Renewed efforts are in hand to adopt the St Helena ebony as the island’s national flower.
And a place on the map may be in store for the man who brought it back from extinction – in his teeth.
Charlie Benjamin scaled a dangerous cliff to retrieve the rediscovered plant. Now it has been suggested that the rock face should be named in his honour.
Councillor Eddie Duff has been sounding out colleagues and experts on the move.
The current national flower is the arum lily, but that is actually an invasive alien species – in effect, a weed.
The ebony is felt to be a better symbol for the drive to re-establish the island’s spectacular array of unique and rare plants, partly because of the inspiring story of its rescue.
It was actually spotted by Charlie’s brother, George, who was guiding the Cambridge botanist Quentin Cronk round the island in 1980. At the time, the ebony was feared extinct.
Charlie, who was renowned for negotiating cliffs to reach fishing spots, was thought to be the only man capable of climbing down to the plant, which was spotted during a rest stop.
Only when he clambered back up the cliff with a stem of the plant in his teeth was Quentin able to confirm it was an ebony.
George was awarded the British Empire Medal for his efforts to reawaken interest in St Helena’s extraordinary plant heritage, and Quentin is now a world-renowned professor.
But Charlie, who died in 2008, has never been formally honoured for his bravery in scaling the cliff below the Asses’ Ears, with waves crashing far below.
Councillor Eddie said: “I remember when we had the tree planting ceremony at the
Millennium Forest in honour of George and how he spoke about Charlie’s climb,
and I could see that it needed be highlighted more.
“I was working at the A&F [Agriculture and Fisheries] department when they rediscovered the ebony, and I for one hope we can do a piece for him, on the same level as George and Quentin.”
The idea has yet to win formal support, but there is enthusiasm for the idea in some quarters.
Executive Council member Ian Rummery said: “I think that this is really important. It is part of strengthening the social fabric and celebrating the uniqueness of St Helena.
“Eddie knows where the cliff is and he is also looking to create some form of marker for it, if not by the cliff then on the nearest road.
“To be honest he did show me on the map but I still cannot really work out where it is.”
Adopting the ebony as the island’s national flower may or may not be straightforward. The arum lily currently appears on coinage.
But naming the cliff in Charlie’s memory would present one problem – what to call it.
Suggestions so far include Benjamin’s Drop and Charlie’s Climb. A name could also be given to the spot where George stopped for a rest, and spotted the plant that looked as if it might be the lost ebony.
A new policy for propagating and selling St Helena’s endemic and native plants was published by St Helena Government in December 2013. The island has 45 endemic species – found nowhere else in the world – and several are at risk of extinction. Read the policy paper here
The day Charlie Benjamin climbed up a cliff with a flower in his teeth may become part of St Helena folklore. That perilous act brought back the island’s ebony plant from apparent extinction. There has since been talk of declaring it the national flower. Charlie’s daughter, Wendy Benjamin, wants to ensure the story of his climb will live on, just like the flower he rescued.
A single photograph was taken of Charlie’s climb in November 1980. It shows how treacherous a task he took on; and even that spectacular picture cannot fully convey how unnerving it must have been, clinging to a cliff on one of the steepest parts of the island, several hundred feet above the wild waves of St Helena’s southern coast.
An island benefactor has now promised to pay for copies of the picture to be hung in key places around the island, including the museum and the St Helena National Trust office. A copy will be offered for display on the RMS St Helena.
Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years
The picture was taken by Quentin Cronk, then a young student, who was on a two-week research visit when the long-lost ebony was spotted.
His companion and guide, George Benjamin, saw a few unfamiliar flowers on a cliff during a tea break near the Asses Ears, in the rugged west of the island, when the pair stopped for tea.
“When George and I found the ebony that day in 1980,” recalls Quentin, “George said that the only person he knew who had a chance of getting it was his brother Charlie, as he was the most skilled islander in cliff climbing.
“He was able to get down to the most inaccessible fishing spots at the bottom of cliffs – and come back up the cliffs with a heavy bag of fish! This was a skill only a few of the old time fishermen knew and Charlie was the best.
“I remember that when we showed Charlie the ebony cliff he sat in silence looking at it for maybe 15 minutes, as if he was solving a chess problem. My thought was, ‘Oh no, it’s too difficult. He’s going to refuse to go down.’
