Scottish tree experts discover threatened conifer species in Chile

Tree experts from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), Benmore Botanic Garden, and the Perthshire Conifer Conservation Programme have made new conifer discoveries in Chile and gathered significant seed collections from a range of species.

San Fabian Valley is due to be flooded, affecting the Chilean Plum Yew. Image: Martin Gardner
San Fabian Valley is due to be flooded, affecting the Chilean Plum Yew. Image: Martin Gardner

Tree experts from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), Benmore Botanic Garden, and the Perthshire Conifer Conservation Programme have made new conifer discoveries in Chile and gathered significant seed collections from a range of species.

The team discovered two previously unknown populations of the threatened Chilean Plum Yew (Prumnopitys andina), one in the Andes and one in the central depression.

As many of the valleys where this species grows have been flooded for hydroelectric schemes, the global population is in decline, so finding the new pockets of the trees gives hope that there may be further as-yet undiscovered populations in isolated areas.

The team comprised Martin Gardner (co-ordinator of the International Conifer Conservation Programme at RGBE), Peter Baxter (curator at Benmore Botanic Garden), Mauricio Cano (a Chilean PhD student at RBGE) and Tom Christian (Project Officer of Perthshire’s Conifer Conservation Programme).

Christian said: "We were very surprised and excited to find the new populations of the Chilean Plum Yew. The one in the central depression is particularly significant as it is the only one in that area of Chile – all the others are confined to Andean valleys and just one in the coastal cordillera."

The seeds will now be grown on in specialist facilities at the RGBE, and Cano will study their population genetics for his PhD.

Christian said: "Once they are large enough the resulting young plants will be distributed around the network of International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) safe sites, including a significant portion to sites in Perthshire’s Conifer Conservation Programme and National Tree Collections of Scotland (NTCS) networks, where they will be grown on in perpetuity as part of our ex-situ conservation resource."

Christian said the dam-building programme in the Chilean Andes, part of a drive to supply clean, more affordable energy, to citizens would be achieved at "catastrophic environmental cost".

"They are continuing to be built at an alarming rate, in the face of local opposition and significant conservation designations that are supposed to protect these amazing valleys."

He said it was a sad irony since only last month Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of US billionaire Doug Tompkins who during his life bought large swathes of land in Chile to preserve it, donated 408,000 hectares of land to the country for national parks to be created.

"Tompkins was of course instrumental in preventing many such dams being built in Patagonia," Christian said.

The team also visited two private reserves of Monkey puzzle, including a community owned biological corridor and the privately owned Nassampulli reserve.

Tom continued: "These private reserves probably offer more effective protection for these iconic trees than national parks – there is less of a human impact on them because visitor numbers are strictly controlled."


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