British seeds of yesterday boost hope for tomorrow’s Mediterranean conservation

Endangered in its homeland, the majestic cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) is about to make a remarkable comeback: at key “safe-sites” around the British Isles. Thanks to an innovative conservation partnership initiated by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) - through its International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) - in close collaboration with the Bedgebury Conifer Conservation Project, the National Trust and a clutch of iconic grand estates, the species’ ultimate survival in the wild could now be more secured.

Throughout this week - from Kent to Wales and Cumbria - young conservation trees are being planted alongside magnificent heritage specimens dating back over 400 years. They are the products of wild-origin seed collected by RBGE in Lebanon two years ago and propagated at Edinburgh and at the National Pinetum, Bedgebury.

While the project has a serious practical purpose for the future, its roots are immersed in history: Britain has enjoyed a long-term love affair with this evergreen conifer, which has been widely planted here for over 400 years as an ornamental tree in parks and large gardens.

Explaining the many challenges faced by the species in the wild, ICCP Project Coordinator Martin Gardner said why this project was so important: “With threats ranging from pathogens to fire, urbanisation and selective felling all considerably reducing the wild population, the cedar of Lebanon is now listed by the International Union for Conservation as being ‘Vulnerable’. But, boosted by this batch of recently-collected seeds from Lebanon and the rich network of British enthusiasts, we can start to redress the situation.”

Britain’s oldest trees surviving in cultivation are at Eden Hall, near Penrith, and the Old Rectory, at Childrey, near Wantage. Distribution of the next generation of trees is taking place at both these sites and also at a number of other important locations including Perrystone Estate and Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire; Gorhambury, Hertfordshire and Goodwood House, West Sussex. Most of these estates have old-growth cedars dating back to the 18th century, so they also benefit from the process. For example, about 45 trees remain from the original 1200 trees introduced from Lebanon to Goodwood and these are among some of the largest alive in the UK today. But, they are also an indication of how the early wild-origin specimens are also depleting in numbers around Britain.

“Fundamentally, in conservation, the message is: do not put all your eggs in one basket”, concluded Martin Gardner. “That is why we are using a number of trusted defined sites to bring on wild-origin seedlings. And, why we must not waste time. If you don’t take opportunities when they arise, they might never come around again. This is our chance to work – here: in Britain – for the longer-term international conservation of the cedar of Lebanon.”

Image: One of the celebrated Lebanon cedars (Cedar of Lebanon) to be found at Goodwood Estate.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)