In September 2005, Dan Luscombe (Bedgebury’s propagator at the time) and a small team travelled to the remote mountain hillside of Mount Scalone in northern Sicily. Here, they found the critically endangered Sicilian fir (Abies nebrodensis), of which there are only 29 mature specimens remaining in its native range. It is now considered one of the world’s most threatened conifers. While there were many aims to this expedition, Dan’s primary objective was to collect its precious seed with a view to cultivating a small population around the UK, monitored by Bedgebury Pinetum. It was also a chance to study their ecology and obtain DNA for phylogenetic analysis.
Although it would always have been considered globally rare on its tiny island refuge of Sicily, by 1900 Abies nebrodensis was on the brink of extinction. Extensive felling for building and firewood were the main reasons for this decline. Fortunately, in 1957 a single specimen was found in a local garden, prompting the discovery of a small population nearby. However, replanting in the area has not been successful to date, with young plants finding it hard to establish without constant attention over an unfeasibly long time period. Harsh soil conditions, drought and goat grazing, combined with a very slow reproductive rate of the Sicilian fir itself, makes survival for the next generation unlikely.
There are positive steps in the conservation of this species in-situ. The remaining trees are situated in a National Park and visits are by appointment only to limit pressure on the site. Seedlings were observed during the trip which is encouraging and information obtained by the team has been and will continue to be invaluable to the survival of the Sicilian fir in the wild. There are currently several young plants ready to be relocated to Bedgebury Pinetum and we now understand its ecology in much more detail. Another indirect benefit has been the resulting partnerships with Palermo Botanic Garden, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Reading, strengthening future conservation efforts for this and other species.