Our own BFGs in Fota!

Our own BFGs in Fota!

Celebrating National Tree Week. March 5th – 12th. Part 3

“Deep Roots are not reached by the Frost”   J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We have our own Big Friendly Giants at Fota. They’re not the Roald Dahl kind, more of the Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, kind. Tall, weathered trees that rise high above Fota House and Gardens. If these trees could talk like Tolkien’s did, who knows what stories they would tell? Read on and meet some of them….

 Cupressus Macrocarpa “Monterey Cypress” California. c. 1847

FullSizeRender (4)

Monterey Cypress at Fota House

This magnificent Cypress was planted in Fota around 1847. Although it is native to California, it was a popular tree to plant in milder areas of the British Isles during the middle of the C19th. Their native range in California is quite small, covering a three kilometres  patch near Monterey. Dick Warner has written in the Irish Examiner ” The Monterey Cypress was first cultivated in England in 1838 in the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick. The seed was presented to them by a man called AB Lambert, but nobody knew where it came from. Then, in 1846 the Society employed a gardener of German origin called Theodore Hartweg to go on a plant collecting expedition to Mexico and California and he discovered the native stand.” 

Strangely, none of the biggest trees grow in their natural habitat. They are widely planted in California in public parks and gardens for ornamental value. In some countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, where they are now growing naturally,  they are planted to provide shade. The foliage grows in dense sprays which are bright green in colour and have a  lemony aroma when pressed.  

According to plantguide.org, “the Monterey Cypress  becomes gnarled and flat-topped when old.” The specimen at Fota bears this out, with a pale grey bark which is broken and weathered, covered with elongated scales. 

Their hardy, salt resistant qualities have made them ideal to grow in a place like Fota. This tree is now about 170 years old. One famous tree called the “Lone Cypress”, growing on a rocky outcrop near Pebble Beach is estimated to be around 250 years old.  

 Pinus nigra var. caramanica “Crimean Pine”. West Asia. c 1847

FullSizeRender (8)

Pinus nigra at Fota

Pinus nigra can be divided into three main varieties – Pinus nigra var. nigra The Austrian Pine, Pinus nigra var. maritima, The Corsican Pine and Pinus nigra va.r caramanica, The Crimean Pine, the common names giving fairly accurate indications of the original homelands of the three. The one shown in the photograph above, towering over the now flowering magnolia, is Pinus nigra var. caramanica, The Crimean Pine, planted in Fota around the same time as the Monetery Cypress in  1847. Of the three varieties, this is the rarest. It’s natural habitat is The Balkans and Crimea, as the name suggests. 


Bark of the Pinus nigra var. caramanica

The bark is thick, scaly plated, grey-brown, to pinkish on some very old trees. Its cones are about 3ins long. It is a large tree that when mature is often easy to distinguish as the trunk divides at about 6m into 5-10 vertical stems.

It’s a moderately fast growing tree, with some species being recorded as 500 years old. It dislikes shade, preferring full sun. It is resistant to wind and drought (not a problem in Ireland!). Its location on the back lawn of Fota has obviously been a good place for it. 

Platanus orientalis “Oriental Plane” Tree, S.E. Europe. 1909


“Hippocrates” Tree at Fota 

This solid tree is fittingly called the “Tree of Hippocrates”, under which the ancient Greek physician taught his pupils in Kos. It’s native to South East Europe and South West Asia. And has wide, spreading branches, as shown in the photograph above. It’s a large deciduous tree, which can grow up to 30m tall. Not the most handsome or striking tree, especially now coming out of Winter, but it is liked for its bark and the shade it offers, especially in urban areas. The leaves are also attractive, shaped like maple leaves. 

It was popular in Persian gardens which were built around water and shade. It was known as a chenar.  It features in Plinny’s Natural History when he described a plane tree on the grounds of the Athenian Academy, in Athens, as having roots that were 50 feet long. 


Oriental Plane at Fota House 

In Kashmir the tree was planted in the grounds of Hindu shrine shrines. In Chadoora, in Kashmir, there is a tree reputed to be 627 years old. 

The leaves and bark have also been used medicinally and a fabric dye can be made from the roots and twigs.

Its leaves have even been used for leaf-carving such as the one shown below.


Plane Tree leaf carving








In Kew Gardens it features among the “Old Lions”, their collection of ancient trees. Their Plane Tree is 250 years old.  The Platanus orientalis in Fota was planted in 1909.

Araucaria araucana “Monkey Puzzle Tree”, Chile. 2007


Araucaria araucana at Fota 

This is our Baby Giant! A Monkey Puzzle tree planted in 2007 but in the future, long after this blog is forgotten, it will grow to between 100 – 130 ft high. It’s been described as a “living fossil” due to its longevity. It was first identified in Chile in the 1780’s by Juan Ignacio Molina, a Jesuit priest who was also a botanist and ornithologist who named  it  Pinus araucana. In 1873, after several further renaming, Koch published the combination Araucaria araucana, validating Molina’s name in the genus.



Monkey puzzle at Fota

The name araucana is derived from the native people, the  Araucanians who used the nuts (seeds) of the tree in Chile.

Its seeds, which are similar to pine nuts, are edible. They are harvested by indigenous peoples in South America. It is considered to have some potential as a future food crop as it grows in areas where other nuts will not thrive. However, it won’t yield any nuts until it is around 30 – 40 years old. 

It got the name “monkey puzzle” in England during the 1850’s when a visitor to Sir William Molesworth’s Cornwall estate remarked “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”!

We wish our Baby BFG well!                               Long may it prosper. 


Main image: Fagus sylvatica “Aspeniifolia”, Fern leaf beech tree.