Meet Robbie Blackhall-Miles, whose Welsh garden has an early evolutionary vibe. He explains why he’s passionate about plants with fossil records that predate the extinction of the dinosaurs
Unwind a tape measure all the way out to 5 metres and imagine that each metre is 100m years, each centimetre a million years and each millimetre 100,000 years. Suddenly, your tape measure is a timeline. Now have a look for the mark on the tape measure that represents 450m years – at 4.5m.
450 million years ago, (or thereabouts), the very first plants crept on to land and, in so doing, they allowed the very first animals to colonise the land too. They created the first organic soils and changed the atmosphere. They laid down the foundations for humanity to, eventually, evolve.
Some 30 years ago, a boy sat under a huge monkey puzzle tree and imagined this strange early world, hardly able to comprehend the scale of time. For a boy of 10, the idea that there was a tree in his garden that belonged to an ancient family that had been grazed upon by dinosaurs was utterly mind-blowing. At 250cm on your tape measure, you’ll find the point at which the monkey puzzle tree started its evolution. The boy under that monkey puzzle tree was me.
The thoughts and ideas surrounding the vastness of evolutionary time have never left me and today, I grow a garden full of living plants that have a fossil record from deep in the ancient past.
Among them is a family that tells one of the greatest stories of our planet’s history. They are the protea family from the southern hemisphere. Amazingly, their 95m-year-old fossils can be found in all the southern continents, including Antarctica, and this ancient and modern distribution tells the story of the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana that once contained all the southern lands.
The family contains species such as the King protea (Protea cynaroides) – the national flower of South Africa, and Macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia) – the source of those nutritious nuts by the same name. There are more than 1,660 species in the protea family and many of them are seriously threatened with extinction. Having evolved to fit into very small environmental niches, as climate change takes hold and the human population expands, their numbers in areas like the (megadiverse) Western Cape of South Africa are plummeting. I decided that I couldn’t sit back and watch as the proteas perished.
As a professional horticulturist, I had the skills to do something practical that may help this ancient family of plants. So, in 2015 my partner and I, working with CapeNature (The Western Cape Nature Conservation Board) and supported by Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens, headed to South Africa. We were in search of the high-altitude members of the protea family to bring them into cultivation here in Wales. The Welsh climate is surprisingly like that of their mountain homes. We visited places rarely frequented by man, staying in mountain huts or camping in our little two-man tent. We collected seeds of 30 members of this iconic family of plants; some of which have never been grown outside of South Africa.
With the help of crowdfunding we set up a small nursery so that we can research the cultivation of these difficult plants and others, introducing them to cultivation and informing future efforts to protect them by means of ex-situ (away from the natural habitat) conservation.
Now look at the tape measure timeline and see the first two millimetres at the very tip. They represent the 200,000 years that humanity has been on this planet – a miniscule fragment of the timeline of life on Earth. Those two millimetres make me take stock and realise just how special biodiversity is and how insignificant in it all I am. It puts into perspective the trials of day-to-day life.
It’s that two millimetres that pushes me to try and make sure, in my own small way, that millions of years of plant evolution isn’t wiped out in what is just a mere moment in the history of life on earth.