As a child my idol was the late Gerald Durrell OBE, a man with a mission to save species from extinction through captive breeding. I wanted, and still (if I am honest) want, so desperately to follow in his footsteps. Yet, after a short period of time working in the zoo world, I realised that being a zoo keeper was both very hard work and, being before the time of the minimum wage, very poorly paid. My life moved on and via various twists and turns, I now find myself working as a plant propagator for one of Britain’s modern day plant hunters .
Recently I have found myself thinking about Gerald Durrell again. This time it’s not because of animals but because of plants. In a recent conversation I had on Twitter it dawned on me the number of species I have in my garden with unknown conservation status. The majority of them are categorised as ‘data deficient’ or simply haven’t been assessed by the IUCN at all. I have a few plants in the garden listed as Vulnerable or even Critically Endangered but it’s the ones that no one knows about that concern me most.
A small part of me hopes that this is because there are so many of them in the wild that they couldn’t possibly be in danger of extinction. Unfortunately, having seen my boss’s pictures of forest destruction in places, such as Vietnam, I am sure this isn’t the case.
This got me thinking.
The red data list is pretty complete for most vertebrates and even for invertebrates it is streets ahead. Yet plants take a back seat to the animals that people find cute, dangerous, awe inspiring or beautiful. Conservation of these animals through captive breeding has also, with a little help from Mr Durrell, advanced to the point of being able to reintroduce the animals bred in zoos to the wild. Botanic gardens are playing a big part in plant conservation but with funds running dry and gardens closing down the number of species they are able to work with is minute. They are only in a position to protect a very small proportion of the world’s endangered plant species and are little equipped financially to be sending scientists all over the world to assess the conservation status of the plants I am talking about. Last year saw the last ever degree in Botany in the UK come to an end, so the number of plant scientists and taxonomists is dropping. The national curriculum stops teaching any form of horticulture to children at age 7 so fewer and fewer children are becoming interested in plants. What hope do these plants really have? Well they do have a small chance….
In Britain we have a botanical heritage that is second to none. The number of species of plants we grow is massive and the knowledge held in the people that grow them immeasurable. The genetic resource we hold is so important yet its importance only counts if the people working at the conservation front line know it’s there.
One example is the monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana. It is listed as Endangered by the IUCN and its wild population is estimated to cover an area only a quater of the size of London. The monkey puzzle forests of Chile and Argentina are decreasing due to logging, more regular fires and over grazing. What’s more, the populations in the wild are fragmented and becoming increasingly isolated. However, here in the UK, we know the monkey puzzle as a comparatively common garden and parkland tree. They are often treated as landmarks and protected by tree preservation orders. There are at least 1000 monkey puzzles that I know of in the UK’s great gardens and parks. Who knows how many others there are in private gardens across the country? Each one is genetically different and many older plants were collected from the wild. Our British monkey puzzles must hold some importance for the future of the ones in the wild. The plants of known wild provenance could bare seed suitable to reintroduce and the others become a resource for scientists to better understand the species.
I also think of Gingko biloba, a tree with relatives that grew on this earth 260 million years ago. Once widespread across the northern hemisphere, its population diminished almost to the point of extinction. That was until about 1000 years ago, when a group of monks started cultivating this sacred tree and thus have protected it from fate. The Gingko has now become one of the most widely planted street trees in the world and its fortunes have changed due to those horticultural minded monks.
Who knows when the genetic diversity we have in British gardens may be called upon? With so little knowledge of how the world’s plants are faring in the wild, who knows when one day that plant everybody thought must be really common, could become critically endangered in its native habitat?
Unfortunately, as I said, it is useless if no one knows the plants are there.
Luckily there is an organisation that is trying its best to help. Through its national collections and national collection holders, Plant Heritage knows where a small proportion of that valuable genetic information is. Many of the collection holders work closely with taxonomists, botanical institutions and scientists. This is to help understand some of the species in their care and to make plants available for conservation projects. What is more, Plant Heritage has recently launched the new ‘Plant Guardian’ scheme, where you don’t have to have a whole collection of plants to be able to help. You might only have one species, but by becoming a Plant Guardian you are letting people know where that valuable plant resource is, and that it is in safe hands. I recently applied to become a ‘Plant guardian’ for a species which I grow. Aristolochia cucurbitifolia is classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN and from what I understand very little is known about its wild population. I hope that one day plants that I have grown may be able to help restore its security as a wild species.
Unfortunately, Plant Heritage’s remit is to help preserve the plants already in cultivation which I am pleased to say it does well. However what of those not yet here or those that no one knows about yet?
The fate of these plants is in the hands of the horticulturists, botanists and taxonomists of the future. The people, now just children, that, I am sorry to say, don’t have those botany degrees or horticultural apprenticeships to look to for guidance.
The world’s increasingly threatened wildlife needs a safe haven. Gerald Durrell once called the zoo he set up on Jersey his ‘stationary ark’ and it has become just that, with an onsite university and education programs all over the world it is also helping to educate the conservationists of the future. . It has led the way to most of the world’s zoos becoming safe havens for threatened animals. We can do such a thing for plants too. By growing plants with known wild origin, in their natural form and letting the right people know they are there, by supporting our great Botanical gardens and the horticultural heritage we have in the UK and by promoting horticulture and plant science as a career rather than ‘just a job’ we can make a real difference. Only that way will every garden become an Ark.