Discovering the conifers
Though first recorded by the captain himself, the species was introduced to the British Isles by William Lobb, who gathered seed in Valdivia, Chile in 1849 during a plant-hunting expedition for the Veitch Nurseries. Lobb was captivated by this dignified evergreen and described it as one of the most remarkable South American forest trees he’d encountered.
It was also one of the tallest Lobb saw in the region, attaining a height of 50 metres (160 feet), and one of the oldest, living as many as 3,600 years.
'F. cupressoides' is in fact the second longest-lived tree after the bristlecone pine ('Pinus longaeva'), and in 1976 it was declared a national monument of Chile. This recognition was intended to combat the rampant destruction of 'Fitzroya' forests for their valuable timber, but the enforcement of protective laws has proved difficult and these ancient, complex woodland ecosystems remain threatened by logging, grazing, and human expansion.
Endangered in Chile, at home in Britain
To help secure the future of the Alerce, as it is known in its native habitat, the National Trust is to embark on a collaboration with the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Established in 1991 and led by Martin Gardner, the ICCP defends wild populations of 'Fitzroya' and other endangered conifers while actively promoting their conservation ex situ—such as in our gardens and parks. 'Fitzroya' collected in the wild by scientists from RBG Edinburgh and the Universidad de Chile can now be distributed by the Plant Conservation Programme at Knightshayes Court to Trust properties throughout Britain.
Though hardy in this country, 'F. cupressoides' is seen in shrub-like proportions in all but our mildest regions. The tallest 'Fitzroya' in the country grew at Killerton in Devon, and likely found its way into this rich and varied garden through the estate’s long association with the Veitch dynasty of nurserymen. Planted in 1864, this venerable old tree was felled by a storm in January 1990, having achieved a height of 50 feet.
Hopefully specimens of 'F. cupressoides' planted in the past two decades at Killerton and in other Trust gardens, such as Biddulph Grange, Glendurgan, and Sheffield Park, will allow coming generations to appreciate a tree facing an uncertain future in its homeland.