“Then eventually he said, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ and George and he went off to the cliff ledge with a rope to start the descent. I stayed on the cliff opposite, watching them, and it was fascinating to see Charlie traverse down the cliff with great skill and get to the ebony.
“He put cuttings in a bag, and it was from these that we propagated the species.
“He also (to keep his hands free) put a flowering shoot of ebony between his teeth. When Charlie’s head came up over the top of the cliff and I saw the ebony flower between his teeth, that was the first time I was 100 per cent sure it was the ebony.”
Quentin, now a globally respected academic, took a single photograph from his perch on an opposite cliff. That dramatic image has been published in a pamphlet and a copy was printed for the St Helena Museum, but until now it has not been on permanent display.
“With the excitement it was hard to remember to take any other photos,” says Quentin.
“The two small ‘stick figures’ are George and Charlie: George in black at the top and Charlie wearing blue jeans down on the cliff. The rope between them can faintly be seen. There was no climbing equipment on the island then. Basically Charlie was “free climbing” with the rope to steady himself.
“It was indeed a brave act to go down the cliff to get the ebony. When I tell the story I always mention Charlie’s role.”
Rebecca Cairns-Wicks and Phil Lambdon described the climb for a museum exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the ebony’s re-discovery.
“On the 11th November,” they wrote, “Quentin and George walked from Wild Ram Spring to the Ball Alley and down to Castle Rock and round under the Asses Ears. Here they found old pieces of ebony and tea plant. Fragments of wood can still sometimes be found brought to the surface after rains, a depressing reminder that the hillsides were once richly covered in vegetation. From there they walked on to Frightus.
“It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and whilst sitting down to have rest and a drink of tea (George’s was always black and very sweet) George spotted an unusual plant growing on the cliff.”
George told Quentin he could not climb down to it: “Not if you give me one thousand pounds I won’t be going down there. Perhaps my brother Charlie would go”.
Charlie agreed to go along, with his step-daughter Rosie Peters, who had been giving George and Quentin lifts round the island for their explorations.
“So it was, two days later, that George and Quentin returned with Charlie and Rosie, and with ropes and stakes they made an attempt to recover the plant: a plant they dared hope might prove to be a long-lost endemic.
“With one rope firmly anchored to stakes to climb by and another tied around his waist as a safety line that George held fast to, Charlie descended the cliff. Quentin, standing where he could see Charlie, helped with directions.
“When Charlie returned he brought with him a few precious cuttings from one of the two plants he found on the cliff, together with a flower and a seed pod.
“On seeing the plant up close, Rosie recalls, George and Quentin knew immediately that it was the ebony. The experience of that moment on the cliff was one not to be forgotten – it was a very happy moment for all.
“Collecting the cuttings had required heroic effort and was a cause for celebration as the men shared a well-deserved drink of brandy that evening on their return to Pounceys.
“Charlie was to return once more to the ebony site in 1983 to collect cuttings from the second plant on the cliff. He declined a request to go a third time, to collect soil samples. He knew his wife would be worried.”
George Benjamin went on to be awarded the British Empire Medal for his great efforts to re-establish the ebony, which now grows around the island, and to raise public awareness of the importance of the island’s endemic plants – those that grew nowhere else in the world. George died in May 2012.
Charlie’s reward was the satisfaction and honour of knowing his bravery and skill had made possible the recovery of the ebony. He died on 28 April 2007.
As the anniversary of his passing came round, Wendy contacted St Helena Online to see whether his role could be commemorated in some way, partly for the benefit of future generations of her family. She was delighted to be told that pictures of the climb were to be printed for hanging on the island:
“What can I say… emotions have sure kicked in. But thank you so much. My son will be overwhelmed with this news.”
Some more permanent recognition may yet be possible.
And perhaps one other event of 2012 will also serve as a tribute to Charlie and George: the birth of a baby girl to Rémi Bruneton and Sophy Thorpe.
She was born on the island, and they named her Ebony.
Gallery: click a thumbnail to see the original picture of Charlie’s climb
The lost St Helena olive looks set to be recreated in stone, as part of a project to record the world’s extinct species.
The Memo Project is being established on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, where the RMS St Helena docked before the ship’s UK voyages were stopped in 2011.
It involves creating carvings of all species known to have become extinct around the world since the last live sighting of a dodo, 350 years ago.
The last St Helena olive died in 2003, and the St Helena cuckoo is thought to have been wiped out as a result of forests being cut down across the island in the 18th Century.
