Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 8

It’s international biodiversity day today and whenever I visit this little country I cannot get over its amazing (and threatened) number of different plant species. 2800 in a country the same size as Wales, which has just under 500. Yesterday we met Israels 4 native oak species.

Quercus ithaburensis

Quercus ithaburensis

Quercus boissieri

Quercus boissieri

Quercus cerris

Quercus cerris

Quercus calliprinos

Quercus calliprinos

 

 

 

 

 

Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 7

I am in Tel Aviv and it’s now over a year since my last Israel post. A family wedding has brought me here at a different time of year.

Most of the wildflowers here are over for the year and only their dry golden brown seedheads remain. So in order to find some green we headed to Tel Aviv’s rock garden in Yarkon Park, a real tribute to the world’s succulent plants, and we found lots of flowers.

Calotropis procera

Calotropis procera

 

Calotropis procera

Calotropis procera

 

Mother in laws cushion cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Mother in laws cushion cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Echinocactus grusonii flower

Echinocactus grusonii flower

Aloe
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DSC_6473

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Saurauia – a kiwi from the Cretaceous

Its not often we find a really great new plant, with potential to be hardy, that fits right into our ‘Fossil Plant’ remit. Lets face it there aren’t that many extant genera of plants out there that are so close to their fossil relative that they are pretty much indistinguishable. When, through tireless research, we do come across something that fits the bill it is often the case that we exclaim ‘Where on earth would we get one of those from?’ and the genera or particular species gets added to the list of ‘one-day we will grow one of them’ plants.

Just such a case is that of the genus Saurauia.

A member of the Actinidiaceae (related to Kiwi fruit) in the Ericales (the order that includes Heathers, the American pitcher plants, Primulas and Tea) the genus Saurauia can be found in Asia and, interestingly for its family, also in Central and South America. With around 250 species the genus is distinguishable by having only 3 to 5 carpels and being either monoecious or dioecious unlike the rest of the family.

What is more interesting for us though is that it is quite clearly represented in the fossil record of the late Cretaceous. Small well preserved flowers of Parasaurauia allonensis and two species of Saurauia (in the form of fossilised seed) are found in North America and Europe respectively. The only major difference between the Parasaurauia of then and the Saurauia of now being the presence of ten stamens arranged in two whorls in the androecium (the male reproductive section of a flower) instead of the fifteen to numerous number of stamens of modern Saurauia - Phylogenetic studies have subsequently placed Parasaurauia as sister to the rest of the Actinidiaceae.

Recently we were lucky enough to be able to strike Saurauia off that ’one-day we will grow one of them’ list. So without further ado I would like to introduce you to Saurauia napaulensis. A Kiwi fruit from the late Cretaceous.

Saurauia napaulensis from Wallich's 'Plantae Asiaticae Rariores' of 1831

Saurauia napaulensis from Wallich’s ‘Plantae Asiaticae Rariores’ of 1831

 

Our very own plant of Saurauia napaulensis

Our very own plant of Saurauia napaulensis

Plant studbooks; the connected aproach to ex-situ plant conservation.

Many years ago, as a teenager, I took a job working in my local zoo. Voluntarily at first and then as a member of staff; I was a zoo keeper. It was the job I had dreamed of doing since I had read the books of my all time conservation hero; Gerald Durrell.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that some of the animals at the zoo were there for the purpose of ex-situ (away from their natural habitat) conservation and that the goal for their being in captivity was to eventually build up enough animals to release back into their natural environment. All this was, and still is, managed through a studbooking system which was overseen by an organisation called the World association of zoos and aquariums (WAZA).

It seemed so practical to me that such schemes existed and I got actively involved in the studbook for the Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). I had, admittedly, been indoctrinated by the master of zoo animal conservation; Mr Durrell.

Squirrel_posingDecades later and I no longer work with animals but my passion for nature has not waned. Now my focus is plants and I am lucky to work with many endangered species. One thing, however, that has struck me is that there doesn’t seem to be that same ‘joined up’ approach to ex-situ conservation in the botanic garden and horticultural world.

