Question: How did California change Cornwall?

Answer: By sending its trees


Cornwall is often thought of as having a wild, bleak and treeless coastline. Although this is true of some parts of the county (especially the far west and the north coast) the reality is that in many places that harshness has been softened by a foreign invader. That invader is the Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata).

The Monterey Pine's native territory is that of a few exposed rocky headlands and islands on the Pacific coast of California where the northerly cold ocean current creates heavy fogs rolling in from the sea, moderating the temperature of what is essentially a Mediterranean frost-free climate, at the latitude of Gibraltar.

Victorian plant hunters brought back the Monterey Pine from its native habitat and introduced it to Cornwall and Devon. Its salt tolerance, wind firmness and rapid growth (which can be 20 metres in height in its first 20 years) made it a good choice for coastal locations. However it is not frost hardy and growth rates decline with increasing elevation. Most plantings were of small groups of the trees or even single specimens rather than large plantations or forests.

The young Monterey Pine has a bushy, shrubby form quite unlike the mature tree which has tall trunks and all its vegetation carried high. Where a number of trees are planted together as a copse they seem to grow together as one, their shape moulded by the gales and storms which assail the Cornish coasts in winter.

Today, our perception of the Cornish coastline is heavily influenced by the presence of the Monterey Pine, to the extent that we feel it is characteristic of the area. However, there is a problem; many of the Monterey Pines planted at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries have now reached old age and are - literally - falling down or dying and becoming gaunt skeletons against the skyline.

So, over the last few years Cornwall County Council, in association with the European Community, has run a programme to encourage land-owners to plant new Monterey Pines to and renew existing plantations so as to preserve the characteristic appearance of our coast. My property is one in Talland that has has benefitted from this programme and some 37 young trees were planted in Spring of 1999 and around 27 have survived. A further 120 trees are due to be planted in December 1999 so, with average luck, there should be the makings of a new copse of Monterey Pines which will grow up to replace their ancestors which are now distinctly in old age. The winter of 1999 is unfortunately the last year of this programme, finance not being available any longer.

World-wide there is now some 3.5m hectares of Monterey Pine plantations, mainly in New Zealand and Chile, but also in Australia, South Africa and N.W.Spain. Nowhere, other than its native land of central California, however has it become more influential in determining the "look" of the landscape - possibly because it is in small quantities in Cornwall, very much the "icing on the cake".

The assistance of Cornwall County Council, its Planning Director and Forestry Officer and Oliver Bennett (Trees Officer) is acknowledged with thanks.

Robert J. Tarr © 1999