Other birds were “presumably driven to extinction soon after the island was discovered in 1502”, according to their listings on the international “red list” of endangered species.
The St Helena earwig is so elusive that experts are divided on whether or not it is extinct.
The Memo Project is being set up in a former quarry on Portland. The site is marked by a giant bamboo sculpture of a fossil, the Portland screw.
Portland is famous for its stone, which was used to build many of London’s greatest buildings. It is also part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which celebrates the fossil-rich geology of the Dorset and east Devon coast – said to record the history of life on earth.
Many artists carve with Portland stone, and sculpture parks have been set up in its eerie abandoned quarries.
A carving of Lonesome George, the last Pinto Island giant tortoise, is expected to be one of the first to be created for the project, following his recent death.
The project has been conceived by Tim Smit, who created The Eden Project in Cornwall. He built giant domes in a former clay pit that now contain plants from around the world, including from the South Atlantic.
St Helena National Trust donated a gumwood and a redwood to the Eden Project in 2008 to draw attention to efforts to save the island’s botanic survivors.
At the time, Dr Tony Kendle of the Eden Foundation said: “The people of St Helena are providing inspiration to the rest of the world in the way they are fighting to preserve their plants and animals – rescuing several from the very brink of extinction.”
The Memo Project is to serve as a “mass extinction monitoring observatory”. Its launch coincided with the staging of the 2012 Olympic sailing events at Weymouth and Portland.
The St Helena olive is one of at least 860 species to have become extinct in the past 350 years.
It will take its place in a spiral stone monument being created overlooking Lyme Bay, according to the creators of the project. They say:
“Memo is the project to build a sublimely beautiful monument to the world’s extinct species. More stones will be added into the future if more species go extinct.
“In the middle of it will be a great geological bell, to be tolled whenever a species goes extinct from now on, and to be rung in celebration, on the International Day of Biodiversity each year.
“According to the world’s biologists 860 extinctions over 350 years amounts to a ‘mass extinction event’ akin to that which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.”
An education centre is also being set up, where the arts will be used to help people of all ages understand what is happening in nature, and solutions to biodiversity loss will be explored.
The St Helena olive was thought to have become extinct in the 19th Century until a lone tree was spotted on a steep cliff below Diana’s Peak by the late George Benjamin.
The last tree in the wild died in 1994 and the fight to save the last cultivated tree, which grew in George’s garden at Pounceys, was lost in 2003.
The tree was “self incompatible”, which meant it could not breed from its own seeds or those of closely related individuals. This made it virtually impossible to produce new plants when there were no other specimens.
George and his fellow ecologists have had more success with other plants, including the St Helena ebony, also believed to be extinct until he spotted a specimen on a steep cliff.
Fellow islander Stedson Stroud also discovered five endemic parsley ferns on Ascension, six years after the species had been declared extinct.
In an article about the discovery, he said that many species on the island must have been lost before they could be recorded, after goats and alien species were introduced by visiting sailors.
The St Helena plover, or wirebird, is the last survivor of several bird species that were unique to St Helena or the Atlantic – also known as Atlantisia.
The large and flightless St Helena crake, the St Helena dove, the St Helena rail, The St Helena hoopoe, the St Helena gadfly petrel and the so-called small St Helena petrel – actually quite a large seabird – are known only from fossils.
The St Helena cuckoo is known from a single fragment of bone. The international red list of endangered species says it probably became extinct in the 18th Century.
Its listing says: “It was presumably a small forest cuckoo, which would account for its scarcity in the fossil record.”
The giant, flightless St Helena hoopoe is also known only from bones.
St Helena’s unique wirebird features on the latest “red list” of the world’s critically endangered species, thanks to threats from the airport and new tourist developments.
Its recovering population should have been enough for its threat status to be relaxed, but it was argued that it should remain on the danger list to give time for experts to see how it copes with the arrival of the airport.
Four other unique island species remain on the red list – but two are thought to be extinct.
The listing for the wirebird – also known as the St Helena Plover – says:
“This species is classified as critically endangered because until very recently its population was extremely small and declining owing to land-use change (particularly a decrease in grazing pressure) and predation by invasive predators.
“The population has recently shown some signs of recovery, however, and if it continues to remain above 250 mature individuals and/or continues to increase or stay stable for a five-year period, it is likely to be eligible for downlisting.
“Given uncertainty over the impacts of the impending construction of an airport (which may well be significant), and given that these impacts will become clearer during 2012-2013, the status of this species should continue to be monitored closely.”
