ONE of the world’s rarest trees, the ‘Ruil’ or Nothofagus alessandrii, has been extended a lifeline by a Scottish conservation team that are currently on expedition in Chile, South America.
The ‘Ruil’, as it is known in its native Chile, used to occupy larger areas of Chile’s coastal mountain range, the Cordillera, however in the 1970s tens of thousands of square kilometres of natural vegetation was cleared to make way for new plantations of a North American pine.
A team of experts from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Perthshire Big Tree Country ‘iCONic project’ discovered a cluster of trees which have survived the clearances while on a seed collecting expedition for the threatened Chilean plum yew (Prumnopitys andina), the ‘Ciprés de las Guaitecas’ (Pilgerodendron uviferum), and the Alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides).
Their impromptu collection of seed and herbarium material ultimately may mean the difference between extinction or survival of this extremely rare species of tree.
The excitement among the team at the discovery was palpable.
Martin Gardner MBE, co-ordinator of RBGE’s International Conifer Conservation Programme who is leading the expedition, commented: “The damage that was done to Chile’s coastal Cordillera forest, which started in the 1970s, was unprecedented. The huge area destroyed represents one of the most rapid losses of temperate rainforest anywhere in the world.
“It is so important that these tiny fragments of Ruil forest that remain are preserved for the benefit of future generations and a discovery like this is worth its weight in gold, in conservation terms.
“Already, generations are growing up in Chile who have never known their country’s extraordinary natural flora and believe that pine plantations are in fact natural”.
The expedition is a joint initiative between RBGE and The iCONic Project, a Perthshire Big Tree Country initiative to conserve some of the world’s most threatened conifers.
The expedition team also met with representatives of the forest’s present-day owners who are undertaking a series of experiments to see if it is possible to restore Ruil forest in appropriate locations.
Martin added: “The work being done by the hydroelectric company Transnet to find a way to help restore these native forests, is a small but significant ray of hope. Their sound, slow-but-steady approach will offer the best chance of success, but it will take enormous effort and dedication.”
Meanwhile, the seeds collected on the expedition will help bolster important ex-situ conservation collections in the UK in RBGE and its regional gardens, and in the network of International Conifer Conservation Programme ‘safe-sites’ throughout the UK and Ireland.
The Chile expedition continues until early February, you can keep up to date with its latest news and progress, view pictures of the unusual plants during the course of their journey and stunning landscapes, by following the iCONic project on twitter www.twitter.com/btciconic or on facebook at www.facebook.com/btciconic.