Sometimes specific trees take on particular significance. The black pine tree in Oxford Botanic Garden was such a tree. The inspirational and aesthetic value of the black pine for thousands of visitors, artists and writers was inestimable. Famously, the tree was a favourite of JRR Tolkien, and made a fleeting appearance in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. On 26th July 2014, two of the tree's lower limbs split from the main trunk, meaning the tree had to be felled.
Pinus nigra is a widespread, variable European and western Asian conifer, with five subspecies. Subspecies nigra has the widest natural distribution, extending through the Balkans and mainland Greece as far north as Austria and northern Italy. Another subspecies, Corsican pine, is an important forestry tree.
Tradition has it that the Oxford black pine was planted in 1800, from seed collected in 1790 by the Sherardian Professor of Botany, Professor John Sibthorp. Sibthorp travelled through the pine's native range in 1784-85 and 1794-95 but there is no mention of black pine in his field notes or undergraduate lecture notes. In 1838, John Loudon published his catalogue of the trees of Britain without mentioning Oxford's black pine. Furthermore, mid-nineteenth-century Garden commentators make no mention of the black pine. In the absence of detailed records, the circumstantial evidence casts doubt upon the accepted story, especially when recent tree-ring dating shows the pine was planted in the mid-1830s.
The 1830s was a period of great transformation as Charles Daubeny, recently appointed Sherardian Professor, took over running the Garden and rapidly changed its fabric and approach to science and botanical education. Amongst Daubeny's many interests was the promotion of gymnosperm cultivation for economic and aesthetic reasons. The Garden could not compete with the great gymnosperm collections emerging in early nineteenth-century Britain; it did not have the space, soil or money. Instead, 'as the plot of ground will not accommodate more than thirty species, it had been the design to select at once the hardiest and the most ornamental'. The black pine appears to have been one of Daubeny's horticultural experiments.
The source of the seeds is a matter of conjecture. By the late-1830s, Scottish businessman Charles Lawson had established his seed and nursery company, together with the finest collection of gymnosperms in Britain. Except for seed that might have been introduced by private collectors, the only source of black pine seedlings was Lawson's Edinburgh nursery.
Allen L and Walker T 1995. The University of Oxford Botanic Garden. The University of Oxford Botanic Garden.
Günther RT 1912. Oxford Gardens based upon Daubeny's popular guide of the Physick Garden of Oxford: with notes on the gardens of the colleges and on the University Park. Parker & Son.
Price T 2014. The iconic black pine. Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum News 88: 8-9.