The Wollemi Pine - a very old new tree in the Cemetery
Based on the City of London Cemetery's records, I have counted some 87 species of tree as being present, and this does not include numerous cultivars. Amongst these are some specimens of tree-species that - in evolutionary terms - are of immense age.
Many will have heard of "Ginkgo Biloba", as it is commonly advertised as a medicine, with benefits - it is said - in brain function and energy levels as well as helping to fight inflammation and a variety of other symptoms such as tinnitus and depressed mood. What may not be so commonly realised is that the medicinal Ginkgo Biloba is derived from the tree species Ginkgo biloba, often called the Maidenhair Tree. This is a remarkable tree in many ways. It is the only known surviving member of a division of the plant kingdom called the Ginkgophyta, and has been called a "living fossil", as there are fossils recognisably related to modern ginkgo dating back 270 million years. Without going into the botanical aspects of the species - which I am not qualified to do - quite simply, there is nothing else like it.
Although the Ginkgo has such a remarkable chronology, it has only been known in Western Europe for a relatively short time. A German botanist, Engelbert Kaempfer, first found it in 1690 in a Japanese temple garden. Seeds from China - where the species is native - which he brought back from his expedition were planted in the botanical garden in Utrecht. One of the first of this species to be planted in Britain still exists at Kew Gardens, and dates back to at least 1762, less than 40 years after the first specimens had been introduced into Europe.(1) Interestingly, there is a specimen in West Ham Park which is also reputed to be the oldest specimen in Britain. West Ham Park was aquired in 1762 by the Quaker physician and philanthropist Dr. John Fothergill who commissioned plant hunters to build up a collection from the Americas, the Far East, Africa and Europe, adding many rare plants to existing plantings. The site became a botanical garden that pre-empted Kew. It is possible, therefore, that the specimen at Kew and that at West Ham Park are of contemporary age.
Nowadays, Maidenhair Trees are quite common and popular for their attractive shape, interesting leaves and history, and lovely autumn colour. They have been heavily used as street trees in New York, as - perhaps surprisingly - they do very well in the extreme weather and light conditions of the canyons formed by the buildings! They are becoming popular street trees in English cities, too; I have noticed more recent plantings - for example - in the Bloomsbury area of London.
In the City of London Cemetery there is a specimen in the Garden of Rest, just north of Limes Avenue.
Another tree of ancient provenance is the Monkey Puzzle or Chilean Pine Araucaria araucana. This species was first identified by Europeans in Chile about 1780 and introduced to England in 1795 by Archibald Menzies, who was a naval surgeon and plant-explorer on board Captain Cook's ship Discovery.(2) Fossil records show that the tree was alive 200 million years ago, at a time when dinosaurs were a significant life-form! It is said that the name "Monkey Puzzle" derives from a comment made by a visitor to Pencarrow Gardens in Cornwall in about 1850, where an early specimen grew. The comment that "the tree would puzzle a monkey" relates to its stiff, sale-like leaves which may well deter monkeys (if such lived in South America!) from climbing it. More reasonably, of course, they would act as deterrents to grazing animals, too.
The cemetery's specimen is on the lawns to the east of the main gate, and may be seen easily from neighbouring Wanstead Flats.
Which brings us to the very old new tree which has been added to the cemetery's collection. But first a tale of its discovery. In 1994 a park ranger and bushwalker, David Noble, was exploring some very difficult-to-access canyons in the Wollemi National Park, some 20 miles north of Sydney. In one of these canyons he found a group of unusual trees that he did not recognise. At first, experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney identified it as being related to the Monkey Puzzle and another tree in the Family Araucariaceae - the Norfolk Island Pine. However, it was later decided that it was so different from all other members of this family that it was pronounced a completely new Genus. It was given the scientific name of Wollemia nobilis, in honour of the Wollemia National Park and David Noble who discovered it.
From the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, plants have been sent all over the world so that the species has a chance of surviving. It has survived as a species for 200 million years or so, and yet there are only 100 or so trees known in the wild! In Britain, Kernock Park Plants in Cornwall has the responsibility to continue this conservation effort.
The first Wollemi Pine I saw was in 2013 at Kew Gardens. This was the first specimen planted outdoors outside of Australia, by Sir David Attenborough in May 2005.(3) Since then I have seen them in a few other locations including the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens and in Hyde Park.
The City of London Cemetery has a nice collection of tree species, and especially as this includes the Gingko and the Monkey Puzzle, I suggested to the Superintendent, Gary Burks, last year that it would be nice if a specimen of Wollemi Pine could join them. On the 15th March this year, I was informed that the specimen had arrived, and asked if I would like to help choose a position for it to be planted! With the assistance of the landscape manager, between us we chose a nice position where it is not too remote to "keep an eye on", will be well cared for and is quite prominent, especially for visitors walking through the cemetery. Gary showed me the tree in the container in which it had arrived and I was thrilled to be able to see it and photograph it before planting out.
The following day, I was informed, it was planted in its favoured location, and I saw it a week later. By then, three female cones had appeared in addition to the male ones that had been present a week earlier.
The Wollemi Pine has proved to be a very tolerant tree, coping well with heat, cold, full sun and shade, and different soil types, so there is good reason to think that it should survive well in the cemetery as long as it does not suffer from damage. In cultivation they are expected to reach a height of some 20m, so it could - in time - be a striking tree.
However, sadly the stem was chewed near to the ground, possibly by Muntjac. Although the tree was subsequently fenced, it is not as healthy as it might be (2022)
Paul Ferris, 5th April 2017
Revised 2nd July 2022
As an addition to the above - though not directly related to the wildlife of Wanstead - I bought a Wollemi Pine for the gardens of Copped Hall, near Epping. It has been growing on in the home of one of Copped Hall's Trustees and volunteers, and today - 12th May 2017 - we planted it out in the grounds. On planting it was approximately 2.5 feet in height. It may be interesting to see the comparison in growth between the City of London Cemetery's Wollemi and that of the one at Copped Hall.
Paul Ferris, 12th May 2017