JIM Gilchrist talks to David Knott, Curator of Living Collections on the damaged inflicted from the recent storms
I remember the storm of ’98. I was working at Dawyck Botanic Garden then, and that was quite bad, but it doesn’t make you any readier for the kind of devastation we had here.” David Knott, Curator of Living Collections at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is talking about the scenes that greeted him when he arrived at the garden at the beginning of this month, after the worst storm in 30 years had taken its toll.
We’re talking beside a toppled oak which the gale yanked out by the roots, leaving a yawning crater. The garden has lost at least 34 trees and others may require major arboricultural work to save them, while its greenhouses lost between 500 and 600 panes of glass, putting rare botanical specimens at risk. The Edinburgh garden’s outlying sites at Benmore, Dawyck and Logan were also affected, with the hillside garden of Benmore in Argyll particularly stricken, seeing the heartbreaking loss of more than 100 trees, more than 40 over 100ft tall.
In Edinburgh, some notable specimens were lost – the big, elegant birch beside the garden’s Caledonian Hall crashed down, fortunately missing the building, which dates from 1841. Also lost was a “tree of heaven”, collected in China at the beginning of the 20th century by the indefatigable Joseph Rock.
The garden is still calculating the cost in financial terms, but even as the saws and wood chippers snarl and tractors roll among the many taped-off areas, it is becoming clear that the storm which blew in the New Year didn’t just wreak havoc, it signalled the need for a major change in the way the RBGE – one of the world’s leading botanical institutions – plans for the future, in terms of both tree planting and the planning of glasshouses able to weather future storms.
Felled forest giants may generate a particular sense of loss but, contemplating this particular casualty, 150-200 years old, Knott points out: “You’ve got damage, not just to the trees that have come down, but to smaller trees and shrubs growing underneath, like these rhododendrons there, and then your herbaceous planting underneath that.”
Also, when a tree goes down a whole eco-system goes with it – the countless invertebrates it harboured and the birds that fed on them. One marginally positive aspect of the destruction is that the RBGE’s specialists have had the chance to inspect both the normally hidden root systems and the uppermost branches of these fallen trees, establishing, among other things, that the vigorous growths of lichen on the upper branches were testimony to lessening urban air pollution over the decades.
What remains hugely problematical for “the Botanics”, as they’re fondly known, is the major breaching of essential wind cover in areas such as its Woodland Garden, where we’re standing. Knott counts the losses around us: “We’ve lost ... six pines from here. You can see the sky through big gaps, and if you can see the sky, you know the wind’s going to get in to cause further problems.” It could take anything from ten to 50 years to fully replace the tree canopy that has been lost.
We move down the hill towards the glasshouses, as Knott pays tribute to the staff who threw themselves into the daunting task of cleaning up the damage, from shifting fallen trees to picking myriad shards of glass out of flowerbeds and repairing glasshouses. “Some of our horticultural staff became instant expert glaziers,” he observes.
Somehow the A-listed Victorian palm house – the tallest building in the garden – sustained little damage. What did bear the brunt of that loss of more than 500 panes of glass were the research houses, many of them containing priceless collections of rare and endangered plants. “You’d have to look very closely now to see anything,” says Knott as we enter the Peat and Rock houses, “but a week ago the wind was howling through here.
“The temperature in here just now is about 18-20 degrees, but last week it went down to probably six,” he adds, pointing to specimens on which leaves are browning and crinkling, including a patch of Melastomataceae collected by RBGE staff on Papua, New Guinea, two years ago. Things could have been worse, he explains, given this winter’s mild temperatures, compared to last year’s freezer conditions.
Knott and his staff now play a waiting game, as it may take as long as three to six months before they know which specimens will survive their exposure.
For Professor Stephen Blackmore, Regius Keeper of the garden, the storm reminded him of typhoons he witnessed during his Hong Kong childhood. “I’d been on holiday and came back to my own house and found guttering blown down, so I thought, ‘Right, whatever’s happened at the Botanics is going to be bad, isn’t it?’ It was quite hard to take it all in. We do have the odd tree down from time to time, but you’re looking back at least 30 years to see that scale of storm damage.”
The worst shock was when he entered the research houses, to find them strewn with shattered glass and plants starting to brown. “I didn’t think we would get the glass back up at the speed we did. The staff have been phenomenal.”
The RBGE had a plan for the long-term replacement of some glasshouses, but, says Blackmore, the fact that not just glass but bolts were sheared off during the storm and staff witnessed a “ripple effect” in at least one structure, means that “we now have to go back to the drawing board to get that replacement scheme brought forward for the structurally poorest parts”.
Meanwhile, outside there are going to be a lot of planting opportunities, he grins wryly. He has been inundated with expressions of concern, ranging from the garden’s patron, Prince Charles, to the many garden regulars offering help. He in turn has been urging users to join the Friends of the RBGE, while an online appeal has been launched to help meet what will be a hefty bill to repair the damage.
Ultimately, however, Blackmore stresses the need for serious long-term thinking if, as many suggest, such extreme weather episodes are to become more commonplace.
“That’s the challenge, not just for the Botanics, but for all of us,” he says.
For further information, see www.rbge.org.uk
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South