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 – Fighting the invasives, protecting the endemics

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.

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Seeing the nursery for the endemics