3Q: Thomas Pakenham
Thomas Pakenham is a historian and arboriculturalist whose books include the bestselling Meetings with Remarkable Trees (2003). His new book, The Company of Trees, chronicles his efforts to establish an arboretum at Tullynally, Ireland, intertwining moments in the history of botany, such as the exploits of Victorian plant hunter Joseph Hooker. His quest for rare trees and other plants took him to Patagonia to view the last vast monkey puzzle trees, to the Himalayas to find the rare Magnolia campbelli alba and beyond. Ahead of his appearance at Write on Kew, the Royal Botanical Garden’s inaugural literary festival, Pakenham talks about the slippery concept of ‘alien’ species, getting lost in a blizzard in Tibet, and pathogens that travel in packing cases.
What compelled you to plant the arboretum, and what drew you to the exotics you chose?
There was no plan. It started as a shelterbelt, as I already had some exceptionally tall beeches and oaks. I planted a new grove — a collection of incongruities that came to include Japanese maples and the South American giant Alerce. This became the arboretum. After a bit, aesthetics took over and we introduced spring bulbs. I also brought in a plant-hunting theme, harking back to the great Victorian and early twentieth-century botanic expeditions: history is woven in, which is one of the things that drew me on. As for ‘exotic ‘ vs ‘native’, to a degree that’s an academic distinction. I recall that the late David Allardice Webb, the great field botanist at Trinity College Dublin, noted that he sometimes thought his colleagues called a species ‘alien’ when they didn’t like it.
What was your most memorable plant hunt?
Tibet is close to my heart; it is not for nothing that we think of it as a magical, end-of-the-world place. In search of species such as the Tibetan cowslip Primula florindae and the blue poppy Mecanopsis baileyi, I travelled to parts of the Himalayas explored in the twentieth century by the botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward — the remote valleys of Pemako and Rongchu. It was late in the season and at one point a blizzard blew up in a mountain pass. I had to sit it out near a boulder until the others reemerged. Later on that trip, my companions left our camp for an arduous 10-mile journey in search of blue poppies. I stayed behind. Washing my feet in a stream, I sprang up: I had sat on a clump of them.
At a time when forests are at risk from climate change and more, what do you see as the greatest threat?
Tree diseases are a huge problem. The bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pv aesculi has been causing bleeding canker in the horse chestnut for about a decade. It can kill an old tree in a year. Microscopic pathogens can travel in all sorts of ways — some Asian tree diseases have arrived in wooden packing cases carried on container ships, for instance. One way to stop them from wreaking havoc is to plant trees that have co-evolved with the disease, such as the Himalayan horse chestnut and the Chinese elm. The British Isles’ relatively small group of natives, however, are world-beaters.
Write on Kew is at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew from 24 to 27 September. Thomas Pakenham will be speaking on 26 September. For information on booking, see www.kew.org/writeonkew.
For silvologist Gabriel Hemery‘s retrospective review of John Evelyn’s classic book on arboriculture, Sylva, see here. For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.