Certainly plenty are doing amazing things to conserve the most threatened species of plants. Yet that community that works toward a shared goal for individual species is missing or at best ad-hock. When you speak with the horticulturists growing these threatened plant species they tell you that they know they need to be propagating more of the plants in question and that the garden they work for has brought the plants into cultivation for the purpose of protecting them. They also say that they haven’t got a pollination schedule or that all the plants that have been produced are clones of the parent plant. Few of the species grown have a known number of genetically distinct individuals in cultivation and often the provenance (the specific location a plant came from) isn’t known either.

I am certainly not saying that ex-situ plant conservation is still in the dark ages and with recent work done on species like the Sink Hole Cycad (Zamia decumbens) conservationists are starting to gain a much stronger insight into cultivated plant conservation genetics. I am saying that we need to take a leaf out of the WAZA book by starting to apply a worldwide, linked up approach to the matter in hand. The first studbook for an animal in captivity for conservation was set up in 1932 for the European Bison which puts our endangered flora over 80 years behind the world’s fauna.

The first steps are already being taken BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) already hold a database of the plants grown in botanic gardens wordwide, Montgomery botanical centre’s guidance on ‘Building living plant collections to support conservation‘ and schemes like the Plant Heritage‘s National Collections being taken on by international botanic garden organisations we are well on the way to a more collaborative method of international ex-situ plant conservation.

Piperales

I feel it’s time we took the next step!

We need a method of deciding what the priorities are for species that are part of ex-situ projects; a way of knowing where each individual is and a way of ensuring maximum genetic diversity within the worldwide ex-situ populations of a species. In short we need to be learning from the zoo world’s book and ‘studbooking’ plants.

I have my own ideas about how Plant studbooking could work but I am sure that solving this problem does not have a simple solution. I am also sure that a solution needs to be found as soon as possible if some of our most endangered species are to have a future.

 

Proud to hold a national collection

letterhead picOn 3rd September 2015 we were awarded National Plant Collection status for our collection of South East Australian Banksia species.

Banksia ericifolia

Banksia ericifolia ssp. ericifolia

The genus Banksia was first discovered in Botany bay, Australia, by Sir Joseph Banks, on Captain Cooks first voyage of discovery and introduced to British cultivation by him. These trees and shrubs are considered by many to be tender but this is often due to their intolerance of the phosphates that are found in modern fertiliser.
We first became interested in them whilst studying the fossil history of the family, proteaceae, to which they belong. We soon found out that the many of the Banksia species that come from the South East of Australia are very tolerant of the British climate when given the right soil conditions.
The collection currently holds plants of Banksia aemula, canei, collina, ericifolia ssp. ericifolia, integrifolia ssp. integrifolia, marginata, oblongifolia, paludosa ssp. paludosa, robur, serrata and spinulosa var. prostrata ‘Birthday candles’.

 

In search of Proteas; an easy start to our South African adventure.

After 14 hours, 3 excellent movies (thank-you Dame Helen Mirren) and absolutely no sleep we stepped off the plane into a country neither Ben nor I knew. We had in our minds what we expected and what we hoped for but after a life time of negative news reports we couldn’t help but feel a little concerned about what we may be letting ourselves in for. The concerns however were quickly put to one side when we were greeted by the most helpful taxi driver either of us had ever met. We were whisked off to our hotel – seeing little of the city in which we had landed.

waiting to board

Waiting to board

For practicality we had booked to stay at the Kirstenbosch Manor Guest House.  Owned and run by SANBI (South Africa National Biodiversity Institute) the guest house was built in 1914 and is surrounded by SANBI’s flagship gardens; Kirstenbosch.

Kirstenbosch Manor Guest House nestled into the top of the garden with Table Mountain in the background

Kirstenbosch Manor Guest House nestled into the top of the garden with Table Mountain in the background.

We arrived quite late and tired so didn’t really appreciate the beauty of the surroundings at the time but we woke in the morning to the sound of cicadas and an increadible view over the gardens and down to Cape Town and the sea beyond. We would need to make the most of the two more nights we had as guests of Kirstenbosch as this was going to be as luxurious as our trip would get.

the view from the guesthouse although the mist obscured Cape Town and the sea beyond

The view from the guesthouse; the mist obscuring Cape Town and the sea beyond.

