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
St Helena’s endemic large bellflower could become extinct within a few years – even though it is raising new plants.
The fear for conservationists is that the few remaining wild plants are getting mixed up with another endemic species, the small bellflower – and soon their may be no true specimens left.
A conservation programme is on hold because it’s not even clear which plants can safely be used for raising seedlings.
On top of that, landslips threaten to sweep away the few surviving wild plants.
Phil Lambdon of St Helena National Trust said: “It is currently our most threatened flowering plant, with a few wild plants scattered between High Peak and the Depot only.
“Aside from being very rare, all of the sites are on unstable cliffs prone to landslips, and the species is hybridising extensively with the small bellflower, so we are in real danger of losing it completely through genetic contamination.
“This could leave a mix of plants with an ‘in between’ appearance, and no true individuals left.
“And it could happen within a few years.”
Fuschia and New Zealand flax are seen as the main causes for decline in the plant’s fragile habitat.
A genetic study is under way, funded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, to try and work out which of the remaining small, shrubby plants are pure.
The charity put up £9,000 for the work in December 2012.
“Until we have done this we can’t really assess true numbers, or mount a proper conservation plan,” said Phil.
“The cultivation programme is partially on hold too, as it may not be safe to breed unless we know that the parents we pollinate from are guaranteed to be pure.”
The nursery at Scotland has conducted trial cultivations over a number of years.
Phil said: “There are about seven or eight individuals in cultivation at present, and there are 50 in the wild which might be pure – mostly very small and ailing, but still hanging on.”
The global “red list” of threatened species says they face “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.”
St Helena once had four types of bellflower, but two are now lost. The large bellflower was common in the 19th Century, often growing out of the tree fern trunks in the cloud forest.
The website for the bin Zayed foundation says: “The reasons for the alarming decline in the large bellflower are unclear, but a sharp decline in the area of mature tree fern thicket and forest in the early 20th Century is likely to have been the major factor.”
The plant was listed as critically endangered in 2003, “and since then its status has deteriorated further.”
The project aims to prevent immediate extinction by weeding out invasive species and taller native plants, working out which plants are pure, working out how to prevent cross-pollination, and establishing a population of pure individuals in the conservation nursery.
Leaf samples have been sent to Canada for analysis by Professor Quentin Cronk – one of the men who rescued the St Helena ebony plant in the 1980s.
If conservation efforts succeed, pure specimens could be reintroduced on high ground across the island.
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
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.