St Helena Online

Tag: Kew Gardens

35 years on, ebony hero Charlie gets his name on the map

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Walkers return from Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. Picture by Derek Henry

A strong wind blew over the party that had gathered above St Helena’s wildest cliffs to honour Charlie Benjamin as an island hero. And nearly 5,000 miles away in London, a heavy drizzle blattered against the windows of the elegant room at Kew Gardens where his daughter was getting married.

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Rosie Peters and Gavin Ellick (Eddie Duff). Charlie climbed down the cliff to the left of the picture (image courtesy of Derek Henry)

Speeches at both locations recalled the perilous climb Charlie made, 35 years and one day earlier, to bring back the St Helena ebony from apparent extinction. No living specimen had been seen growing for more than a century: now there are thousands of them.

The famous George Benjamin had spotted the unfamiliar plant on a near-unreachable ledge, but he declined to risk climbing down to it. But his brother was reckoned the best climber on the island; it was his bravery in bringing up cuttings of the plants that was finally, belatedly celebrated on Saturday 14 November 2015.

The spot where the two last surviving plants were sighted has now been given the name Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. It will appear on island maps.

The ceremony came two and a half years after his daughter Wendy – now Mrs Duncan – decided it was time his bravery was formally acknowledged.

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Quentin Cronk took a single photograph of Charlie’s 1980 climb

 

George received the British Empire Medal for his years of work to revive the fortunes of St Helena’s precious endemic species, she said, but Charlie had died in 2007 without ever receiving official recognition for risking his life.

Various ideas emerged, including reviving the past campaign for the ebony to become the island’s national flower, in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. Then it was realised that the cliff Charlie climbed had no name: perhaps it could be named in his honour.

On the island, Councillor Gavin Ellick – better known as Eddie Duff – took up the cause, holding a competition for school children to come up with a name for the cliff.

In the UK, Wendy was making plans for her wedding to fellow Saint Cambell Duncan when it was suggested she could marry at Kew, where botanists invented a new technique to propagate seeds from the ebony. Staff helped to make it happen when they heard about her connection with the plant, which grows in the Temperate House at Kew.

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Rosie Peters and grandson Taylan planted ebony seedlings
The date for the wedding was set for the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of Charlie’s first climb (he actually made two – but declined to go down a third time). The ceremony on the island would take place on the same date.

Out in the wind at Blue Point, ebony seedlings were planted by Charlie’s step-daughter, Rosie Peters, and her grandson Taylan. They also planted one on behalf of half-sister Wendy, to mark her marriage to fellow Saint Campbell Duncan in London.

The deputy governor, Sean Burns, and the island’s chief secretary, Roy Burke, also planted seedlings.

And then most of the 23-strong party of adults and children ventured down to stand at the spot from which the botanist Quentin Cronk had taken a single photograph of Charlie’s climb, hundreds of feet above the waves that crash against the wildest part of St Helena’s south coast.

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Rebecca Cairns-Wicks gave a speech about Charlie’s climb. Picture by Derek Henry

Derek Henry, deputy director of the environment directorate, noted that the setting was one of the most spectacular on the island. “The weather was a little blustery,” he said, “but that did not dampen the spirit of the event.”

In 1980, Rosie Peters drove George Benjamin and Quentin Cronk round the island when the botanist – now a world-renowned professor – visited St Helena to investigate its plants. She watched Charlie climb down to the ledge with just a rope round his waist.

“As for Saturday and me standing on that cliff,” she wrote after the commemoration, “it was very emotional but I was also very proud that I could actually show my partner and my grandson where I was on the day that my stepfather retrieved the ebony slips.

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St Helena ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe
“I had flashbacks of that actual day as I stood there surveying the cliff. I remembered the climb as my stepfather Charlie descended and then later reappeared with the ebony flower in his mouth.”

Charlie carried cuttings up the cliff in a bag, but gripped a single flowering stem in his teeth – keeping his hands free for climbing – so Quentin and George could confirm it was the ebony.