Growing only native species (and a few historic non-native trees such as Oaks) Kirstenbosch is considered South Africa’s most beautiful garden. Nestled into the Table mountain hillside its slope creates the ideal environment to grow a huge range of South Africa’s native flora. We had hoped to wander around this garden in beautiful South African spring sunshine but the rain gods had other ideas and what we got was a very rare Cape Town thunderstorm.

An increadible stand of Cussonia paniculata (Araliaceae) not far from our room.

An increadible stand of Cussonia paniculata (Araliaceae) not far from our room.

That same morning we had arranged to meet up with our friend and Kirstenbosch’s wholesale nursery manager Cherise Viljoen for a tour of the garden and a look around the production nursery and Proteaceae propagation centre.  So, waterproofs on, we walked down through the gardens, trying not to get distracted on the way, to meet her.

Ben and Cherise on the Boomslang

Ben and Cherise on ‘the Boomslang’ as the thunderstorm passed by.

Laportia grossa a native stinging nettle that i took quite a shine too. It is quite a bit more stingy than our native nettle and certainly brought a tear to my eye!

Laportia grossa a native stinging nettle that I took quite a shine too. It is quite a bit more stingy than our native nettle and would really bring a tear to the eye!

An exhibition of full sized metal dinosaurs amongst the cycad grove. Some of these plants were centuaries old and are some of the most endangered living things on earth.

An exhibition of full sized metal dinosaurs amongst the cycad grove. Some of these plants were centuaries old and are some of the most endangered living things on earth.

I was really pleased to see the Welwitschia on show in the Botanical Society Conservatory

I was really pleased to see the Welwitschia on show in the Botanical Society Conservatory

But the ones behind the scenes were way more impressive!

But the ones behind the scenes were way more impressive! (Ben and Cherise are pretty impressive too!)

Behind the scenes in the Protea propagation centre

Behind the scenes in the Protea propagation centre

I really was not prepared for all that we saw. Normally able to at least identify the genus of the plant I am looking at; the flora left me totally stumped. We decided to call anything we didn’t know either ‘probably Asteraceae’ or ‘probably a pea’ as this is what things seemed to turn out to be when we further investigated them.

Knowltonia vesicatoria, I believe this species has now been sunk into the genus Anemone!

Knowltonia vesicatoria, I believe this has now been sunk into the genus Anemone!

 

Moraea sp (out of my depth here)

Moraea sp (out of my depth here)

Another Moraea sp. (again I just didnt know the species)

Another Moraea sp. (again I just didnt know the species)

 

Pelargonium sp ????????

Pelargonium sp ????????

Cheilanthes sp. we forgot to bring our guide to South African fern id!

Pellaea sp. we forgot to bring our guide to South African fern id!

There were however lots of Proteaceae to see and we spent some time honing our id skills in preparation for the field.

Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum with the cliffs of Table Mountain.

Leucospermum reflexum var. luteum with the cliffs of Table Mountain.

Protea rubropilosa

Protea rubropilosa

Leucospermum formosum

Leucospermum formosum

Leucospermum mundii

Leucospermum mundii

Leucadendron argenteum endemic to the slopes of Table Mountain

Leucadendron argenteum endemic to the slopes of Table Mountain

Our first day ended in dinner with, the man that pushed so hard to make this all possible for us, Rupert Koopman and his lovely, and at the time heavily pregnant, wife Flo;  an evening of amazing Italian food, the best of company and lots of talk of how horticulture can help plant conservation. A very perfect ease into our adventure.

NB: A huge congratulations to Flo and Rupert on the birth (since our return home) of Amelia #Fynbosbaby!

 

 

 

In search of Proteas.

The Proteaceae evolved over 100 million years ago on the supercontinent Gondwana, the subsequent breakup of which led to the family being distributed across the Southern Hemisphere and resulted in their high levels of speciation. As a perfect example of the Antarctic flora of Gondwana their story is of major importance to paleo-botanists, geologists, botanists and taxonomists alike.

