The rhododendron – the legacy of Victorian social status



Whilst on a train journey to the Highlands recently, I was struck by the amount of rhododendron lining the tracks. Extending deep beneath the canopy and almost spilling out onto the rails, covering rotting tree trunks with their glossy dark leaves; it was everywhere, choking the life from the forest floor and offering a stark warning of the perils that come from introducing species for which there is no supportive ecosystem in place. A well-known cautionary tale of introducing non-native species is that of Eugene Schieffelin, whose dream was to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakesperean plays to North America.[1] His introduction of the starling to Central Park in 1890 was so successful, the bird now numbers 200 million and has caused significant devastation, ranging from bringing down planes to crop failure. This innocent looking bird, written about so eloquently in Henry IV, is now a blight to both the US economy and environment.

In the UK, it is the grey squirrel that receives the brunt of invasive species vitriol, with even Prince Charles weighing in and coming down firmly on the ‘send these scroungers back to where they came from’ side of the squirrel debate.[2] Grey squirrels carry a disease deadly to the British native red squirrel and strip bark from trees, so there is a conservationist argument for controlling their numbers, but to see a member of the British aristocracy decrying their existence in this country displays a certain irony, as it was Victorian upper class tastes that proliferated the grey squirrel in the first place.

The rhododendron has a similar history.[3] Introduced to Britain in the mid-18th century, it quickly became the must-have plant for the new trend of woodland gardens, a move away from the more manicured country garden with its bedded-out exotic plants from South America. The woodland gardens, promoted by horticulturalist William Robinson, placed an emphasis on more ‘natural, hardy species’, which were allowed to sprawl beyond the confines of their beddings, and while native plants were preferred, the rhododendron was popular due to its frost-resistance and sturdiness. The plant was especially favoured in Scotland, due to its suitability for providing game bird-cover for the vast sporting estates so prevalent north of the border.[4] A plant truly representative of the landed gentry’s existence in Scotland, the rhododendron soon became ubiquitous to Scottish woodland. What the Robinson disciples failed to realise was the effect their new craze would have on the surrounding ecosystem[5]. Rhododendron bushes have dense foliage which prevents light from reaching the forest floor (a problem also experienced by coniferous plantations) and thus choking out any smaller species. If that wasn’t enough, its leaves are poisonous to any mammal that consumes them, and its thirsty roots leach most of the water and nutrients from the soil, leaving it dry and barren. It is of little wonder that conservation organisations view the species as a top priority for eradication.

What is especially interesting is the zeal with which some Scottish landowners have embraced conservation objectives to restore their lands to their former ‘native’ glory.[6] Perhaps the most famous of these landowners is Paul Lister of Glen Alladale, heir to a large furniture fortune and owner of 23,000 Highland acres that he plans to rewild with boar, elk and wolf.[7] Bemoaning that the Highlands have lost most of their biodiversity to sheep and deer grazing, he fails to mention how landowners before him were the cause of this biodiversity black hole, moving people off their land to make way for sheep, and cultivating large deer herds for shooting parties. And now, with the same enthusiasm for clearing rhododendron as their predecessors had for clearing crofters off their lands, this new breed of ‘benevolent’ landowner plans to have the Highlands hopping with all manner of creatures except one: the human. Whilst it is important to recognise that rewilding benefits biodiversity and ecosystems in many ways, promoting it as a restoration of Scotland’s past without mentioning how much of that past was to do with humans cultivating the land is lazy at best, and to allow their return only through the prism of ecotourism merely accentuates the commodification of nature. When humans become removed from living and working on the land, the only way they can connect with it is through tourism, and this is the way Scotland will remain whilst much of its land remains in the ownership of so few. It is only through land reform and the wresting of these ill-gotten estates from the hands of their owners – conservationists of not – that Scotland can become truly rewilded through the promotion of community land schemes. It is no coincidence that one of the most successful rhododendron eradication projects has come from the Knoydart foundation – a community owned estate encompassing the village of Invererie, whose residents were only too happy to roll up their sleeves, don their gloves, and remove the rhododendron from the land that they own.[8]

Yet for the vast majority of Scotland, there seems to be little room for this hardy native resident in the vision for a pristine wilderness, which in reality shares much in common with the carefully planned ‘wild’ woodland gardens of the Victorian era, except in the form of ecotourism and hunting parties. And if you do happen to be human and want to stay in this untainted paradise – well, it’ll cost you £7,500 a week.[9]






[4] Denhen-Schmutz, K. (2006), Rhododendron ponticum in Britain and Ireland: Social, Economic and Ecological Factors in its Successful Invasion, Environment and History 12 (3), 325-350







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