Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
The Splendour of the Red Tree from Turkey
Ian D. Rotherham
All across Yorkshire and Derbyshire, the most stunning and splendid wild sight has emerged and is finally on the wane. Despite being the bane of conservationists the wild Rhododendron is loved by the public (and a lot of wildlife too), and from May into June it bursts into flower. This event presents us with stunning vistas and views that people travel miles to see. The bush is Rhododendron ponticum or literally ‘The Red Tree from Turkey’ and covers woods, heaths, moorland edge and old parklands with a blanket of red to purple to mauve flowers. Outside this peak of flowering, the shrub is far less obvious. It was native in Britain between the last glaciations but somehow never returned when the icy chill mellowed around 15,000 years ago. It was then banished to the far-flung tips of Europe and Near Asia in Turkey, Lebanon, Portugal, and Spain. That was until in 1763 plant collectors brought seed back to Kew Gardens in London. From there as they say, the rest is history. Landowners loved it for shelter and ornament and especially as game cover for the shooting interests. Many planted it for cover for wildlife and for its stung flowers. It was extensively used as rootstock for less hardy and very prized rhododendrons being brought into Britain by the Empire’s plant hunters who travelled the globe in search of the exotic. It then burst onto, and then across the British and Yorkshire landscape, and for 200 years or more has spread largely unfettered and uncontrolled.
However, now the beady eyes of government experts are casting more than a glance at this most successful of our invasive alien plants. There is even talk of attempts at total eradication. Well, to be honest, there has been ‘talk’ of effective control for 50 years by forestry experts, and it can be dealt with on individual sites. Nevertheless, there has been no effective strategy or policy to stop the further spread across the landscape. Personally, I cannot see government spending the huge amount of cash that would be needed and I do not imagine everybody would be agreeable or co-operative. Many of the seed plants are in small, private gardens and I just do not think people will take to them being ‘eradicated’. Anyway, we will see! However, across the region and famously at many sites in the Peak District National Park, the plant is thriving and its spread is largely unchecked. Interestingly, many regions and organisations, even conservation bodies, use pictures of Rhododendron in promotional material for tourism!
Professor Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, and Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change at Sheffield Hallam University