When we were in Scotland, Darren and I were pleasantly surprised by how lovely the countryside was. It was pristine, beautiful and litter free. So, as we approached Torridon (near the coast in the north) we were surprised to see plumes of inky, black smoke rising up in the distance. What could that be about, we wondered.
We didn’t figure it out the first day… there were enough of these small, smokey fires (in an area that has fairly consistent rains) that it seemed to us to be intentional and we put it out of our minds as we toured around.
The following day, we decided to go for a bit of a walk along the trails near the inn we were staying at. Although Scotland has the ‘right to roam’ laws that basically give hikers the chance to walk freely everywhere we still tended to stick to trails and old roads to prevent ourselves from getting lost.
Within the first five minutes, we realized the trail we’d chosen was… odd. It rather seemed as though Dr Seuss’s Lorax had been through the area recently. Given the unspoiled, natural beauty we’d enjoyed up until this point on our trip, we were completely perplexed as to what could have happened to the apocalyptic wasteland our chosen trail was taking us through. The bracken (ferns), heather and all other undergrowth was gone and we noticed quite a few charred stumps. The only thing left alive seemed, to us, to be Scots Pines.
Some people would have turned back in search of prettier views, but we were curious so decided to continue on in the hopes of solving the mystery.
About two kilometres in (and half an hour of increasingly fantastical speculation) we stumbled across a sign that solved the mystery. Scotland (and Ireland) are waging war against invaders from Victorian England – invaders in the form of pink Rhododendrons.
During Victorian times it became quite fashionable to import plants from around the world into well-to-do gardens. Of course, not everything could survive the British climate, so enterprising botanists created new hybrids that could – including the beautiful but deadly Rhododendron ponticum.
If you’re imagining some sort of alien, killer plant you aren’t far off… though it has pretty spring blooms this pink Rhododendron grows so densely that it kills all of the plants below it. It grows up to 25 feet tall – tall enough that it pretty much kills everything (with the exception of mature trees like the Scots pines) and prevents anything else from having the chance to seed new plants.
But wait! We aren’t done yet. It’s also poisonous. Mammals, birds and insects living in an area invaded by the Rhododendrons die or are driven out because there’s nothing left for them to eat.
And oh, how it spreads! Once a plant reaches seed bearing age, it produces over 500 seeds per stem. Seeds that can be carried on the wind for miles – rooting equally well in good soil and bad, in light and shade, in forest, in open plain and on river banks.
After we read the sign explaining that the government of Scotland had undertaken a multimillion dollar project to try to clear the Rhododendrons out of the Torridon forest areas we began to notice signs of the work in progress plus a few more of the inky, black plumes of smoke we’d seen before.
Eager to witness the battle first hand, we finally bumped into the work crew of young men who were chainsawing down huge rhododendrons and burning the stumps and green parts. Apparently, any green stem left will quickly root… like the plant version of the many headed hydra, if you just chop it down and leave it, the rhododendron will regrow from every green bit left making things worse not better – to get rid of it, you have to burn every last bit of it and then, when it starts to regrow from the roots (which it will) you have to apply chemical to the regrowth repeatedly to finally defeat it.
Walking past the crew to the area they hadn’t yet tackled we were astonished by the size of the rhododendrons. They were thick, tall and everywhere, giving the forest a claustrophobic feel that was made worse by the thick smoke hanging in the air.
This particular crew had been working in the area for nearly three years and as far as we could see had barely managed to make a dent.
I’m not sure there is a moral to this story, exactly. As an avid gardener and horticultural society member living in ‘farm country’ I’ve always been cautious to avoid plants that are on the invasive species list published for our area – but never before have I seen first hand just how terrible, damaging and difficult to eradicate an invasive plant can be.
We returned to the inn we were staying at, happy to have solved our Scottish mystery but, at the same time, subdued and awestruck by the magnitude of the task hiding there in the forest.
At the prettily planted entryway to the inn we both halted… shocked, and yet at the same time somehow not surprised, to see a staff person carefully tending a Rhododendron ponticum.