Everybody’s Garden Could Become an Ark

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.

Monkey puzzle at Kew

You would think this Monkey Puzzle at Kew safe but, with funding cuts recently announced, is it really?

Wild Monkey Puzzles

Wild Monkey Puzzles

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.

Aloe polyphylla

Aloe polyphylla an endangered species that hasn’t been assessed but is now ‘safe’ in cultivation.

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.

Aristolochia curcurbitifolia

Aristolochia cucurbitifolia, vulnerable in the wild and now safe in a garden ark..

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.

In search of a Ghost orchid, a letter from a botanist.

Recently I was absolutely astounded to see a picture on twitter of a plant that has evaded me for all of my 37 years of plant twitching. Whats more the fellow botanist and ecologist that had posted it was kind enough to tag me in the tweet that accompanied the picture.

The picture was of a Ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) a plant that gains all of its nutrients by parasitising a fungus, a myco-heterotroph. I have been intrigued by these botanical anomalies (as have many others) all my life and the following account sent to me not long after the ‘tweet’ re-kindled my interest.
So I have posted the email sent to me by @daveyecology so you can read his amazing adventure in search of a GHOST.
(I have changed some bits to protect identities etc)

Hello again Robbie

It is pleasing that you have enjoyed the photographs of plants, and especially the Irises that I have been putting up on Twitter recently. I have practically run out of the Iris photographs I have now, but will carry on putting up nice things that I have found and photographed over the years. I thought you might be amused by the story of my seeing Epipogium aphyllum back in 1971; it was quite an experience. I have just checked my records and it was actually 1971 I saw the ghost orchid and not 1972, and it was on 22nd of August.

I had been told where it was by a botanist friend who lived quite close to the site. Another friend had already tried for it no less than twenty times when I decided to go and have a go one weekend. He said I was bound to find it, as he couldn’t go with me. I arrived at the site, and walked through the beech woodland, and received a hefty adrenal punch when there, on the ground amongst the beech leaves was a tiny Ghost Orchid. It was perhaps an inch high, and had just one flower. I marked the spot by arranging a triangle of branches leaning against trees around the site, and went off to telephone the chap who couldn’t go with me. On the way to the phone box, I found a second plant in a ditch by the road that descends through the wood. It was another about an inch tall with  single flower. Having made the phone call, I went back to the site, and was walking through the wood when I noticed another guy, festooned with cameras walking parallel to me. After a while he bucked up courage and walked across to me.

“Are you looking for what I think you are looking for?” He asked enigmatically.

“Maybe,” I replied evasively.

“Have you found it?” He asked. Because of the nature of the conversation so far I answered him,

“That depends who you know.” He gave me the name of the woman who had told me, so I decided to show him the one furthest from the road.

“Gosh, I see what you mean,” He spluttered when we had only gone a few yards. There in a leaf filled hollow were two magnificent plants. One was the one I put up yesterday on twitter, and the other was an equally fine two flowered plant. These were certainly not very near the little fellow I had found earlier. We sat down and took a series of photos. I had a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex as well as a Pentax Spotmatic recently acquired by the museum service I worked for. The photo I showed on Twitter was one I took using flash and a bit over exposed. The light levels were very low. Very carefully after we had finished taking the photos, we used a matchstick to cross pollinate the three flowered plant from the two flowered one. After applying considerable pressure, the pollinia sprang out from the floral column, and we achieved pollination. I would think an insect at least as heavy as a bumble-bee would be needed to achieve pollination. Perhaps that is why it is so rare.

A week later I returned to the site, and the three flowered plant was a dried husk having set and released its seed. Amazingly quick. Altogether five plants were found in that hollow during that week. I cannot remember how many plants were found altogether, but I found one at least half a mile away in a section of wood on the other side of the road. The friend who had failed twenty times duly visited the site and got his photographs. He actually found a twin flowered plant still beneath the leaves. The top flower was a bud, but the lower one had opened before it had emerged from the leaves.

In 1978, a botanical friend from Norfolk came to stay, and we were wondering what to do after we had spent the first day in the New Forest. I said it would be a long shot, but we might try for the ghost orchid. We found a single plant with one flower a few yards from the site of the one I had found in 1971 in the roadside ditch. That must have been about the last time it was seen, this time on August 14th.

I think it grows like a fungus, and there is probably much more plant under the leaves than ever appears above ground. Rumours of it turning up a year or two ago in a national nature reserve either in Shropshire or Herefordshire close to the Welsh border are evidently correct. I believe this is a site where it was also found many,  many years ago.

A plant I have seen that might interest you was seen from a cruise ship when my wife and I were involved in lecturing between the Caribbean and the Pacific while going through the Panama Canal. This is Equisetum myriochaetum which I believe is the biggest horsetail around these days. My photos aren’t too good as we didn’t get too close, but you are welcome to see them if you would like to.

It was in 2011 that my wife and I went to Israel, but it was in May so we didn’t see very many plants. One nice thing was a poppy, Papaver carmeli with dark centres in the Golan Heights which we saw as we looked across the border at Syria. Are you going to write a blog about your Israeli adventures with the Oncos? I look forward very much indeed to seeing it.

All the best