Dr Cairns-Wicks said after the ceremony: “A wild, windswept  and breathtakingly beautiful landscape, this was a rather special pilgrimage for both those connected personally to Charlie and his historic climb and also to those who had never been out to Blue Point before.”

In her speech, she told how the island had benefited from the recovery of the first ebony cuttings.

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Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years
“It inspired commitment from the local and international community to fight to save the ebony and the island’s other rare and endangered endemics, securing for the first time in the island’s history a dedicated section for conservation, which was very successfully set up and run by George Benjamin.

“Sean Burns also gave a short speech, followed by Father Dale who gave a reading and blessing and dedication to Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge.” Good wishes were also sent to Wendy.

“It was a touching ceremony and one that was particularly poignant for Rosie.

“But also it felt special and good, to give recognition to a silent local hero by making an indelible mark in the history of the island, naming the spot 35 years ago where Charlie climbed down the ledge in search of what turned out to be a very special flower.

“There are thousands of ebonies on the island today, and perhaps one day there will be thousands thriving around Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. I am sure that would make Charlie and George Benjamin very proud.”

Bride Wendy has her flower on her cake – and eats it

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Kew for a wedding: Campbell and Wendy

The St Helena ebony, rescued from extinction by Charlie Benjamin, has found a place in UK national ceremonial – and on his daughter’s wedding cake. Simon Pipe of St Helena Online was honoured to give a speech telling Charlie’s story.

Wendy Benjamin would have liked to have living ebony flowers at her wedding to Campbell Duncan. But they’re classed as critically endangered, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

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Mary Benjamin decorated the wedding cake with icing ebonies

No matter. She had them on their cake instead, crafted in icing by her aunt Mary – Charlie Benjamin’s sister.

It was given pride of place in the fine Cotswold barn where more than 150 people, mostly Saints, gathered to celebrate both the wedding, and Charlie’s unique role in St Helena’s natural history.

Most guests knew of George Benjamin BEM, the man who spotted two surviving ebony plants growing on a treacherous cliff.

Fewer knew how his brother Charlie risked his life to climb down and take cuttings from those surviving plants.

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Campbell and Wendy led the dancing

His brave act spurred a conservation effort that has brought St Helena international recognition.

Charlie did not live to give away his daughter. He died in 2007. It was Wendy’s son, Bronwyn Joshua, who took that role in the marriage at Kew Gardens, where ebonies grow today.

But through the telling of his story, Charlie could be part of the occasion.

Wedding guests were told of the ceremony that had taken place earlier in the day on St Helena, to name the site of Charlie’s brave act in his honour.

But his climb had left another legacy in UK ceremonial, they heard.

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Wendy’s wedding day was doubly special

“At about this time of year, you might also see the ebony on national television” they were told. “Because here’s a coincidence: Charlie’s climb was made on the 13th of November, 1980. But Georgie actually spotted the plant on the 11th of November – the anniversary of the ending of the First World War.

“On Remembrance Sunday, the nation’s leaders mark that event by laying wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in London. But the Foreign Secretary lays a wreath that’s crafted at Kew, made up of plants from the UK’s overseas territories, including – very often – the St Helena ebony.

“There can be no finer tribute for Charlie Benjamin than that.

“But he has one other legacy, in his children, and their children, and as of now, his new son-on-law. And if he were with us today, he might well say that was the legacy that gave him the most joy.”

SEE ALSO: 35 years on, ebony hero Charlie gets his name on the map

Expert backs call to honour Charlie, a ‘conservation hero’

The idea of putting celebrating Charlie Benjamin as a hero of St Helena conservation has gone down well with plant expert Dr Colin Clubbe.

He used the Twitter messaging website to support the idea of putting Charlie’s name on the map to honour his bravery in retreiving a plant that turned out to be the long-lost St Helena ebony.

Colin, who works with Kew Gardens to conserve the unique flora of UK Overseas Territories, describes his role as “speaking up for plants”.

Here’s his message:

https://twitter.com/CClubbe/status/418726294126600192

Kew man keeps hope alive for extinct St Helena Olive

Plant experts still hope to rediscover the St Helena Olive, the unique island tree that was declared lost in 2003 – for a second time.

