Pilgrimage to Culcita
A delightful article by a real enthusiast
about a trip to Spain and an attempt to locate one of Europe's rarest
and most exciting Treeferns. Wonderful stuff!
Dick Hayward, Coed-y-Glyn, South Rd., Caernarfon,
Chamaerops No. 20, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Pilgrims Progress: Dick Hayward and Culcita
With a title like the above you might anticipate
that you are about to hear of a journey to the fabled ruins of some
ancient Inca temple in Peru, or perhaps of a call to pay homage
to an ageing beauty, one-time mistress of a famous but long-dead
Spanish grandee. Neither conjecture will be sustained. We shall
certainly be going to Spain and, by pure accident, Culcita does
have a very Spanish ring to it. In fact, the object of my little
pilgrimage this summer was a magnificent stand of ferns in the noun-
but even more beautiful tree fern Cyathea dealbata, Culcita has
been described as a genus of primitive tree ferns. The only species
native to Europe is C. macrocarpa, its ten or so brethren being
inhabitants of generally more tropical climes. Indeed, the amazing
thing about our Citatains of Asturias, outliers to the wonderful
Picos de Europa, the 'Mountains of Europe', so named by Spanish
mariners returning from the New World who seeing the mountains would
know themselves to be close to a landfall on their home coasts.
A fascination for ferns dates back to about age
thirteen when absolutely intrigued by a 'flowering' clump of our
native Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) growing on a cliff face in Cornwall,
I felt compelled to slide down a rope, claw it out of its crevice
and take it home to a North London garden. It thrived wonderfully,
and I was hooked for life as a 'pteridophytophile' - or, as Martin
Gibbons proposed, a 'pterodactyl'. This was a very long time before
palms came to secure a big corner of my affections. Yet ferns and
palms are really so similar in the gross visual plan that bigamous
affections ought to be easily appreciated. A psychologist with a
biological background might describe it as 'a fixation on radial
symmetry', and, quite apart from an ever-present susceptibility
to the lure of the exotic in plants, it would account for a weakness
for agaves, aloes and bromeliads. I hope dyed-in-the-wool palm enthusiasts
will not take it amiss if I say that not only is your fern freak
a potential palm nut, but conversely, that inside even the most
monolithic palm nut there could be lurking a pterodactyl!
A member genus of the Dicksoniaceae, a family which
includes the familiar Dicksonia antarctica as well as the somewhat
less familiar European Culcita is that it is still here, for it
is a member of a relict flora of a once sub-tropical Europe which
came to an end in the late Tertiary glaciations of a million years
ago. Although far better preserved in the islands of the Atlantic
(Madeira, the Canaries and Azores), this beautiful plant still survives
in a handful of protected locations in the Iberian Peninsula. For
very good reasons, such sites are not public knowledge and I count
myself very lucky to have been given reasonably explicit instructions
on how to find one of them. A day devoted to this enterprise was
to be the culmination of a mountaineering holiday in Los Picas.
The high Picos are a glorious place for the naturalist and on my
every visit I am amazed that such an arid lunar landscape, with
its upland valleys devoid of streams and its high corries without
lakes, can support such a variety of plant and animal life. Ferns
such as the Holly Fern (Polystichum tonchitis), Green Spleenwort
(Asplenium viride) and Rigid Buckler (Dryopteris submontana), all
so rare in Britain, abound here, while in places the walls of the
lower valleys, which do have rivers, are thick with the European
Maidenhair (Adiantum copillusveneris). The limestone gorges here
look so like those near Ronda in Andalucia that it is a disappointment
not to find Chamaerops humilis bursting out of cracks in the rocks,
as it often does there. But this area gets less sun and much more
Down from the mountains and exchanging the doubtful
joys of backpacking for the comfort of a hire-car, we celebrated
our return to the valleys with a suitably vinous lunch before starting
our serious quest for ferns. I say 'our' and I must introduce my
companion Owen, whom I knew even before the advent of Osmunda. Each
year we engage in a ritual of pitching tiny tents in wild windswept
places, haul ourselves up ridges and gullies, and limp home declaring
we've had a wonderful holiday. Although a keen plantsman, Owen is
not a signed-up fern freak, and his preferred part in our searches
is to drive me around while I scan the passing plant life and call
a halt when closer scrutiny is invited. Over and above the role
of chauffeur, he manages to call up vast reserves of long-suffering
whilst I disappear for hours into bogs and thickets. This year there
was to be a second day of this sort of thing with, for me, the possible
highlight of finding Culcita. For this degree of commitment, plus
the fact that he undertook to record proceedings on film, Owen must
at least deserve status as an honorary pterodactyl!
The second day was overcast and humid. Our instructions
took us deep into some fairly out-of-the-way country prettily wooded
with chestnut, oak and eucalyptus and endowed with a great variety
of ferns. It was close to midday before we reached a place that
seemed to match the description on our pencilled sketch-map. Dropping
down into the cleft of a muddy stream bed I worked my way through
the brambly undergrowth which hugged its banks. Overhung with tall
trees and a skirt of high bracken on its steep far side the place
was quite dark, close and sticky. (The time was early August and
the height of our 1995 heat wave.) Half an hour later and just when
I was beginning to wonder if we'd misread the map, quite suddenly
there she was, the object of our pilgrimage! Magnificent plants!
Intricately divided leathery fronds, almost blueygreen in colour,
widely triangular and held high on blackish red-haired stipes (frond-stems)
almost an inch thick. The European Garden Flora and Flora Europaea
both record the frond size as between 30 and 90 cms, but I had been
told to expect specimens much larger, and they were; many fronds
being close to 2 metres. Standing among these luxuriantly tropical
plants - so unlike any other fern in Europe - was to re-live feelings
I had experienced on a trip to Java.
In comparison with the acres of bracken and bramble
above the cleft the few square yards allowed to these clumps of
Culcita say much about the precariousness of its tenancy in mainland
Europe. We had come a long way to see these few square yards and
we did not return disappointed, knowing well that the essence of
a shrine is never to be measured with a yardstick.
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