Albert Camus said “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, and certainly the lake area looks particularly colourful at this time of year. Let’s look at a few of the more interesting and unusual trees around the grounds.
A special family-significant tree we have at Mount Stewart is the rather droopy looking Fitzroya cupressoides or Alerce (larch in Spanish), the largest tree species native to the Andes mountains of central Chile and Argentina. Also known as Patagonian Cypress and used as building material, particularly for roof shingles as it is impervious to moisture. It is now illegal to cut down these trees, so valuable the wood was used as a form of local currency in Chile. Presented to us by the Metrological Office in 2005 our tree celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the father of weather forecasting, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, grandson of the 1st Marquess of Londonderry. Fitzroy was captain of HMS Beagle and made two voyages on the ship surveying and mapping for the British Navy. On his second journey he was accompanied by Charles Darwin and together they named and sketched landmarks, flora and fauna discovered on the five year voyage. This is why you will find Stewart and Londonderry Islands at the far end of the Beagle Channel. In 1992 a Fitzroya cupressoides was dated as 3,622 years old, wonder if our baby commemorative specimen will live as long?
Fitzroya cupressoides or Alerce (Larch in Spanish)
Australia is the next country we visit to learn about the Wollemi Pine, an evergreen tree reaching 40 metres tall. Its distinctive dark brown knobbly bark, is said to resemble Coco Pops. The dramatic discovery of an evolutionary line thought to be long extinct is even more remarkable with these tall and striking trees. Growing only 150 km from Sydney, this pine was discovered by an officer of the New South Wales National Parks in a deep, undisturbed wilderness canyon of the rugged Wollemi National Park. See if you can spot our baby one, now about 2 metres tall.
The Bunya Bunya tree is revered by the Aboriginal people of Queensland, and is also known as the “false Monkey Puzzle” as its spiky leaves are similar. It produces huge cones as large as footballs and the nuts can be roasted, boiled, or beaten into a paste like hummus. The wood has been used for the acoustic boards of guitars and is valued by cabinetmakers and woodworkers. Growing to about 30 metres tall, the Bunya tree can live for 500 years. This junior one is on the North Lawn sheltered by an azalea.
A perennial question from visitors is “what is that tall tree on the lawn?”. Well it is a Sequoia giganteum or redwood and it is fascinating to think that from something the size of a tomato seed these statuesque trees can grow to over three hundred feet tall and 22 feet thick. Ours is about 30 metres high and hopefully will continue to grow, though it probably won’t be as tall as it might be in the Pacific North West. Wellbeing depends on favourable climatic conditions, shelter from other trees, tannin in the bark that makes the tree resistant to insects, and thickness of the bark which protects the inner core from fire. There are several methods of measuring the height, the simplest one if you don’t want to climb to the top with one end of a tape measure between your teeth, makes use of your thumb and a stick. See me at my next talk for a demo.
OK, OK, it’s another redwood but I always think of Jumbo as my elephant tree and lots of other kids see the resemblance too. Find it at the junction of the lake path and tennis court walk.
The Elephant Tree
This very pretty Katsura or Caramel Tree is one of many commemorative trees planted by members of the royal family at Mount Stewart. Prince Charles planted this one in May 2010, hasn’t it done well? The species is endangered in China, similar to cherry scones in National Trust tearooms. A perfect autumnal specimen for leaf peepers, it gives off an aroma of candyfloss when the leaves are turning, hence the nickname. Find it near the sundial, looking like a burning bush amongst the greenery.
We have a few of these feathery leaved cypresses, introduced by John Tradescant to Britain in 1640. The Bald or Swamp Cypress trees prefer damp places, the green one has its toes in the lake just before you cross over the first little bridge and the other now, showing its autumn colour, is beside the Rock Walk. The tallest known individual, near Williamsburg, Virginia is over 44 metres tall, and the stoutest known with a diameter of 521 cm, is in Louisiana, while the oldest is over 1620 years old. Most famously associated with mangrove swamps of the Everglades, it is one of the few deciduous conifers found growing in the UK. In autumn, fine feathery needles are shed just after they produce a stunning display of what Lady Edith described as “russet foliage”.
Squirrels love the seeds but have to wait until the tree is 30 years old and mature enough to produce them.
A Chinese proverb says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now. Why not choose one for your own garden for future generations to enjoy? Hmmm – better not pick the redwood….