Burnt Protea

Burnt Protea by Barbara Munro

Such a level of speciation has come at a high price for many members of the family. They have evolved to exist in very specific ecological niches. This has led to many members of the family becoming threatened with extinction, especially in a world changing so fast that they are unable to keep up.

South Africa’s Proteaceae are particularly at risk, their lives linked inextricably to highly specific environmental factors. Many of the high altitude species, adapted to cooler growing conditions, less frequent fires and unable to cope with the influx of non-native invasive plants and pests, are at the mercy of the biggest threat to biodiversity, Climate Change. They are being pushed higher and higher up their mountain homes leaving them isolated, eventually with nowhere left to go.

Growing so many species of Proteaceae already, we believe that many species will grow successfully in the UK climate yet many of the higher altitude species have never been tried here. This is largely due to the lack of availability of seed or plants as well as a lack of horticultural knowledge and endeavour.

King proteas will grow outside in a sunny sheltered spot here in the UK

King proteas will grow outside in a sunny sheltered spot here in the UK

 

The largest collection of Proteaceae ever in the UK was that of George Hibbert in his garden, considered at the time finer than Kew, in Clapham, London. Most of the, over 200, species of Proteaceae in this collection were grown in pots in his extensive conservatory; taken outside during the summer months and brought in again for the winter. Collected by James Nevin, as seed from the wild, Hibbert’s plants were exchanged only with George III and Empress Josephine of France and in edition 592 of Curtis’s Botanical magazine published in 1802 it reads “Introduced by Mr Nevin into the garden of Mr Alderman Hibbert, a gentleman whose munificence and urbanity leave to no lover of science a regret that so extensive and invaluable a collection should be the property of a private individual”. Hibbert’s plants were regularly illustrated, often by James Andrews, and furnished the pages of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. He has the honour of having many species named for him and the Genus Hibbertia, in the Dilleniaceae, is named for him also.

Hibbert’s gardener wrote about the Proteaceae in his book published in 1807. This was the last book to be published exclusively and in any detail about the cultivation of Protea in the UK.

September this year will see Ben and I heading off on quite a big adventure. We will realise a dream, long held, to visit the Western Cape of South Africa and see Proteas in the wild. We will follow in the footsteps of Nevin and collect seed of the Proteaceae species we find there.

Cone bush (Leucadendron) seed head by Barbara Munro

Cone bush (Leucadendron) seed head by Barbara Munro

The aim of this trip is to study the habitat and growing conditions of high altitude Proteaceae in the Western Cape of South Africa; to gain information on their horticultural needs and hence facilitate their ex situ conservation in the UK.

We will

  • Explore the cold, high rainfall mountain areas of the Western Cape of South Africa.
  • Analyse growing conditions. Including climate, soil structure and composition.
  • Collect seed of species from these areas.
  • Record location, environment and altitude as well as what other species are growing nearby
  • Upload this data to iSpot so that others can share in our findings easily
  • Cultivate plants arising from seed collected
  • Keep notes on the process and horticulture of resulting plants
  • Analyse the ability to grow these plants in the British climate under varying conditions.
  • Publicise the project and its findings both nationally and internationally, write articles  and blogs about it and the process of growing the plants.
  • Write reports to be made available to interested parties, including the Royal Horticultural Society, The Scottish Rock Garden Club, the Botanical Society of South Africa, BGCI, Cape Nature and SANBI.
  • Raise awareness of the difficulties faced by South Africa’s native flora as well as providing suggestions on which species are more suitable for UK horticulture.

Of course we will be tweeting from the expedition using the @fossilplants twitter account.

I hope the information we gain will act as a valuable update to the work of Hibbert over 100 years ago and I really hope it benefits the plants which Ben and I adore so much.

