Joinvillea – the grass before grasses.

A recent addition to the ‘Fossil Garden’ came in the form of Joinvillea ascendens Gauduch ex. Brongn & Gris (Syn. Joinvillea gaudichaudiana Brongn & Gris) from Hawaii ; a kind gift from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. It’s member of the Joinvilleaceae which in turn is a member of the ‘Graminid clade’ of the Poales – In short it is a sister to the world’s grasses.

Whilst the Poales certainly have their earliest roots in the late Cretaceous there is little fossil evidence to help us understand when and where they first evolved. The earliest recognisable fossils of this ethnobotanically important group come from 66 million years ago in what was South America. The Cyperaceae (The Sedges) have no fossil evidence from this period and their close relatives the Juncaceae (Rushes) have an even more limited fossil history. The earliest fossil evidence of this group belong to members of the Poaceae (the true grasses) and there is some fossil evidence that suggests that the Restionaceae was around at this time too. Another genus in the Poales known from Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous) fossils is Typha (the true Bull Rushes) who’s fossil record is that of leaves, found in the Negev desert of Israel, called Typhacites negevensis. So what has all of this got to do with the Joinvilleaceae? Joinvillea is very closely related to grasses indeed and on first inspection you would believe it to be a grass. It is currently placed as sister group, with the Ecdeiocoleaceae, to the grasses. It’s flowers are pollinated by wind just like its kin yet it bears berries making it a real oddity in evolutionary terms. This feature is relictual for the Graminids and believed to be a earlier occurring feature than the dry seeds of the grasses. It also bares multi-cellular micro hairs like the grasses which alongside some other features proves that the three groups have a common ancestor.

Joinvillea’s obscure occurrence and unusual, relictual, features certainly demand it a small place among the ‘fossil’ plants in our little garden. I am certainly pleased to see this new piece in the puzzle of plant evolution take up its position as the only grass in our garden.

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens  Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Joinvillea ascandens

Joinvillea ascandens

 

‘Fossilplants’ at the Natural History Museum, London!

30 years ago a little boy sat cross legged under a giant Monkey Puzzle tree and dreamed about the habitats of the time that the tree, and its kin, first evolved. Fascinated, the boy traced his fingers around the silhouettes of the plants in the background of the pictures in his brother’s dinosaur books. He sat there wishing (quite hard) to see these strange worlds, so very different from 1980’s suburbia, desperately needing to understand what they were really like. What would it sound like in a world dominated by insects? What did a Diplodocus eat that allowed it to get so large? And how did the first flowers appear on this planet? Family visits to London meant desperate pleas to his parents to visit the Natural History Museum and to see the few plant fossils that were on display – fossils which only fuelled his imagination.
Three decades have passed and the little boy’s dreams of time machines are, alas, not the reality promised in ‘Back to the Future’ but his need to understand that ancient past is still there.
That little boy was me.
A while ago someone said ‘Robbie, the Natural History Museum in London are going to redevelop their grounds and they are going to have a whole area devoted to the history of plants on earth’. Well from the moment I heard this that ‘little boy’ (the one still inside me) just knew he had to be part of such a project.
Many, many months later and I am very pleased to say that I AM part of it. I am, to say the least, INCREDIBLY EXCITED! It feels a little like all those childhood dreams are coming true.
The idea of being involved in such a jaw dropping project as turning the eastern grounds of the museum into a giant, imagining of those habitats from a distant past, complete with dinosaur fossils, has made the little boy from all those years ago very, very happy.

A artists impression of what the Eastern grounds may look like.

A artists impression of what the Eastern grounds may look like.

I have already started on the planning stages of the NHM’s grounds redevelopment project and whilst we are waiting for the planning permission to be considered there is more than enough for me to be getting on with.

There is a lot more to all this though than just making my childish dreams come true. Have you visited the museum’s grounds recently?
The Natural History Museum’s purpose is to challenge the way people think about the natural world; its past, present and future. Whilst the architecture of the museum is astounding, the total sum of the grounds is an opportunity lost. The east side is bare and fragmented while the west side is occupied by the beautiful but rarely visisted wildlife garden. The museum wants to join up the whole space so that everyone’s experience of the natural world starts the second they arrive and not just when they step foot through the door of the building itself. Five million people a year visit the museum and if all of those people are learning about and engaging with living nature from the second they set foot through one of the wrought iron entrance gates then that goal will be surely achieved.
For a number of years I worked for the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and during that time I found my passion to inspire people with nature. The RSPB taught me that all you have to do is to introduce people to the natural world and then nature will do the rest itself. The prehistoric garden that I now have the opportunity to plant and grow will not only introduce people to a past that is quite difficult to comprehend but also teach people about the planet we live on right here and now and challenge them to consider what a future world may look like too.
That little boy of thirty years ago suddenly has the opportunity to inspire other little (and big) boys and girls with a world he had thought he could only imagine.

 

Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 10

Its not everyday that you get to meet both the plant and the man it was named after. This is exactly what happened the day we ventured up onto the Hermon mountain on the Israeli border with Syria. Whilst the summit sits on the border between Syria and Lebanon at over 2800m in altitude the area we visited was one of the satellite peaks at 2236m. With no fenced borders and a high military presence we really had to watch we didn’t stray into a area we shouldn’t.

This rocky mountain range, in the north of Israel/ west of Syria, is home to a unique flora as it falls into the alpine zone. We were a little late to see Iris westii (and besides we would have needed special permits from the army to visit it) and the native Eremurus were also over but the botanical treats abounded.

Glaucium leiocarpum in the carpark near the ski lift at Israels only ski resort!

Glaucium leiocarpum in the carpark near the ski lift at Israels only ski resort!

