As far as you can go – up on Diana’s Peaks

Vince arranged that I should go up and see the work being conducted on the peaks.  This entailed the commissioning of teams to clear the flax followed by others who went in to weed or plant the propagated specimens.  Marj and I hopped in a Land Rover and Vince drove us back towards my house, but we stopped on the roadside where a track steeply rose into the flax.  Clouds whisked around a few hundred feet both above us and in the valleys below, which gave the peaks a claustrophobic air.  Drizzle penetrated every part of me and the ground was sodden. But the walk up the track intrigued me.  The flax might be invasive but it had covered the ground in a rich vegetative cover over 3m high in places.  Vince pointed out that it was not a complete monoculture and started to teach me about the other invasive weeds which had come along with it; not just the fuchsias and the arum lilies.  Also he found stands of more endemic plants.  One of my favourites was the Large Jellico.  Reminding me somewhat of the hogweeds in the UK, these grow large cylindrical fluorescent green stems then sprout horizontal leaves, sometimes with small white flowers on the top.  There were not many stands of them but where they grew they could be dominant.  There were delicate little lobelias, another St Helena endemic, an ephemeral annual plant that quickly colonises areas where the flax had been cleared or any other sunny niche it could find.

Vince pointed out an area of recently cleared flax, a parcel of land of less than a hectare had been cut, the dead flax leaves were still there awaiting removal.  Vince explained how they had to be careful of how and when they cleared the land.  If it was not carefully managed a lot of invasive weeds would quickly come back in.  But Rebecca had also said they had had some surprises in cleared land.  Along with the endemic annuals and herbaceous plants whose seeds and tubers finally got a chance to grow into plants in the new light, a few seedling of trees had emerged.  Once detected on the regular monitoring visits they were marked and fiercely guarded against being shaded out by faster growing invasives.

I got to see examples of the black cabbage, he cabbage and she cabbage.  It took me a few visits to sort them out but all three had their aspects of beauty.  The black cabbage is a gorgeous tree and many of the specimens hung out from the slope over the tracks we were walking on as if showing off to anyone who would give them a glance.  A dense heavily lined trunk was topped by branches bending this way and that to an even and surprisingly neat canopy of clusters of waxy leaves that resembled a fully open cabbage.  Funnily enough the bunch of white flowers which would be atop the leaf layer looked suspiciously like a small  cauliflower.  The He and She cabbage are completely different sorts of plant, a narrow stem branching out into large leaves – could almost be mistaken for a herbaceous plant.  The she cabbage in particular is a beautiful mix of dark red stems with pointed luminous green leaves.  It has the ability to warm and cheer you even on the wettest greyest day on the Peaks.

As far as you can go – the roof of St Helena

Over three visits to the island I explored almost the whole accessible part of St Helena.  One or two places eluded me and I curse myself for not taking the opportunity to explore more.  But you had to take your chance.  The first trip was on my own and I had a lot of freedom to drive around the island whenever I had spare time, the two subsequent trips were with Edsel and although I still did get around he was not quite the explorer of minutiae that I wanted to be.

I suppose the natural way to describe an island is to start at the coast and work inland or go from one side to the other, but St Helena was an oddly inverted island.  From the sea you only caught glimpses of habitation; the rugged and steep coastline was the most inaccessible area.  You pierced into the interior through the three routes in from the coast, Jamestown being the most used, and then there was a ring of activity where most people lived, schooled, worked, farmed or played.  Then in the centre was a little ridge of hills that pricked up into the clouds above the rest, the tallest of these being Diana’s Peak at 820m.  So let me start up there and work down in a spiral that will lead us back to Jamestown.

