A project aims to promote and protect the monumental trees of Portugal
José Pichel Andrés/DICYT Monumental trees differ from others of their species owing to their unusual size, their age, or their unusual shape, which means that they are of special natural, historical, cultural, or landscape interest. Characteristics such as their height, trunk diameter, crown shape, or their having witnessed historical events or appearing in myths and legends make these trees of public interest and therefore protected by law.
Portugal is particularly rich in monumental trees and has the oldest legislation in Europe on this subject. Its territory is open to the Atlantic but at the same time influenced by the Mediterranean climate, its geology and its landscapes are very varied, and moreover its history has encouraged the introduction of exotic species from other continents.
Despite all these favourable conditions, “there is still much to be done regarding the identification, promotion, and protection of this great natural heritage”, declares to DiCYT Raquel Fernandes Pires Lopes, a PhD student at the Biology Department of the University of Aveiro who is initiating a project entitled "Trees of public interest in continental Portugal".
The Institution for Nature and Forest Conservation (Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas, ICNF) currently recognises 470 isolated specimens and 82 stands of trees of this type in continental Portugal on a register that is available to the public (http://www.icnf.pt/portal/florestas/ArvoresPesquisa). However, “unfortunately protection is no guarantee of conservation, as these trees are sometimes neglected by their owners or vandalised owing to a lack of knowledge, as we are finding on social networks or on the spot”, the expert points out.
“Portuguese monumental trees are insufficiently known”, she affirms, and “the lack of knowledge limits their protection”. This means that “we need to invest in promoting them and in drawing up new classification proposal for the trees and stands of trees”, for which civil society must play an active role.
For this reason the research project aims to study the existing information and to promote monumental trees by means of initiatives such as botanical routes. It is a pioneering national study and will begin by sending questionnaires to the towns of central Portugal to find out the degree of awareness of civil servants and the general public and try to improve it. “Only well informed citizens can safeguard this heritage”, she maintains.
Although the project is in its infancy it has already seen results, for instance in the study of Portuguese and European legislation. Portuguese laws on the protection of monumental trees are not only pioneering in Europe but are also more complete than those of other European countries. “Portugal defines classification criteria, specifies the need for indicating protected specimens, and determines infringements that may be committed against this heritage”, she points out. On the other hand, in other countries specific laws hardly exist, although in general southern European countries are better developed in this respect.
As a personal initiative Raquel Fernandes Pires Lopes established in 2014 the #followmytree tag on the Instagram social network, which has allowed the compiling of images of over 400 different trees (https://instagram.com/followmytree/). Since then she has been greeted every day by new surprises from both an aesthetic and scientific viewpoint in this citizen science project that continues to grow and is so useful for promoting and protecting the trees.
Portugal has the tallest tree in Europe, a eucalyptus (Eucalyptus diversicolor Muller) 72 metres in height located in the National Forest of Vale de Canas near Coimbra. The ‘Pinheiro de Tibães’ of Braga also stands out; with its 47 metres in height and 4.11 metres in diameter it is the largest maritime pine (Pinus pinaster Aiton) in Portugal and probably the world.
Owing to the diameter of its trunk (14.50 m) the chestnut tree of Tresminas (Castanea sativa Miller) in Vila Pouca de Aguiar is particularly striking; it is 500 years of age. Another eucalyptus tree located in Contige in Satão (Eucaliptus globus Labill) is also impressive due to its width of 11 metres.
The oldest European oak (Quercus robur L.) in the Iberian Peninsula stands in Póvoa do Lanhoso, but its 700 years of age are overshadowed by several olive trees (Olea europaea L. var. europaea) scattered over Portugal of between 1,000 and 2,000 years of age. The oldest of all can be found at Santa Iria da Azóia and is 2,850 years old.