The Decline of the Redwood Trochetiopsis erythroxylon

Biological Conservation 26 (1983) 163-174
The Decline o f the Redwood Trochetiopsis erythroxylon
on St Helena
Q. C. B. Cronk*
17 Green Road, Reading, Berkshire, Great Britain
Redwood Trochetiopsis erythroxylon was still a common tree when the
English East India Company colonised St Helena in 1659. It was,
however, the most important indigenous plant to the settlers as its bark is
suitable f o r tanning leather, and it provided the best timber. Within 50
years it was very scarce but was saved f r o m extinction by being planted in
island gardensJrom the early 18th century onwards. By the end o f the 19th
century only two wild trees remained even though the pressure of
exploitation had by then been removed by the introduction of new timber
trees and the importation o f timber. It still fails to regenerate in
St Helena and only through an exact knowledge of its requirements can
rigorous trees be re-established there.
St Helena (Lat. 15 ° 55' S, Long. 5 °40' W) is an isolated volcanic island in
the South Atlantic Ocean. As far as is known its indigenous vascular flora
comprised about 50 species, of which 40 were endemic. Several of these
endemics are isolated taxonomically and are said to be of great antiquity
(e.g. Mabberley, 1975). The oldest dated rocks on the island are ca. 14.5
million years old ( B a k e r , 1973).
Amongst these endemics the genus Trochetiopsis is interesting. The
genus, o f small sterculiaceous trees of great beauty, comprises two
* Present address: Botany School, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EA, Great Britain.
Biol. Conserv. 0006-3207/83/0026-0163/$03.00
England, 1983. Printed in Great Britain
© Applied Science Publishers Ltd,
Q. c. B. Cronk
species, both of which are endemic to St Helena (redwood T. erythroxylon
(Forst.) Marais, and ebony T. melanoxylon (Ait.f.) Marais). It is closely
related to the Mascarene genus Trochetia, in which it was formerly
included (Bentham, 1862; Marais, 1981). Interestingly no closely related
species are found in the intervening African continent.
The nature of St Helena's original vegetation at the time of its discovery
by the Portuguese in 1502 is a mystery. The extent of the changes wrought
by the introduction of feral vertebrates, before the first records were
made, is unknown. The early accounts are brief and unreliable.
The remains of the indigenous flora suggest that it originally formed
roughly four altitudinal zones:
(1) ca. 0-ca. 400 m, barren ground with scrubwood Commidendron
rugosum DC and sparse grass.
(2) ca. 400-ca. 600 m, drought resistant gumwood Commidendron
robustum DC woodland.
(3) ca. 600-ca. 720m, mesophytic woodland.
(4) ca. 720-ca. 820 m, tree fern Dicksonia arborescens L'H6rit.
The redwood was a plant of the mesophytic woodland, along with
other rare or extinct endemics such as Senecio redivivus Mabb. and
Acalypha rubra Roxb. Occupying probably the best land for plant growth
in the island, this conjectured woodland has entirely disappeared and with
it many of its constituent endemics. The redwood is extinct in the wild.
This paper outlines the events leading to its extinction.
P R E - S E T T L E M E N T R E C O R D S (1501-1658)
To the early navigators, St Helena was a gift of Providence for the
facilitation of the East India trade (Hakluyt, 1589). In the absence of
indigenous fruit trees and game, introductions were made. The plantations (mainly of lemons) established by the Portuguese in certain
coastal valleys had little effect on the indigenous vegetation. The
introduction of vertebrates, however, certainly did, but the exact extent is
not known. By Cavendish's visit in 1588 goats had multiplied exceedingly,
pigs and cattle also being present (Hakluyt, 1589, 1600).
Nevertheless, Peter Mundy (visiting in 1634) was able to report that
trees were still plentiful at least on the higher ground, despite the
Decline of redwood on St Helena
depredations of grazing animals. Of the interior he says: 'alofte in some
places faire woods of small Trees with straight stems and broad bushey
spreading Topps [redwood?], and in other places of other sorts; fine
round smoothe hills with excellent grasse; many thickets of Ferne, etts.
runninge water in the bottomes [hollows] etts. and groves of trees'
(Temple, 1914). Mundy visited the island again in 1638 and 1656, and his
later accounts confirm this general pattern.
