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A pine to piddle against

The dog-lovers amongst us appreciate the value of trees.

In my new garden, which is in fact a piece of wasteland with a fence round it, I have no trees. I possess only a few stunted and windswept hawthorn and elder. Barely half a mile from the Pentland Firth, whence the north wind blows uninterrupted straight from the Arctic Circle, this is not exactly a horticultural paradise.

It is… erm… a challenge.

Scotland’s principal native conifer, the Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), is one tree most likely to adapt to and survive these harsh conditions.

As a matter of priority, I must plant one or two for the convenience of the geriatric Jack Russell.

For those brave enough or interested enough to continue, or simply too intoxicated to care, I will try to make this more readable by subdividing into a whole range of subsections.

With an unusually inspired burst of originality, I will call these Part I and Part II. Part I is about the history of the Scots Pine. Part II expands to cover members of the genus Pinus which can be grown in gardens. This latter expansion of Pinus is known in horticultural circles as Pinus enlargement, but I dare say you don’t need to know that, so I won’t mention it.

Even I should be able to cope with the discipline required to construct an article of two sections. If I lose the plot along the way, be sure to let me know.

Part I

The tree we know as the Scots Pine grows widely throughout Europe. However, Pinus sylvestris comprises many strains, and only Pinus sylvestris var. Scotica (otherwise known as Pinus Scotica) is indigenous to my homeland. This tree formed the backbone of the Caledonian Forest, or Wood of Caledon, which clothed most of Highland Scotland, and indeed much of the Lowlands, for many centuries. It is, however, a common misconception that this ancient forest no longer exists. Relics of the old Pine forest remain, mainly, and fortunately, now in reserves managed by the Forestry Commission, Scottish Natural Heritage, the RSPB and others.

Substantial areas of native pinewood exist at, for example, Rothiemurchus, Braemar, Rannoch Moor, Glen Affric, and Loch Maree (and these are all sustainably managed and open for public access and recreation). Smaller remnants are all over the place. I believe, for example, that in Glen Falloch there are a mere, but vital, twenty-four native pine.

So what went wrong? Where did it all go?

Three major factors contributed to the decline, or indeed rape, of our pinewoods.

Timber. Before we learned to produce timber in a sustainable fashion (if indeed we have), pine was identified as the ideal timber tree. And it was abundant. It is still the principal wood in the building trade, where it is more anonymously known as redwood. But as demand for timber grew, the Scots Pine was felled mercilessly.

Grazing. And sheep. And the Highland Clearances. The trauma of the Clearances is well known and documented as it relates to people, and rightly so. It is less well remembered that vast tracts of native forest were cleared at the same time to accommodate the woolly grazing machines.

Jacobites. Eh? Yes, incredible though it may seem on such a scale, after the 1745 uprising and Culloden, the army of Butcher Cumberland destroyed uncountable acres of forest in the Highlands, simply to deny hiding places to the defeated supporters of Charles Edward Stuart.

But hopefully the threat is now past. Thanks to the reserves mentioned above, and the move towards sustainable forestry practice, our native pine will recover, albeit slowly.

Part II

With its deeply fissured pinky-red bark, and its needled crown so beloved of a red squirrel as rare now as the pine itself, this majestic tree of up to 100 feet is a bit on the large side for the average garden. I would love so much to exhort you to plant a native Caledonian Pine in your plot, but common sense must prevail.

But the whole pine family is one worth befriending.

For the rockery or rock garden, an absolute must is Pinus Mugo Mops, a dwarf, spreading pine growing a mere 2½ inches a year.

With a little more space, you can grow some of the shrubby pines. Pinus pumila is a low, spreading shrub which in maturity will rarely exceed three metres. Bred from our own “sylvestris” is Gold Coin, rarely exceeding 2m, with gold-tinged foliage. Or Pinus sylvestris Beuvronensis, which rarely exceeds 1m.

Och, there are so many, I could turn this into a catalogue.

But I can’t, because I must go and let the dog out.

To piddle against a stunted hawthorn.

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