Flora & Fauna - Spanish Firs

© Michelle Chaplow The extremely rare Pinsapo is found in Andalucia
The extremely rare Pinsapo is found in Andalucia

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Spanish Fir - Pinsapo - Abies Pinsapo

In 1837, during one of his exploratory visits to the south of the Iberian Peninsula, the Swiss Botanist Edmond Boisser discovered a new species of tree: Abies Pinsapo, popularly known as the pinsapo pine or Spanish fir.

The tree can grow up to 30m tall and live as long as 200 years. It has tiny needle-like leaves, which are extremely sharp and cylindrical in shape, and although this foliage appears lightweight, it throws out a very dense shade on the ground.

Found only in the southern mountains of Andalucia particularly Sierra Bermeja and Sierra de las Nieves and in the north of Morocco, botanists discovered that the pinsapo had been around since the Tertiary geological time period - before the Ice Age! How could it have survived?

What probably happened is that the climatic changes occurring during the Pleistocene period were not as intense in Andalucia as might be assumed. In that case, the glaciers of the Ice Age that reached down from the North may have stopped short of these mountains, thus saving the species from extinction.

What the elements couldn't destroy man almost did. At the beginning of the last century, due to extensive cultivation, pinsapo numbers were dwindling. In 1964 there were just 700 hectares of pinsapo forests remaining. Now, thanks to careful forestry management, there are 5000 hectares.

However, just as this distinctive tree looked set to last until the next Ice Age, a new threat has appeared - the fungus 'heterobasidium annosum'. Invisible but deadly, the fungus attacks the roots, moves up the trunk and finally brings the tree down. Experts consider that changes in the climate (local effects of global warming) have weakened the species' resistance to this fungus, which in normal circumstances would not pose a threat.

So far, the response of the regional government has been to burn infected specimens to prevent the spread of the disease. Ecologists are calling for a seed bank to ensure the survival of the species. In the future pinsapos could then be planted in areas where the effects of global warming have been less noticeable, such as Sierra Nevada and Cazorla.

Pierre Edmond Boissier

Pierre Edmond Boissier (1810 - 1885)

Pierre Edmond Boissier was a Swiss botanist, explorer and mathematician. Boissier collected specimens extensively in Europe, North Africa and western Asia. On the 15th May 1837 Boissier visited Estepona where a local guide took him up the Sierra Bermeja. In his book “Voyage Botanique dans le Midi de l’Espagne pendant l’annéee 1837.” He describes the find “The guide showed us the first pinsapo from afar; with shouts of joy we ran towards it but sadly anough the tree did not bear any fruit, a second and a third specimen were also fruitless but finally I saw a tree where the higher branches where laden with cones. We climbed the tree in order to pick some cones and there was no doubt that this singular tree was an abies, closely related to our common fir.” The book is also an noteworthy travel guide with sections on Malaga, Estepona, Marbella, Cadiz, Mulhacen and is available as a free eBook download from Google.

On the 160th anniversary of his visit, Estepona town council named a forest walk 'Paseo de los Pinsapos'.