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stunted and windswept trees at over 2000m altitude

stunted and windswept Juniperus drupacea trees at over 2000m altitude

The increadible view from the top.

The incredible view from the top.

Cool enough for roses to grow.

Cool enough for roses to grow.

Terrific Taraxacum species (haven't a clue which though)

Terrific Taraxacum species (haven’t a clue which though)

There where many spiny specimens up there too.

There where many spiny specimens up there too. (Thanks Ori Fragman-Sapir of Jerusalem Botanic Gardens for the identification of Cousinia hermonis)

Yep those white spots over there in Syria are snow!

Yep those white spots over there in Syria are snow!

Cotoniaster sp

Cotoniaster nummularia

Euphorbia sp

Euphorbia anrilibonatica

We just couldnt get away from the army presence and felt like our every move was being watched (which it probably was).

We just couldn’t get away from the army presence and felt like our every move was being watched (which it probably was).

Astragalus sp

Astragalus cruentiflorus

Boraginaceae

Cynoglossum montanum

Poppies and verbascum a Chelsea Flower show mix if ever I saw one!

Poppies and Verbascum damascenum a Chelsea Flower show mix if ever I saw one!

Ixolirion tataricum

Ixolirion tataricum

Salvia microstegia

Salvia microstegia

Its not often you find broomrapes so to find this one, Orobanche cohenii, was quite special.

Its not often you find broomrapes so to find this one, Orobanche cohenii, was quite special.

Scutellaria utriculata

Scutellaria utriculata

Rosularia lineata was growing in every crack in the rock alongside the Scutellaria utriculata

Rosularia libonotica was growing in every crack in the rock alongside the Scutellaria utriculata

Seed heads of the endemic Bellevalia hermonis

Seed heads of the endemic Bellevalia hermonis

The Bellevalia grew in the greenest areas; the hollows where the snow melted last.

The Bellevalia grew in the greenest areas; the hollows where the snow melted last. (that’s Ben in the pic)

I was amazed to find my 4th species of Aristolochia on the trip; Aristolochia scabridula.

I was amazed to find my 4th species of Aristolochia on the trip; Aristolochia scabridula.

 

Bare patches of ground made by the cows. We found a group of local batanists intently looking at the patches and I had to ask why.......

Next to bare patches of ground made by the cows we found a group of local botanists intently looking at the patches and I had to ask why…….

.....it seems that this cushion forming Alyssum only grows in these patches and whilst it keys out as a much taller species that grows nearby it seems to be remarkably different in many ways.

…..it seems that this cushion form of Alyssum only grows in these patches and whilst it keys out as a much taller species, Alyssum szovotsii, that grows nearby it seems to be remarkably different in many ways.

One of the botanists turned out to be Simon Cohen after whom Orobanche cohenii is named

One of the botanists turned out to be Simon Cohen after whom Orobanche cohenii is named

 

It was these botanists that led us to see the highlight plant of our trip Astragalus ehrenbergii.

It was these botanists that led us to see the highlight plant of our trip Astragalus ehrenbergii.

A very small population up a tiny path that you would never notice unless you knew where it was.

A very small population up a tiny path that you would never notice unless you knew where it was.

Only found here in Israel on the Hermon Mountain and in a small area of Turkey its two populations have become divided by aridity.

Only found here in Israel on the Hermon Mountain and in a small area of Turkey its two populations have become divided by aridity.

This increadibly beautiful species is now protected......

This increadibly beautiful species is now protected……

......by its proximity to the army road leading to the border with Syria.

……by its proximity to the army road leading to the border with Syria.

Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 9

A trip to the Israel/Lebanon border in search of the habitat of Iris lorteti found us in quite a cool Mediterranean climate at 1200m in altitude . We didn’t find iris but we did find plenty of other wonderful wild-flowers!

Right on the border with Lebanon.

Right on the border with Lebanon.

That's Lebanon over there!

That’s Lebanon over there!

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Wild hollyhock with Lebanon in the background.

There where lots of familiar plants around, particularly the Wild hollyhock, Alcea setosa. Thats Lebanon in the background.

ggggg

Echinops adenocaulos was another familiar species

Carrots

Wild carrots, Daucus carota, the wild relative of that mainstay of the British diet

pink convolvulus

Convolvulus dorycnium stood out like a saw thumb amongst the dry grasses. its completely unlike any other bindweed i have ever seen.

irish bells

A real cottage garden favorite – Moluccella laevis

Caparis

Capparis spinosa the pickled buds of which we eat as Capers.

allium

We soon realised it was onion flowering season in the Eastern Mediterranean when we saw lots of this wonderful Allium phanerantherum

allium

We also spotted this white form of Allium ampeloprasum

allium

We found Allium stamineum growing in small holes in the limestone rocks.

alliums

The little Alliums shared their rocky home with Rosularia

Townsendia

Rosularia libonatica

Bears breackes

Acanthus syriacus stood out as the thorniest plant in the incredibly spiny vegetation

spiny

the acanthus was however beaten on the spikey stakes by Gundelia tournefortii

dont know

I wish I knew what this sharp character is!

an absolutely delightful Dianthus.

an absolutely delightful Dianthus strictus. A delicate flower finding protection in the thorns

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Iris lorteti habitat

Iris lorteti habitat

The nearest we came to finding Iris - a few dried sticks. It was always going to be a long-shot!

The nearest we came to finding Iris – a few dried sticks. It was always going to be a long-shot!

Often the best places for wildlife to flourish are those where man cannot!

Often the best places for wildlife to flourish are those places where humanity has made it impossible for itself to flourish!

To be continued…….

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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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’.