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Endemics for sale: St Helena’s new cash crop?
tree ferns from above
GREEN ECONOMY: Endemic plants such as tree ferns could be grown for the world’s gardeners, says Shelco

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.

Tree ferns in foreground; mist-covered peaks behind
MIST OPPORTUNITY: island’s cloud forest could be extended (picture by courtesy of Shelco)

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.

Gumwood tree
GUMWOOD RALLY: tree planting will follow historic records (picture: Shelco)

“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.

St Helena ebony, with pointed leaves and reddish-pink flowers
PHOENIX FLOWER: St Helena ebony (picture: Shelco)

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.

SEE ALSO:
Will this be the site of the world’s greenest hotel?
George Benjamin: the man who saved the St Helena ebony
The gloves are on: governor joins fight against invasives
Champagne launch for the Department of Everything – new environment directorate

LINKS:
Wirebird Hills main planning report – Shelco (warning: 80MB file)
St Helena National Trust

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