Tropical plants imported for holiday site

East Asian plants rescued from threatened rainforest areas and planted at Center Parcs holiday venue in Bedfordshire.

Fig tree: 400-year-old specimen
Fig tree: 400-year-old specimen

A botanist and landscape architect has imported and planted more than 6,000 East Asian tropical plants at the latest Center Parcs site, many of them rescued from threatened rainforest areas.

Jean Henkens started his plant-hunting trip in February last year, visiting Sumatra, Laos, Burma and Thailand for Center Parcs in Woburn Forest, Bedfordshire.

After months of collecting and dodging rainforest deforesters - and with the help of local people and Buddhist monks - he shipped the plants to Rotterdam, where they were acclimatised in 15m-high greenhouses.

Henkens, who is based in Belgium, has been working for Center Parcs for decades. He told HW: "We don't use the vegetation as a product but as an investment for the future. Some of the orchids are in danger, such as the Vogel in Indonesia.

"Sometimes I am too late. A lot of the most valuable trees are already cut by the logging companies. They burn everything down. I always collect from local people as much as I can and all the climber plants come from cuttings collected from the jungle. There is often danger from the companies because I write reports on the value of the jungle."

Henkens explained that he protected himself by travelling on a tourist visa, only staying in one place for a few days at a time and using a series of local banks to avoid carrying large sums of money. Twenty-five years ago in Cuba, when this was not possible, he was robbed of $25,000 in cash.

In other places border guards thought he must have been smuggling drugs and once when in Africa villagers thought the tree he wanted must have had magical powers and they burned it down.

Once in Woburn Forest the challenge is to nurture plants and trees from four different countries in one type of environment and soil. "If you understand how that works you can do a lot with vegetation," said Henkens. "There are plants that survive in very difficult positions around the world. It is 30 degs and we have to create seasons."

Prize charge Second life for ancient tree

Jean Henkens' prize charge on this trip was a 400-year-old fig tree from Thailand, entrusted to him by an elderly monk. He had to cut both canopy and roots down from 30 tonnes to 12 so that it could be shipped.

"It was an honour," he said. "He trusted me to find a second life place where this tree could survive for another 400 years."

Center Parcs landscape asset manager Richard Watson added: "It's amazing to have been a part of this incredible process. We give these trees a new lease of life closer to our guests, so that generations can enjoy them."

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