The stubby tree was presumed extinct until island naturalist George Benjamin discovered a single specimen in 1977.

olive tweetThat one wild tree died in 1994, and the species became extinct when cultivated seedlings and cuttings succumbed to fungal infections in 2003.

But Colin Clubbe, of the UK overseas territories department at Kew Gardens in London, is not giving up on the stout and shrubby tree that once grew on high ground on the island.

In a post on the Twitter messaging system on 27 April 2013, he said: “We remain vigilant during our fieldwork in St Helena in the hope of rediscovery. One day?”

In the mid 19th Century, islander John Melliss found only a dozen-or-so specimens of the St Helena olive. 

When it was rediscovered, it proved extremely difficult to try to produce new plants from it. The tree rarely produced fertile seeds, but a few were found and are preserved at Kew.

A last-ditch rescue attempt was made by sending shoot material to London, but it was too heavily contaminated with fungi.

Experts at Kew are currently assessing plants in the UK overseas territories to see which ones should be added to the Red List of endangered species.

LINKS: 
St Helena Olive – Kew Royal Botanical Gardens
Red-listing the unique plants of the UK overseas territories

Island ensures memories of the fallen live forever

William Hague’s wreath features flowers from UK territories

A cutting from one of St Helena’s endemic plants formed part of a wreath that stood out among the hundreds laid at the base of The Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday, 2012.

Old Man Live Forever was one of the plants used in the wreath laid by Foreign Secretary William Hague, in honour of those from the UK’s overseas territories who gave their lives in conflict. St Helena ebony and boxwood was also used, along with scrubwood from the “St Helena dependencies”.

The green wreath of the overseas territories, now a traditional feature of the ceremony in Whitehall, is only one of the major wreaths not to feature bright red poppies – the symbol of Remembrance.

A different arrangements of plants is used each year

Eighteen flowers from Gibraltar and British islands around the world are used in the wreath.

They are cut from the collections at Kew Gardens by horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena. He has used a different arrangement every year for the past decade.

He actually makes two identical wreaths. One is transported to the Foreign Office in King Charles Street on the morning before the ceremony.

The second acts as a reserve in case the first gets damaged or if any of the flowers wilt. If not required, the spare wreath is laid at the war memorial at Kew Gardens.

Governor Capes laid the Colony’s Wreath

While Mr Hague was paying his respects in London, watched on television by millions, a large crowd was doing the same at St Helena’s own Cenotaph, on the seafront.

Governor Mark Capes laid the first wreath of white flowers – “the Colony’s Wreath”. Others were laid for the French Republic, the Royal Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, the Merchant Navy, the St Helena Police Force and the St Helena Fire Service.

Members of the public laid their own floral tributes.

The Service concluded with the traditional March Past outside the Supreme Court.

Kew advises “little and often” regime to protect ancient trees

Care of historic trees on St Helena has been improved on advice from experts at Kew Gardens in London, says the island government.

Concern was raised about a 200-year-old tree in Jamestown after the Agriculture and Natural Resources Directorate gave a routine warning that it might need to be cut down during maintenance work.

St Helena Government says guidance has now been taken from London on protecting ancient trees.

It says: “ANRD has taken up the advice Kew offered and now undertakes monitoring and surgery work more frequently and lightly on our historical trees.

“The trees are managed and maintained so as to not reach a state where heavy surgery works are required in a single year, in order to protect public safety and SHG liability.”

It says “very modest” work was planned to improve safety for two people living close to the tree in the lower part of the Duke of Edinburgh playground.

A public notice warned that more severe work might be necessary, including complete removal of the tree.

“This provision is often inserted into the public awareness notice by Crown Estates in case it is needed,” says the government.

COMMENT:
Everything historic seems to be disappearing! Who can we get as a “guardian?”
And what will be next? Napoleon’s house? – Doreen Gatien, California

SEE ALSO:
Nick bemoans lack of protection as work starts on ancient tree

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