No botanical collecting was carried out during this time, but we may
suppose that the redwood was not u n c o m m o n in the woody interior of the
island. Indeed Franqois Pyrard, visiting in 1601 and 1610 (travelling to
and returning from the East Indies), notes: 'Sur ie haut de la montagne il y
a force arbres d'Ebene, et de bois de Rose' (Pyrard, 1679). This 'bois de
Rose' is the first and only definite notice of the redwood before the island's
The picture that emerges, then, 140 years after the island's discovery,
is of a still wooded interior, but the woodland has already become
fragmented (with perhaps an associated spread of grass) by the massive
onslaught of large herbivores. Likewise the scrubby vegetation of the
coastal region has become yet more barren.
EARLY S E T T L E M E N T (1659-1727)
The vicissitudes of a civil war, pirates, and hostilities culminating in
Cromwell's Dutch and Spanish wars, led the English East India Company
(from 1649) to require its returning East Indiamen to wait for each other
at St Helena, and to complete the voyage in company. This gave St Helena
a new importance and, lest it should fall into Dutch hands, Cromwell
granted the East India Company a charter for its acquisition in 1657. In
1659 Capt. Dutton was commissioned 'to settle, fortifie and plant u p o n
the island of St Helena' (Foster, 1919). The company had to offer various
inducements to encourage settlers and the island has never been entirely
self-supporting (Gosse, 1938). Provisions were supplied by passing ships
for an often scanty return of fresh vegetables and meat. Settlers generally
built their houses in the intermediate elevations where they could find soil
and moisture for crops. They would journey down to the newly
established port of Jamestown to sell or barter their goods.
The scarcity of timber and good land for crops resulted in the almost
complete destruction of the indigenous woodland during the East India
Q. C. B. Cronk
Company period (1659-1826). Nevertheless, mention of redwood in the
island records (Janisch, 1885) indicates that it was an important but soon
uncommon tree.
To quote from the Janisch extracts: 'May 3 1694 Fort House &c. very
much decayed. Timber growing very scarce in the Island--ordered that
none of the companies Timber trees [redwood] be sold for private use.'
And on 19 July, 1709 is the complaint: 'The Redwood and Ebony trees are
most of them destroyed by the Tanners that for laziness never took the
pains to bark the whole tree but only the bodies.'
On 9 April, 1713 a similar complaint is recorded: 'as to those trees being
barked for tanning leather t h e y . . . [grow]... under the Main Ridge called
Redwood Trees the best and most proper for building houses of which
there's but very few now the nature of those trees seldom producing young
ones although enclosed . . . . ' Again in January, 1718: 'It being the custom
for every one when they kill a beast to tann the hide, such a great quantity
of bark was wasted that it was shameful it should be suffered any longer-but now we think there is no need of our order, it will be an end of itself for
there are very few cedar trees [redwood] so few that the Governor could
not get seeds or seedlings of that sort of wood to plant.'
Finally, on 29 May, 1727 it is recorded: 'Redwood Trees excellent
Timber of good colour and fine scent and much resembles a Red Cedar.
Yet it was nearly lost to the island, but about five years ago the Governor
got a couple of young plants neither of them above an inch high set them
in his garden, took great care of them and now they produce seed in great
abundance.' Redwoods were never to recover their number in the wild but
have, from that time on, been continually preserved in island gardens.
Of the indigenous flora only two trees seem to have had usable timber.
The gumwood Commidendron robustum had a resinous, spongy wood (it
made a 'delightful fire' Burchell was later to note!) and was thus less
esteemed for building than that of the redwood which was hard and
durable. This was undoubtedly the wood preferred by the first English
settlers in 1659 when they set about building their houses. Indeed they had
no other material except stones and gumwood timber. (Gumwood,
however, unlike the redwood, regenerated freely from seed when enclosed
to prevent goats and pigs from eating the young growth.)