Another Fynbos plant that we look forward to seeing. Mountain Dahlia (Liparia splendens) by Barbara Munro

Another Fynbos plant that we look forward to seeing. Mountain Dahlia (Liparia splendens) by Barbara Munro

 

Our expedition would not be possible if it wasn’t for the team at Cape Nature: who have helped us so much with getting all the relevant permits and permissions, Rupert Koopman: who has advised and helped us all along the process, The Royal Horticultural Society and The Scottish Rock Garden Club: for their generous financial help and Martin Smit, of Stellenbosch University Botanic Gardens, for his support and encouragement.

Thank-you, also, to Barbara Munro for the stunning pictures that illustrate this blog. Barbara’s work can be found at www.botanicalart-barbaramunro.co.uk and will be on show at Annual Open Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists. It is held in Westminster Central Hall 15th to 24th April 2016 http://www.soc-botanical-artists.org/exhibitions.php

Cycads – The Most Endangered Living Things on Earth

There is a group of plants that have been growing on our planet for over 250 million years. They look a bit like a cross between a palm tree and a fern, although they aren’t related to either. They have managed to survive 3 mass extinction events, including the one that killed off the Dinosaurs. In fact they are often found in fossilised dinosaur poo! These plants are called Cycads.

Cycadophyta

Having managed to survive asteroids, ice ages and being munched on by Dino’s, they are now facing a mass extinction event of their very own, due to poaching. Just like the White Rhino is poached for its horn, Cycads are illegally uprooted from the wild to be sold to people for their gardens. The most sought after Cycads are hundreds of years old when they are hacked out of the ground to be sold for thousands of pounds. Often the process of moving them kills them.

As well as poaching, habitat loss is also playing a part in their decline. This is because individual Cycads are now becoming further apart, which means they cannot pollinate each other to produce the next generation of Cycads. We are now at the point where they are the worlds most threatened group of living things. If you put all of South Africa’s endangered Cycad species together there are only about 10,000 plants. As a comparison, that is about half the number of White Rhinos left in the wild in the whole of Southern Africa.

But why would you want to save a Cycad? They don’t move, they don’t have stripes like a tiger and they certainly aren’t black and white and cuddly like a panda. I think it’s absolutely amazing that they have survived on this planet for 250 million years. Wouldn’t it be a shame if Cycads became extinct now, just because they aren’t cute or cuddly and they don’t move?

Amazing Cycad facts

  • The commonly grown houseplant called a Sago palm is actually a Cycad.
  • Some Cycads can live for over 1000 years.
  • Some Cycads have the largest seed cones of any plant.
  • The oldest pot plant in the world is a Cycad which grows in the Palm House at Kew gardens and has been doing so since the 1770s. It grows 2.5cm a year.
  • There are only 60 Albany Cycads left in the wild. That’s less than 4% of the wild pandas left!
  • In South Africa there is a group of environmental law enforcers, called the Green Scorpions, who are helping to catch Cycad poachers, as well as helping to catch rhino poachers.

Proteas and Phosphate; a plant rant.

That’s it! I have had enough!! This has gone on for far too long!!!

I can’t cope any longer with seeing dead and dying members of the Proteaceae in garden centres. There is no need for these plants to be in this state.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I hear you ask.

Well, the answer is simple. There is a huge problem in British garden centres with the way plants such as Grevillea, Lomatia, Banksias and Proteas are looked after and it could be changed very easily.

Really strong, otherwise heathy plants are bought in from wholesalers, to be sold on by the garden centres and DIY stores, with every good intention of being able to sell something a little unusual. The plants last long enough in the garden centre to be sold to an unsuspecting customer who then plants them, proud of their purchase, only to find that weeks or months later their plant DIES.

What’s going on?

When the plants arrive at the garden centre in their liner pots the, unknowing, horticultural staff treat them the same as all the other plants. They pot them up or top dress them with a mix of whatever the preferred compost is and add a good helping of their proprietary granulated, slow release fertiliser.

Here lies the problem. Proteaceae, you see, are ‘allergic’ to Phosphates.

