Monday, 7 March 2011

The Witches’ Parking Lot

Walking through a Scottish forest, you occasionally run into the curious sight of several poles with wire mesh paddles. Actually, they’re the new and improved model. The early model I remember when I was seven resembled a collection of brooms with birch twigs. I reckoned they were witches' brooms, parked there while the witches attended a sabbath. Of course my dad gave me the rational scoop, that those brooms were for putting out forest fires, but his explanation never made sense to me. If I find a forest fire, I'd need to trek 2-5 miles to the nearest “parking lot”, grab a broom and fly back on it like Harry Potter, "tae pit oot the fire". The only way the brooms can possibly do any good is if a fire is lucky enough to spring up close to them. Besides Scotland is quite wet. It takes a really hot dry spell to create the tinder conditions for fire; hence the rusting fire brooms. They’ve sat there for fifty years unused. I thought my explanation, that the brooms belonged to witches, was far more plausible.

Coming across the strange brooms reminded me of the Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron Gigantea) in Old Scone, and their relationship to fire. They were planted in an arboretum along with many native California trees by David Douglas back in the early nineteenth century. A native of Scone, Douglas travelled the world, gathering saplings and then planting them in the Scone Palace grounds. He died tragically in 1834 in Hawaii, after falling into an animal trap on Mauna Keia. The Douglas Fir is named after him. The Sequoia, and many other trees in the arboretum are fire adapted to the tinder conditions of the High Sierra. Its bark is fireproof. The seeds need to be scorched by fire before they germinate. It needs fire to enrichen the soil and to thin out competing firs and underbrush. I witnessed a forest of tiny saplings emerging in Sequoia National Forest, the spring following a controlled burn. There aren’t any saplings in the Scone arboretum. That forest hasn’t seen a fire. But the pine straw must contain many seeds, still waiting for a fire to burn off the outer husk, so they can germinate.

Could I propagate them? They’re stunning to look at; their wood has extraordinary properties. It doesn’t rot, resists insect decay and is beautiful to carve. For whatever reason, the Sequoia grows rapidly in the Scottish damp climate. I know, they're not native, but I don't believe that my plantation will cause ecological disaster.

I gathered a pile of duff and straw from the base of a couple of trees along with several green pine cones. The little nest with the eggs is now drying in the greenhouse. In a couple of months I’ll set fire to them and spread out the ashes on compost. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see the birth of a redwood forest at Cottarton.

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