Furthermore the early settlers depended greatly upon the wild cattle
left by the Portuguese and those subsequently imported. Of the
indigenous trees only the redwood and the ebony seem to have had
sufficient tannins in their bark to tan the hides of the slaughtered cattle.
Decline o f redwood on St Helena
For timber and tanning large quantities must have been felled and it was
probably the most important indigenous plant to the settlers.
Around 1690, men such as Petiver, Plukenet and Sir Hans Sloane began
to encourage travellers to bring back dried plants for their horti sicci
(Dandy, 1958). As St Helena was by this time a regular port of call on the
East India route, several St Helena specimens reached England about this
time. A pre-Linnaean description of the redwood is to be found in
Plukenet's (1700) Mantissa. Sloane later acquired most of Plukenet's
specimens, and consequently specimens of redwood are now preserved in
the Sloane Herbarium at the British Museum (N.H.)(BM) on folio 7 of
H.S. 92 and (collected by G. Stonestreet) on folio 23 of H.S. 87.
Natural history, however, was not the primary occupation of these
early collectors and they gathered only fragments of conspicuous plants.
No notes reached England with the specimens except the vernacular name
(Plukenet, 1700). It was not until 1771 that gifted observers were to visit
the island as naturalists.
Joseph Banks (later Sir Joseph) sailed with Capt. Cook as naturalist on
the Endeavour voyage (Hooker, 1896). His assistant on the voyage,
Daniel Solander, later planned to prepare an account of the St Helena
endemics, but died before the task could be completed. In 1775 when
Cook called at St Helena in the Resolution, Georg Forster was the
naturalist on board. Forster was later the first person to publish a postLinnaean binomial for the redwood (Forster, 1787). His account of the
voyage adds a few details to that of Banks (Forster, 1777).
Banks spent 3 May, 1771 botanising on the highest parts of the island
'where the cabbage trees [ie. Senecio leucadendron Benth. et Hook.f.,
Senecio redivivus and Melanodendron integrifolium DC.] grow'. He did
not find the redwood in this fragment of natural vegetation on the peaks
(probably above 750 m), but only at lower altitudes where it may have
been planted. Redwood was also absent from the valley bottoms, as these
were choked with introduced plants.
The writings of Banks, Solander and Forster give some idea of how far
the introduction of alien plants had progressed. The pastures of
intermediate elevations were principally composed of Anthoxanthum
odoratum L. (still an abundant grass on the island) and were overrun by
Q. c.B. Cronk
Ulex europaeus L. (used for fuel which was otherwise very short--N.B.).
Solander (MS) gives a list of about 300 introduced plants collected. Many
are European or cosmopolitan weeds (eg. Rumex crispus L., Solanum
nigrum L., etc.). Also mentioned is Rubuspinnatus Willd., a plant that still
grows vigorously on the island and competes with native plants on the
central ridge.
As Plukenet had already described the redwood, Solander gave no
additional information. However, several ornamental and fruit trees are
recorded, but not timber trees. Indeed, attempts to alleviate the timber
shortage by introducing suitable trees were late in developing. The first
was Pinuspinea L., introduced in 1758. Juniperus bermundiana L., which
now has the vernacular name 'Cedar' in the island (a name once given to
the redwood), is a 19th century introduction. Indeed the 18th century
alien flora of St Helena was probably quite small when compared with the
next century.
With Banks' encouragement (Dawson, 1958) a small botanic garden
was established at Jamestown, St Helena (1789), which may have helped
several plants from the Cape and from the Indies to become established in
the island. Its main function, however, was to facilitate the importation of
exotic plants to Britain by breaking the long and injurious sea-journey.
Only after the expansion of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the 19th
century did intentional introduction to the island intensify.
Banks himself introduced the redwood to cultivation in England in
1772. Aiton (1789) included it in his Hortus Kewensis and it appeared in
the second edition (1812) before being lost from cultivation.
B U R C H E L L TO MELLISS (1805-1875)
The first thorough collection of St Helena plants was made by W.J.