The wonder ‘slow release’ fertiliser is, more often than not, a thing called ‘Osmocote Exact – Standard 12-14 Months’ it contains a long lasting supply of all the ‘essential trace elements’ required (although I tend to disagree) for good plant growth. With an N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphate-Potassium) value of 15-9-11 (15% Nitrate – 9% Phosphate – 11% Potassium) essentially what the well-meaning horticulturists are doing is giving the poor plant a good helping of poison.

Proteaceae have evolved over their 100 million years on this planet to cope very well with the nutrient leached, old and often acidic soils of the Southern Hemisphere. These soils are low in N-P-K (some South American soils are high in Phosphate but its locked away from them by a chemical process caused by the soil being acid) and high in other minerals and the plants have adapted as such.

Their hard leaves have a high percentage of Lignin so that they don’t wilt and can grow even with the lack of sufficient Phosphorous for good cell growth. They have annual root systems, called Proteoid roots, that sit just under the surface of the leaf litter layer accessing the scant nutrients during the short periods of wet (and subsequent leaf litter breakdown) and they don’t have Mycorrhizal (fungi) relationships providing their mineral nutrients in a format that is easy for them to use. Many Fynbos/Mallee/Sclerophyll plants can fix atmospheric Nitrogen and out of them all the Proteaceae are the most uniquely and inextricably adapted to their environments.

In short they don’t need or want N-P-K.

Phosphate necrosis in Lomatia ferruginea

Phosphate necrosis in Lomatia ferruginea

A happy and very healthy Lomatia ferruginea

A happy and very healthy Lomatia ferruginea

So what happens to them?

The first sign that they are getting too much Phosphate is that they start to get a greyish/redish hue to their leaves. The leaves and flower buds eventually turn black and start to fall off. Sometimes the plant puts up last ditch fight for life, sprouting from the base, desperately clinging on. This is however to no avail. Other symptoms include a lack of growth, leaf tip necrosis, inter veinal chlorosis and eventually succumbing to Phytopthera. What a horrific end for a plant.

It’s not as simple as just the Phosphate either. High levels of Nitrate (15% is too high) fed to the plant to quickly in the presence of the Phosphate exasperates the problem. High levels of Calcium in the compost (most potting composts contain quite a lot of it which makes them alkaline; which, in turn, makes the Phosphate even more accessible to them) can also lead to Phosphate toxicity.

Why doesn’t it happen as soon as the plant receives the fertiliser?

Proteaceae have got a bit clever in their millions of years of evolution. They go through dormant and active growth phases. They grow when the going is good and remain dormant when life is tough. When in active growth they put on massive amounts of special annual roots called Proteoid or cluster roots. These roots are specially adapted to extract as much nutrition from the poor soils and leaf litter they are growing in as possible. It’s generally not until they start to put out these annual roots, sometimes months after they have been bought and planted, that they start to suck up all those noxious Phosphates, show symptoms and die.

Now it’s kind of alright for someone like me that would buy a plant and remove any fertiliser top dress from the pot before planting the plant. However, someone buying a Grevillea for the first time and suffering this problem would be put off growing a Grevillea ever again.

I just don’t think it’s fair that hardy, easy plants like Lomatia ferruginea, Grevillea rosmarinifolia and Embothrium coccineum should be dubbed difficult or even ungrowable just because of a mistake on the part of a garden centre staff member that is not paid enough to THINK. It’s not just Proteaceae that have this problem either. Some Acacias, Callistemon and Boronias suffer too. In fact it’s one of the reasons that Australasian plants are deemed difficult in British cultivation.

I have seen so many garden centres selling plants doomed to Phosphate necrosis, even one plant centre in a well renowned botanic garden had Grevillea plants suffering this problem. All it would take is a little information, a warning label on the plant saying something like ‘DON’T FEED ME!’ or a factsheet produced by someone like the HTA wouldn’t go amiss. For now though I think it wouldn’t hurt if everyone that knows about this problem could just tell their local garden centre staff about it and that way, just maybe, a few fewer plants will die needlessly.

Rant over!

Ps. Phosphate is also no good for many trees, native grassland plants and bulbs.

Pps. The mining of Phosphate causes massive environmental damage. Check out what happened to the island of Nauru.