A couple of years ago, we took a trip up to the summit of Sv Nikola, the top-most point of the island. It was January and a bitter wind was blowing, not to mention the odd shower of rain, but the scenery and the views were glorious! On the way down, we passed by a stand of pine trees and I took some photos. Himself, who is a fund of knowledge on many diverse topics, explained that black pines were growing here during the last ice age. That’s over 10,000 years then, before this was even an island – what a fascinating thought! Yet there are not many of these particular Dalmatian black pines remaining, and they are, in fact, endangered.
Pine trees enjoy cold areas, and are to be found on the higher mountain slopes, increasingly occupying smaller, more isolated areas. In addition, one of the regrettable consequences of Hvar’s 2,400 years of settlement and agriculture is its effect on the natural vegetation. You can tell there used to be more forests here just from the name of the island in the Middle Ages, it was known as Lesina, from the old slavic word meaning wooded. These days, Hvar is still pretty green compared to other islands, and there are some areas of forests between the fields, so why are we talking about the indigenous Gluhi bor being endangered?
Now, I personally don’t understand why the black pine is known on Hvar as ‘gluhi bor’, which pretty much translates as deaf pine! Is this some local joke about the tree being deaf as a post? The more general term in Croatian is Crni bor, which is a direct translation of black pine. But let’s be clear – it’s not all black pines that are in danger of going extinct, only the very local Pinus nigra dalmatica – the native Dalmatian black pine.
As it says in Kew’s World Checklist of plants, Pinus nigra subsp. dalmatica is the officially accepted name of an infraspecies taxon of the species Pinus nigra J.F. Arnold in the genus Pinus (family Pinaceae). Not being a trained botanist, I was puzzled as to why they named it for the island of Vis, when it doesn’t even grow there! I now understand that the Vis. is short for Roberto de Visiani, an Italian botanist (1800-1878) who was a taxon expert. The Franco refers to Portuguese botanist João Manuel Antonio do Amaral Franco (1921-2009). There are specimens of Pinus nigra dalmatica lodged in various important plant databases, including at Kew and Edinburgh Botanic Gardens.
Part of a wider forest before the ice age, the Dalmatian black pine has survived in a few locations where it didn’t get frozen out, and has developed separately from other varieties of European black pine. Today, there are very few pockets of these particular black pines left – only on three islands: Brač, Hvar and Korčula, plus the Pelješac peninsula and high up on the coastal range of Mt Biokovo.
Hvar’s black pines live as high as is possible on the island, along the ridge and on the northern slopes of Sv Nikola. At 626 m, this is Hvar’s highest peak, and the views are glorious. You may actually be able to see all the other stands of Pinus nigra dalmatica from the top, though you’d want a really clear day and a pair of strong binoculars to make out Pelješac!
Recent research shows that the highest stand of Dalmatian black pines is on Biokovo (1,200-1,450m), followed byPelješac (961m), and Brač (773m). Those on Korčula of course, must be lower than Hvar, as the entire island is! The differences in altitude make for local variations in the needles and resin ducts.
Hvar’s stand of black pines has been sadly reduced not only by the pressures of population and agriculture, but recent fires and other encroaching vegetation. However, this year we’ve seen a wonderful initiative by the folks at Sustainable Island, who have replanted a hectare with new seedlings to help regenerate the forest. Through January and February there were local events and a mobile exhibition that highlighted the benefits of preserving the trees. You can read more about all their activities on the Eco-Hvar blog – well done to everyone involved, especially Hvar’s young eco-warriers!
So why is it important to save the Dalmatian black pine? Well, in our very local situation, it’s about saving the soil from erosion, and providing a rich environment for local fauna and flora. Beneath the canopy of the black pines you get wild plants such as juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus), wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius), rockrose (Cistus incanus), sage (Salvia officinalis), and Dalmatian broom (Genista dalmatica).
At the wider planetary level, it’s about bio-diversity, and protecting the variety in the gene pool (you never know when you’ll need it!) It seems that plant diversity in Mediterranean forests is rather greater than in European forests. It’s to do with islands and other localised habitats, plus the longer time they’ve have had to develop and adapt to their individual locations. The ice packs didn’t cover as far south as the Mediterranean, and it would have been a much reduced sea until the ice melted around 10,000 years ago. The Croatian islands would have been part of the mainland, with the valleys in between the ridges not yet flooded. Connected plant populations of the time were divided by the rising sea, and adapted differently. It’s left us a great resouce of resilient species that needs to be conserved and protected.
In general, pines tend to be very adaptable, those needles can take far more extremes of weather than the flat leaves of deciduous trees, which are a relatively recent development in plant life. The Scandinavians are now discovering traces of ancient pine and spruce trees that survived the last ice age in Norway! The Austrian black pine grows in places high up in the Alps that no other tree can tolerate. In summer, pine trees ‘sweat’ resin, which was collected by the Celts 2,000 years ago, and the ancient Romans used the resin as an adhesive and as a shaving balm. As time went on, pine resin was a raw material in a wide range of products – dye, varnish, lubricants, turpentine and shoe polish, as well as in face cream and other cosmetics.
Pinus nigra dalmatica tends to grow at a higher altitude than the Aleppo pine (pinus halipensis), which you’ll also find growing on the Dalmatian coast and islands. It can tolerate fairly poor, rocky soil, and puts down deep lateral roots to survive the hot dry summers. Not the tallest of pine trees, the Dalmatian black pine only grows to about 15m, probably because of the fierce winds in exposed locations.
The crown is characteristically dark green and umbrella-shaped in the mature pines, and the bark shows vertical irregular cracks with a light undercolour. The needles are grouped in pairs, 4-7 cm long for the Dalmatian black pine, much shorter than the average 10-15 cm for other black pines. They remain on the tree for 3-4 years. The dark brown cones likewise are smaller, only 3.5 – 4.5 cm in the dalmatica, as opposed to 4-8 cm generally. They ripen at the end of the second year, when the cone scales open and the seeds are released. Black pines in general grow fast when young, and will survive 500-800 years.
I was interested to find that you can buy Pinus nigra dalmatica seeds on Amazon, where the description stated that this tree would make a good windbreak. I’m pretty sure it would, but the actual photo of the item showed it as a tiny little bonsai! I guess you’d have to lie down behind it? Meanwhile, on the island of Brač, they have a very fine specimen of a wild Pinus nigra dalmatica growing on a church roof, which makes a very classy bonsai!
Sustainable Island project: follow them on Facebook!
Eco-Hvar article: Tree life support
Total Hvar article: first reforestation location update
IUCN Red List of Endangered species http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/34191/0
Brač-based website on wild plants of the islands: http://moj-otok.com/wp/