One of the most distinctive pines in the Dulwich area is the Bhutan Pine, Pinus wallichiana, which once stood in the front garden of the former doctors’ surgery in Half Moon Lane and now stands by the entrance to Dulwich Mead. Sadly, one of the other denizens of the old front garden, a large horse chestnut, did not survive the change of use, although other horse chestnuts from the gardens of what were two large houses did.
The scientific and common names both point in different ways to the tree’s Indian origins. The tree was first brought to the attention of the European scientific community by Nathan Wolff Wallich, a Danish botanist, while he was curator of the Botanic Garden in Calcutta - hence wallichiana. Bhutan is the mountain kingdom where he found the tree although, as it occurs across the whole vast mountain tract from eastern Afghanistan to Yunnan in southwest China, it is best described as being of Sino-Himalayan distribution. In its native habitat it will grow right up to the glacier forelands at a height of over 4,000 metres.
The Bhutan Pine, now sometimes referred to as the Blue pine, is not a rare London tree as it tolerates air pollution effectively and is quite frequently planted, but it is always a joy to see a good specimen such as that in Half Moon Lane. When you look up at it, you can see that everything about the tree is on a large scale, although our tree is still not fully grown. The cones are very large, clustered, pendulous, often leathery and spotted with dry resin. The needles which are also much longer than is usual with pines, hang in lax bunches of five and are bluish in colour, hence the tree’s alternative common name. The tree has quite a graceful and open look and indeed pines generally allow much more light to shine through them than many other conifers - for example, the serried ranks of Sitka spruce planted on our own hills, to say nothing of the dread Leyland cypress, still an all-too frequent bane of town gardens.
Living as we do in a crowded corner of a small island, however, perhaps the most refreshing thing about this tree is its inspiration to us to think about the wildness and colossal scale of the mountain country where it grows - where “one by one, row after row/ up and up the pine-trees grow/ ... To another greater, wilder country” (Robert Browning, in The Flight of The Duchess).