Burchell from 1805 to 1810 (McKay, 1934). He arrived just in time to find
Heliotropium pannifolium Burch. ex Hemsl.--known only from his type
specimen. As the destruction of the indigenous vegetation had in large
measure been completed prior to his visit, many plants may have become
extinct before he arrived. Certainly the redwood was very rare. He records
it as growing 'near Diana's Peak' (Burchell MS1) but in his manuscript
journal (Burchell MS 2) he only mentions finding one plant in the wild.
Some passages in his journal were written in a particularly grand style for
sending a copy home to his family, which accounts for the purple prose of
Decline of redwood on St Helena
the following extract relating to his first expedition to Diana's Peak on 11
October, 1807. Describing the vicinity of the peak he says: 'In one of these
woody glens I was struck with the beauty of a noble large Redwood tree,
which rose exultingly above the thicket seemingly vain of its handsome
large white flowers which, resolving to grace their tree even when fading,
change to a lively pink hue.
'I fancied that this tree seemed proud of my admiration of its beauty and
I lamented that its flowers should open and fade unadmired or that one
even should drop without having been seen'.
So rare and inaccessible were the wild trees that when he wished to
make a drawing of the plant he went to a garden tree. As his journal for 31
August, 1809 records: 'Went to Brooke's in the country for the purpose of
making a drawing of the Redwood tree of which there are several in his
garden now in full flower. And after dining there came home bringing
some specimens to finish my drawing'. His beautiful drawing is now in the
folio of his St Helena drawings at Kew (Burchell MS 3), and the specimen
in the Kew herbarium (K).
Also in this folio of drawings is a reversed copy of his sketch--the
original being in the Johannesburg Public Library (Africana M u s e u m ) entitled The Great R e d w o o d tree at L o n g w o o d . Judging from the
gumwood trees in the background, it is perhaps as much as 8 m high
(Fig. 1). This, together with its earlier use as a timber tree, indicates that
the species formerly grew to considerable dimensions. Plants existing
today are no more than shrubs.
The economic botanist W. Roxburgh spent nearly a year on the island
Fig. 1. A drawing by W. J. Burchell, dated 27.12.1807, of'The Great Redwood Tree at
Longwood'. In the background are gumwood trees Commidendron robustum.
Q. C. B. Cronk
(1813-14) to recuperate from illness on his return from India. Despite his
poor health he compiled some useful notes on the flora (Beatson, 1816).
Of redwood he says: 'Red-wood-tree the vernacular name on St Helena
where it is indigenous on moderately high hills, where if the soil is suitable,
it grows rapidly with a straight trunk to be a middling sized tree of great
beauty'. This brings out a very important point. Attempts in recent times
to establish young plants in St Helena have met with complete failure to
produce plants with a strongly growing leader.
Melliss (1875) provided the first complete flora of the island and has
some interesting comments on the redwood. 'One or two specimens of this
beautiful indigenous plant still remain growing amongst the Cabbagetrees, Ferns, and other native plants in the glens near Diana's Peak and
High Peak [alt. 760 m]. It is, however, very quickly disappearing and ere
long will probably become altogether extinct. Some cultivated specimens
exist in gardens as low down as [alt. 410 m]; but altogether not more than
seventeen or eighteen plants are now to be found in the island--viz., two
at Arnos Vale; one at Oakbank; three or four at Bowers's in Sandy Bay;
two at Sam. Alexander's; one at Southens; six or eight young trees at the
Hermitage; one at Diana's Peak and one at High Peak'.
In 1936 K. E. Toms, then Agriculture and Forestry Officer in St Helena,
collected a specimen of redwood which is now in the Forest Herbarium in
Oxford (OXF). The label notes: 'All the trees which now remain (about
two doz.) are in gardens about 2000 ft. (600 m)'.
In 1970 N. R. Kerr visited the island to assess the possibilities of
conserving the remaining endemic plants. He reported one wild tree and
'several' in gardens. These included one at Scotland (the Agricultural
Station), one at Plantation House (the Governor's Residence) and two
fine specimens at Teutonic Hall.