The two species thought to be extinct are the insect St Helena darter and the St Helena earwig, says the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the red list.
The darter has not been seen since 1963, but a lack of surveys means its survival is not ruled out.
The St Helena earwig – the largest in the world – is widely believed to have been wiped out by predators, including mice and an introduced centipede.
Some people believe the earwig has survived on Properous Bay Plain but might now be destroyed by the island’s new airport. No specimens have been seen alive since 1967, despite expeditions to find them.
St Helena Rosemary – which gave its name to Rosemary Plain – is now reduced to about 100 plants in three small clusters, on cliffs at High Hill and Lot, and between Distant Cottage and the Asses Ears
About 20 plants are also growing at Scotland and in the Castle Gardens.
A recovery plan includes establishing new colonies at Plantation, Peak Dale and the Millennium Forest, and encouraging “guardians” for other plantations.
Stocks are also being kept in the UK at Kew Gardens and the Eden Project.
The St Helena Ebony is listed as critically endangered even though it is widespread in gardens across the island – and around the world.
It was thought to be extinct until two surviving plants were spotted at a distance by George Benjamin, who died earlier this year. His brother was lowered down a cliff to reach one of the plants.
Because all the specimens around the world have been bred from those two individuals, “in-breeding” weaknesses present a continuing threat.
A hybrid variant has developed and the IUCN says the true ebony has not been “properly secured” in any gene banks in isolation from the hybrid.
A recovery plan includes establishing a new field gene bank at the Millennium Forest.
The IUCN says it has too little information on another species, the St Helena dragonet, to be able to decide whether it is under threat.
It is the smallest fish of its kind in the world, reaching only two centimetres in length.
There is also a lack of information about the endemic St Helena Wrasse. “Little or nothing is known about its biology or the status of its population,” says the official lissting. “More research is needed to determine any major threats for this species, given its very restricted range.”
Other endemic species appear on the list as vulnerable, extinct or “least concern”.
Ascension Island has two critically endangered species, including the parsley fern, which was thought to be extinct until four plants were discovered by Stedson Stroud, Olivia Renshaw and Phil Lambdon in July 2009. About 40 more have since been found.
Ironically, Ascension spurge may be suffering as a result of a programme to eradicate feral cats. Without the cats, there may be more mice and rabbits grazing on the spurge.
Tristan da Cunha’s only critically endangered species is the Tristan albatross, which has suffered a plummeting population thanks to longline fishing and chicks being eaten alive by mice. Even though the chicks are much bigger than the mice, they cannot move quickly enough to fend off their attackers. Rescue packages are planned.
On the Falklands, no species are listed as critically endangered, though Falkland rock cress is “vulnerable” and its range is shrinking, thanks to grazing.
Some of St Helena’s unique plants could be grown for export to garden centres around the world, it’s been suggested.
The idea is put forward in the masterplan for the Wirebird Hills eco-resort at Broad Bottom, which also includes planting endemic species across the 160-hectare site.
Growing tree ferns could become a business opportunity for Saints, says the main 82-page planning report submitted by developer Shelco.
Tree ferns and native dogwoods could even be used to increase rainfall, reducing strain on water supplies. Both species were part of a cloud-forest that St Helena National Trust hopes to recreate across the highest parts of the island, from High Hill to the central peaks.
The Shelco report says investing money in reforestation would pay off in improved landscape, better habitat for wildlife and greater rainfall – and also as a business prospect for contract-growers on the island.
“There may also be opportunities for establishing an export market for the tree fern (Dicksonia arnorescens) and other rare plants to supply the international garden centre market,” it says.
But growing enough plants to realise Shelco’s ambitions is a challenge.
“The Agriculture and Nature Resources Department nursery presently appears to be the only one on the island which may be in a position to provide the volume of endemic and indigenous plants which are likely to be needed.
“However, some resident Saints have also expressed an interest in being able to provide suitable plant material at the earliest opportunity.”
Shelco has spent more than a decade researching and refining its proposals for Broad Bottom. Parts of its proposed site are used for beef grazing, but large areas are overgrown with invasive species such as flax or gorse.
The company consulted historical records and analysis to devise “appropriate” planting of native species.
“The landscape and planting character would echo the drop in elevation at the lower, northern edge of the site towards Lemon Valley.”
