Conifer Conservation in Kent– A Taste of the American Wilderness in the Garden of England

Just as a new visitor to America may witness a New Jersey number plate blazing the catchphrase “The Garden State” and be filled with sudden excitement and mental images as to the green spaces that might imply, a visitor to the county of Kent in the United Kingdom, will see the occasional road sign heralding the “The Garden of England” and may well be filled with a similar and sudden upwelling of wonderment, curiosity and expectation.

This sense of wonderment will be well-rewarded. For as well as natural farmland, beautiful in its own right, the ancient English county of Kent has special places earmarked as “areas of outstanding natural beauty”, cryptically labelled “AONB” in the British road atlas. What makes these areas worthy of being termed “outstanding” and not merely “ordinary” is something that must be experienced first-hand in order to be understood. The High Weald1, to the South East of London, is one such place, which warrants special attention.

Whilst not as famous to visitors as the highly regarded and well-trodden Cotswold region, in South Central England, the High Weald is both aesthetically pleasing and internationally important, being home to the National Pinetum at Bedgebury. The environment at Bedgebury contains what has been described as “the best conifer collection in the world on one site”2. But what exactly is a “Pinetum”? And why should someone without a special interest in plants care at all about it?
The word Pinetum is first off unusual and relates to the word arboretum. Arboretums, or gardens dedicated to trees, abound in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Examples include the National Arboretum in Washington DC3 and the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, UK4. But why should we consider visiting gardens dedicated to trees at all, and moreover, why any particular type of tree, in this case conifers and pines? Is the Bedgebury Pinetum something genuinely and uniquely interesting or simply a folly of Victorian overspecialization, a time traveling misfit in the world of the 21st Century?

One factor that makes Bedgebury extraordinary to the non-specialist, is perhaps, the paradox of its geography. This becomes apparent when you consider that the only pine tree native to the British Isles is the Scot’s Pine. As hinted by its name, this tree is most populous in the Scottish Highlands, and in particular the Caledonian Forest, named eponymously after the Roman name for Scotland, Caledonia.

You might guess, from the above fact, that most of the conifers and pines you will see at Bedgebury have been introduced from other countries (indeed Scotland was, prior to the Act of Union in 1707, a separate country to England) – and, indeed, your guess would be right! In total, there are an amazing 1,800 different species of trees in the Pinetum, including rare and endangered varieties, manifested in the form of 12,000 trees and shrubs (an average of 6.7 trees and shrubs per species). This diversity, in particular international diversity, reflects the passion of botanists, such as David Douglas, who brought 240 species with him back into the UK, many from his travels in North America. (Incidentally, to add to this diversity, there are also 75 species of birds and 11 species of butterflies to enjoy too!)

Bringing together all this diversity in one place is aesthetically exciting but it also has a serious and profound purpose. As information boards across the park will remind you, tree conservation is not just about the rainforests. Many pines and conifers are today endangered, and assembling them in one location creates a “centralised database” of genes for all the remarkable species of pines on Earth.

The global nature of conservation brings with it the potential, and indeed the necessity, for international co-operation. The forces of Nature are the first to remind us of this fact. Two examples are interesting from the point of view of UK-US relations.

In 1987, a year etched in many Britons’ minds for its destructive weather, storms damaged trees at the Bedgebury estate. It was then that Tulare County, California, waded in, donating redwoods which now beautifully flank the boardwalk at Bedgebury. Reflections of tall redwoods dominating over the lake during the summer months and the sight of visitors setting out to explore the cycle tracks now make a peaceful visage, a world remote from the rumbustious storms that required their planting in the first place.

A more recent example is the remarkable tree known as the “Old Man of Kent”. This tree was, until recently, the tallest tree in Kent. Storm Katie struck UK shores in March 2016. In early August, the tree was felled, as a result of disease exposed by the storm damage5. However, its existence was a reminder of the synergy of two nations. To elaborate, the tree, as suggested by its name, had a very English birth and upbringing, having been planted by the Viscount Beresford in 1840. However, its ancestry, and the atmosphere it evoked when it stood, was majestically American, being a Grand Fir, native to the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountains.

A walk through the Pinetum is thus also an emotional journey that reminds us of both of the international diversity and, simultaneously, the evanescence of nature.
With its plethora of American pine trees, the landscape of Bedgebury evokes the exploits of Hugh Glass in the 2015 movie The Revenant. Those who have read the novel will find frequent mention of pine trees and their symbolism in the first few pages. Bedgebury thus evokes the great uncharted American wilderness. The wilderness of trees gives rise to different sensations, areas of quiet and stillness, fragrances, warmth and coolness, places for pause and reflection. Those who enjoyed the movie, will no doubt enjoy seeing and feeling the real thing in the atmosphere of the forest, a mental and physical escape from the humdrum of British cities and suburbia.



Sources / Further Reading

[1] High Weald
[2] History of Bedgebury National Pinetum
[3] The United States National Arboretum
[4] National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire
[5] The Old Man of Kent, the country’s tallest tree is being felled at Bedgebury Pineteum


Kulwant S Bhatia works for an investment bank in London. His interests include technology, nature conservation, and martial arts. Kulwant Bhatia works closely with the Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Section (ESTH) of the US Embassy. Most recently he contributed as a lightning speaker for the Fishackathon, organized by the US Embassy’s ESTH section on April 22, 2016. Kulwant will also serve as lightning speaker for the Zoohackathon, co-organized by the US Embassy and London Zoo.