When I visited the island in 1980, only two plants of flowering age
remained. The two trees at Teutonic Hall (formerly 2-3 m high) had died
during a prolonged drought in 1975. The stumps still remained, one being
double-stemmed from the base (diam. 12cm at base), the other having
four stems arising from the base (16cm diam. at base). The Plantation
House specimen was also dead. The specimen at Scotland (alt. 540 m) was
flowering and fruiting abundantly (evidently self-compatible). It was
1.1 m high with a 2 m crown spread. The trunk diameter at soil level was
Decline of redwood on St Helena
10 cm. Several small seedlings were coming up in the hoed soil beneath the
crown. The trunk was covered by a thick lichen growth, which presumably
indicates that it is growing extremely slowly.
The other plant of flowering age on the island was planted in about
1957 on an exposed part of the central ridge near High Peak (alt. 680 m).
It was 2.5 m high with a crown spread of 2.5 m, and gnarled decumbent
limbs. The plant was not flowering when I examined it in November,
1980, and had only a few seed capsules. This may be due to exposure and
indeed the leaves and twigs were in constant motion from the strong
prevailing wind.
The remaining trees are near the upper and lower altitudinal limits of
their growth and their poor performance may be due to exposure and
drought respectively. The Scotland plant, however, produces abundant
seed and seedlings and recently attempts have been made by Mr R. O.
Williams, Mr A.R. Barlow and Ms L.C. Brown of the Agriculture and
Forestry Department to establish young plants. This has met with little
success; small plants introduced to island gardens either fail to establish
or remain small without producing a strongly growing leader.
J. A. Varley, concerned by the extreme rarity of the redwood, became
interested in this problem during his visit to the island in 1976. He
concluded from the results of soil analysis (Varley, 1980) that the plant
was a calcifuge. He suggested that erosion followed the destruction of the
indigenous forest cover, and removed the leached topsoil, leaving soils in
many places with a pH too high for good growth of redwood.
Two three-year-old plants which I examined at the Clifford Arboretum
(680 m) were less than 0-3 m high and lacked leaders. Another three-yearold plant in the garden at Wranghams was only a few centimetres high
and showed pronounced inter-veinal chlorosis.
Varley brought seed back to Britain and many of the plants he raised
were passed on to Kew and subsequently distributed. In 1981 I examined
the one plant of this batch still remaining at Kew, 5 years old and about
2.5 m high--showing strong leader growth. When they had been received
at Kew as two-year-old plants they were apparently already ca. 1.5 m
high. This is very different from its present performance in St Helena.
In conclusion it can be re-emphasised that the redwood became scarce as
early as the beginning of the 18th century through human exploitation for
Q. C. B. Cronk
timber and tanning. It failed to regenerate for reasons that are still
obscure although the conversion of natural habitats into farmland and
the introduction of alien plants undoubtedly contributed. It has only
been saved from extinction by cultivation. Interestingly, conservation
measures date back to before 1718.
It is now quite extinct as a wild tree, suitable sites being taken up by
alien plants and agricultural land. In St Helena young plants fail to
establish (although seed and seedlings are produced) and only through an
exact knowledge of its requirements can vigorous trees be re-established
there. Regeneration failure of redwood was first reported in 1713.
In addition to the redwood, five other endemics have dwindled to
populations of less than 10 individuals (besides those already extinct).
These are Psidia rotundifolia Hook.f., Commidendron spurium DC.,
Trochetiopsis melanoxylon, Nesiota elliptica Hook.f. and Wahlenbergia
linifolia (Roxb.) A.DC., with populations of ca. 1, 3, 2, 1 and ca. 5
individuals respectively. Unless action is taken these will soon be extinct.
I am grateful to Mrs A. Smith of the Hope Department, University
Museum, Oxford; Miss K. Smith, archivist at the Royal Botanic
Gardens, Kew, and the staff of the Africana Museum in Johannesburg for
their help with the Burchell manuscript material. Mr J. Keesing kindly
showed me the redwood growing at Kew.
I also wish to express my appreciation of the kindness shown to me by
everyone I met in St Helena during my visit. In particular I wish to thank
the Agriculture and Forestry Department and Mr Terry Green for
providing facilities and Miss Rosalie Peters and Mr George Benjamin for
help with the fieldwork.
Finally, I wish to thank Mr C. D. Preston for reading and commenting
on the manuscript.
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