffy concrete office blocks in the middle of town. ANRD was nothing like this. For one thing it was about 3 miles out of Jamestown up in the Green Heartland. You came into the compound at the top of the hill and parked up next to a huge log cabin, which housed almost all the offices of the department. At one end the chief and the Admin unit sat, then along one side you had the Forestry Department, Conservation (which was in fact a section under Forestry), Agriculture and at the far end, the Marine Resources Department which included fisheries. On the front side there were a few extra rooms for staff, photocopying , a couple of laboratories and meeting room. It had the slightly musty but country smell of a youth hostel. Outside was a sizeable estate containing sample plots, green houses and sheds holding equipment.
Rebecca led me down to a small brick shed at the bottom of the site, and here I was introduced to her two counterparts from the Conservation Section of ANRD, Marje and Vince. Vince had, like George, been a pioneer in the programme to restore the habitats on the Peaks and Marje was his assistant. In the glasshouses and open plots behind the shed were plant after plant in small polythene containers. There was the ebony, the he-cabbage, the she-cabbage, and the black cabbage. And in the greatest quantity were the gumwoods. Rebecca introduced me to these plants. All but the gumwoods were being replanted up on the peaks; the gumwood preferred drier, more sheltered and slightly warmer altitudes and efforts were focused to create a forest in the east of the island.