Three planting zones are proposed:
Tree fern zone: The surviving remnants of tree fern woodland on High Peak would be extended – with neighbouring landowners’ agreement – to form “a continuous blanket” of woodland, coming down to the edge of the proposed eco golf course. “In the long term the road to Head O’Wain could be flanked on either side by this distinctive characteristic ‘Cloud Forest’ vegetation.”
Gumwood habitat: The native gumwood – adopted as the national tree in 1977 – originally extended over roughly a third of the island, between 400 and 600 metres above sea level. Shelco hopes to imitate planting of the Millennium Gumwood Forest on desert ground beyond Longwood. “The tree has a dome-shaped canopy and gnarled and crooked multi stems, making it particularly attractive and picturesque.”
Ebony and waterside Habitat: Ebony and gumwood thickets historically stretched across land between 100 and 500 metres above sea level. Similar planting would be recreated on the sides of guts (steep, gouged valleys), stretching down into Lemon Valley. This would merge with “riparian vegetation” found close to water, along with exoting lakeside planting. A small lake was created on the site some years ago. “Ferns would also be extensively used as foliage ground cover planting in the lower areas within the guts.”
The Shelco plan says existing landscape features such as rows of thorn trees, water features and field boundaries would be preserved, with its golf course designed around them.
The landscaping strategy is based on mapping of pristine endemic vegetation (found nowhere else in the world) by Cambridge researcher Quentin Cronk.
He was with islander George Benjamin when he rediscovered the St Helena ebony, which had been thought to be extinct.
For the native plants and trees to be re-established, “aggressive” species such as flax – which also harbours rats – would have to be cleared.
For the first few years of the resort development, though, existing non-native woodland will be kept. Tall, mature trees will continue to provide nesting sites for fairy terns.
Exotic forestry areas could be thinned and underplanted with gumwood trees and endemic plants such as rosemary, bellflower and false gumwood.
George Benjamin had already discovered the last surviving St Helena Olive tree when, in 1980, he spotted an unusual plant on a cliff. It turned out to be one of the island’s “lost” endemic plants: the St Helena (dwarf) ebony, now widely re-established on the island. George died on 30 April 2012. BASIL GEORGE has written this tribute.
George was one of St Helena’s great sons. He was born on 15 July 1935, one of 11 children, to Thomas and Irene Benjamin.
He left school at 15, worked in a flax mill at Broad Bottom and in 1958 went to work for the Agricultural and Forestry Department as it was then, initially as a labourer but then as a forest guard.
In 1984 George was promoted to forest assistant to work full-time on the conservation of the island’s endemic flora.
He later held the post of conservation officer, until his retirement in 1995.
It was during the time with the agricultural department that his work in the conservation of endemic flora became a lifelong interest. He discovered several endemic species of plants thought to be extinct, the most famous of which was the island ebony in 1980, along with Dr Quentin Cronk, a distinguished lecturer at Cambridge University and a world authority on St Helena’s flora and fauna, who says: “George was an extraordinary man with great talents.”
George’s work in conservation led him to be sent to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to learn propagation and conservation techniques. Simon Goodenough, who worked with George at Kew, comments that George was “a true gentleman and a very special person”.
In 1989 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his dedication and commitment to the conservation of the island’s endemic flora.
When George started working in this field, little recognition was given to its importance. Through his hard work, enthusiasm and knowledge he laid the foundations on which others were to build, most notably the St Helena National Trust and the conservation section of the agricultural department.
George’s interest continued after he retired by taking visitors on tour, including to the arboretum that bears his name. A day with George was one of the highlights for visitors to the island.
He had a dry sense of humour and when a visitor would be going along part of a path that was slippery George would say, “Be careful, otherwise you go bulltourin’ down the hill.”
George, through his dedication, leaves a legacy in environmental conservation that is critical to the island and its future. He passed away peacefully at the general hospital on 30 April 2012.
A separate tribute has also been paid by the conservation department and the island’s national trust and nature conservation group.
It says George Benjamin’s dedication “has left the island with a far richer legacy
then we would otherwise have had,” and his gift extended to the people he touched and inspired.
“Rescuing a whole species and preventing its extinction, when there are just one or two plants in the world is a monumental task and a big responsibility. George you took
this all in your stride, without fuss or bother and your achievements
are there for us all to see.”
An article by Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, describing George’s discovery of the St Helena ebony, appears in the 12 May 2012 issue of the St Helena Independent, available here (see page 15).