29 Jan 2019

Re-imagining the Whitebeam Grove: Part 1

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

One of the projects I’ve been looking forward to ever since I took over the Conserving Welsh Plants area was to re-vamp the collection of whitebeams planted opposite. This collection contains some of the rarest trees in the UK, but in recent years its needed a little TLC to better showcase these amazing plants.

Whitebeams (Sorbus spp.) are very localized, with species like Sorbus bristoliensis only being found in the Avon Gorge and Sorbus cambrensis restricted to just Breconshire and Monmouthshire. They also have the neat little trick of producing seed that is genetically identical to the parent plant, a clone. This technique means that if one tree is well suited to a specific area, it can produce many others that will grow in that spot just as well. However, the catch to this method means that if that habitat changes, even just a little bit, the group of plants doesn’t have much ability to adapt to the new conditions.

The Rarest Trees in the UK

We certainly live in a changing world these days, and our whitebeams are under threat. Of the 15 rarest trees in the UK, 10 of those species are whitebeams. Twenty percent of all native whitebeams are listed as endangered. The National Botanic Garden of Wales has been involved for a long time with conservation of these plants, and our collection of trees is an important resource for researchers looking to find ways to protect them.

Whilst our collection of whitebeams is certainly important, it hasn’t looked very inspiring in recent years.  Visitors might find it difficult to understand why there are so many little trees planted on that hill without any information around them, and there was no way for the public to actually walk amongst the trees and get close to them. I’d been hoping to fix this since I started working at NBGW full time, and as soon as I had my first year of re-vamping the Conserving Welsh Plants area tucked firmly under my belt I decided it was time to tackle the big job.

The British Whitebeam Grove

Luckily for me, we have an amazing arboriculture team here at the garden who were slightly too trusting of me and my mad ideas.  I want to make sure that each tree has the best possible conditions to grow in, and so we’ll be lifting nearly 60 trees by hand. Each tree will be checked for damage or disease, and then one specimen of each species will be planted on its own little mound to keep it out of the wet clay soil. They’ll be grouped by the region of the UK where they can be found, forming the new British Whitebeam Grove that you will be able to walk through and enjoy.

This week marks the first few days of the project, and the Conserving Welsh Plants area will be roped off for the duration of the project to allow us to move in our heavy machinery and trailers. However, by the end of February you should be able to head up past the children’s playground to see the rarest trees in the country, all growing on a single hillside.