It’s good to start way up on the roof of St Helena as this was the reason I was first pulled to visit the island.  Rebecca had been a leading light in conserving the weird and wonderful endemic flora up in what was called The Peaks, although the official name is the Diana’s Peak National Park.  When St Helena prospered as a calling point for ships, the interior was heavily managed to supply goods and materials for ships.  When the first ships called they started leaving goats and other animals to roam free and later be caught and used as fresh or salted meat on the long voyages across the ocean.  The residents started to farm and opened up the land, but then various attempts to produce cash crops were made.  The most successful of these was the flax farms.  Brought in from New Zealand (and not to be confused with the linseed flax of Europe), it is a tall spiky plant with thick succulent leaves pointing out in all directions.  It flowers with an elongated stem with red flowers, and the hard heavy seeds fall to the ground near their parents.  But this being St Helena with hardly a flat surface to be seen, the seeds would gravitate down slope and thus their range expanded quickly.  Large segments of the centre of the island had been cleared of the natural vegetation, tracks cut into the ridges or up the hills and flax planted as a monoculture on every slope.  Due to their prolific seeding they started growing outside the fields and cultivated every surface they could find, including some of the steepest, most inaccessible slopes.   Flax mills were set up in the middle lands of the island where the swordlike leaves would be stripped out and the stringy inner material used to weave rope and make bags.  At one time St Helena flax was an official material used in making royal mail bags.  The Royal Navy and merchant shipping also made good use of the ropes and sacks made from flax.

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Flax up top

But like so many industries, there was a heyday then a decline and the market shrunk as other materials more locally sourced stripped St Helena of any chance to make a profit.  The flax industry collapsed and fields were abandoned.  Flax may have been economically dead but it was naturally vibrant.  It had found a niche in these upland areas and continued to spread over the mountains, the farmland and any gaps in the forests below.

What the flax industry had almost obliterated was a rich and unique flora up here on Diana’s Peaks.  Isolated from the rest of the world, spores, fruits and seeds that arrived here from elsewhere must have had an incredible journey.

Capturing the Diversity – The Green Oasis

High in the clouds above the rest of Ascension island is a lush oasis of vegetation.  From the west, Green Mountain looks like a sharply pointed peak, but in fact it is a heavily eroded ridge orientated west to east, with several fatter spurs coming out especially on its southern side.  It is battered by every type of weather, but that plays to its inhabitants advantage.  For Green Mountain’s topography  produces so many different elevations, aspects and niches that everything can thrive up there in its proper place.   There was one problem with this, and that was to get plant seeds and spores there in the first place for them to experiment, evolve and thrive.  Being so far from any other land made it so difficult for plants to colonise.

It is difficult to imagine what Green Mountain looked like 500 years ago.  Only a small number of higher plant species are known to have existed there. Most of these are the ferns, whose spores could have travelled hundreds of miles on the wind.  The spurge too might have reached by wind perchance, or more likely from being stuck in the gullet or foot of a migratory bird.  But not much else.  The only other plants which seemed to find their niches were the lower ones, called bryophytes.  Algae and moss, liverworts as well, had set up their stalls on rock faces and in crevasses and maybe in amongst the rocks themselves. Maybe those people searching for life on Mars could learn a few hiding places by searching the lava flows of Ascension Island.

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The natural vegetation types

So why is Green Mountain and the surrounding area coated in grasses, shrubs and trees?  Quite simply, it was a huge experiment.  Various settlers and scientists, the most famous being Joseph Dalton Hooker of Kew Gardens,  used the slopes to see how you might be able to colonise a pristine environment with species from other places.  Seeds of all types, shapes, sizes and from a variety of climates were brought, and the mountainside was literally planted up.  Some were a complete failure, others you have to search hard for examples, like coffee beans or tea plants, but some relished the lack of competition and went rampant.

It was part experiment, but also was a way of trying to humanize the island.  As one of the first visitors to the island, the explorer Dampier, discovered, if you wanted to live on the island long term, you needed to get food, water and shelter.  The lack of vegetation made a lot of that very difficult – and so planting up timber forests not only supplied you with building materials, but help capture moisture, stabilise slopes and temper the climate.

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Lush Green Mountain Vegetation

So in came pine trees, eucalyptus, the casuarina tree.  Also came fruiting shrubs like raspberries, guava, bananas.  The guava in particular loved the climate and has spread far and wide over the south eastern portion of the island.  In theory they could be sizeable shrubs, but the winds of the south eastern corner of the island often stunt their growth down to barely a few inches off the surface of the rocks.   Look closely though, and you might find specimens that are several metres long, but their trunks and branches are flattened against the ground.

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Horizontal Tree

Flax, bamboo and other grasses have gone unbridled on some slopes.  Ginger too has expanded, it knots itself in amongst other vegetation and is a devil to remove.

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Flax and other plants on the roof of the island