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.
Decades 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There were however lots of Proteaceae to see and we spent some time honing our id skills in preparation for the field.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Israels national collection of Oncocyclus iris is held at Ramat hanadiv the burial place of Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934). Edmond was a major figure in the establishment of the modern state of Israel and through his support for the Jewish community based in British mandate Palestine he enabled a safe haven for Jews fleeing Russia (during the post revolutionary chaos called the Third Aliyah) and Europe prior to the Second World War. A major land owner in British Mandate Palestine Rothschild firmly believed in creating a unified Arab/Jewish state and famously wrote to the League of Nations “the struggle to put an end to the wandering Jew, could not have as its result, the creation of the Wandering Arab.” Alas history has since played its hand.
The Iris at Ramat Hanadiv are mostly held in behind the scenes propagation facilities but as part of the project the centre has set up a display garden to showcase the different species of Oncocyclus from Israel and its neighbouring countries. We visited expecting to see some Iris and we really were not dissapointed!
Ramat Hanadiv is an inspirational place to visit. A tranquil garden celebrating and remembering the life of an extraordinary man.
We would very much like to thank the team there for hosting us and giving us the time they did to show us the work they are doing to try and protect some of Israel’s extraordinary plant species.
I never finished my series of blogs about my trip to Israel in March ’14. It’s not that I forgot or that I got bored of writing them. It’s because at the time, due to heightened levels of conflict in the Middle East, it just didn’t seem all that appropriate.
Having just returned from another trip to Israel I think it is time to revisit the series of blogs and bring you up to date with my botanical adventures in the Holy Land. So please indulge me and take a step back in time to the beginning of March 2014.
A trip into the Negev desert…
We took the opportunity the day after our visit to Jerusalem to go for a hike in the Negev desert an area that covers approximately 4,700 square miles and amounts to over half the land area in Israel. The desert and semi desert habitats hold a unique wealth of flora and we were pleased to track some of it down on our walk…..
I didn’t think we could top all this amazing flora but then on our way home we stopped in at one of the Iris nature reserves and found Iris petrana in full flower!
It really does amaze me that such beautiful things can grow in such harsh conditions. Of course it is the adaptation to the environments they live in that makes them even more special.
To be continued……….
Today I did something that seems oxymoronic. I put the BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) logo up on the home page of this website.
Ben and I are very proud to have joined this great organisation as institutional members, yet it seems a little strange to me that our small back garden should be a member of BGCI alongside such gardens as Kirstenbosch botanic gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and Kew. There is however very good reason for us to have made this step.
Over the past few years, Ben and I have increasingly felt that our plants shouldn’t remain just a garden for our own personal pleasure. It became very important to us that we should be giving something back to the plants in return for all that they give to us. I have written before about how I believe that gardens can be arks for plant life and we wanted to take a step closer to this. We wanted to have something to work towards and to drive what we do here in the Fossil Garden. We wanted a purpose.
I have been a fan of the work of BGCI since I attended a talk, a few years back, by Sara Oldfield, BGCI Secretary General. Sara talked about things like the development of The Red List of Magnoliaceae, The Global Trees Campaign and BGCI’s work to protect montane forests in Latin America. All these things affect the relatives of the plants we grow here at FossilPlants. The issue, however, was that I felt that maybe a little garden in North Wales wouldn’t be able to be a member of BGCI. That was until, after a little persuasion from a friend, I picked up the phone and actually talked to the team at BGCI about it. They said ‘Yes, we would love you to join’. We were over the moon.
So does this make us a ‘botanic garden’?
We don’t have a café (we do have a kettle and a steady supply of tea and coffee for any visitors), we don’t have a gift shop (although there are plenty on the high street) and we don’t have income from ‘friends’, charitable trusts or government (our only income is that which we earn from our day jobs).
These are not the things that make a botanic garden.
So what does make a botanic garden?
If you google ‘what is a botanic garden’ the answer you get is……
‘An establishment where plants are grown for scientific study and display to the public.’
Just a bit further down the google results comes BGCI’s definition of a botanic garden from the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation.
“Botanic gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education.”
We keep detailed records of the plants we grow. We research the species in the garden and make them available for others to research too. We cultivate and propagate plants of conservation importance and we educate people, through this website, twitter and talks, about the species we grow. The garden is open, by appointment, to anyone wishing to visit and above all we have a very interesting collection of living plants.
I guess the bottom line is that, YES, FossilPlants is a botanic garden.
Joining BGCI has certainly given us some direction. The resources provided through membership have led us to develop a mission statement that will inform future decisions about what we want to achieve and it has pushed us toward updating the way we record the plants within the collection. In turn it is advising future plans and projects and allowing us to develop structured ideas that will be beneficial to plant conservation and the development of our little garden.
In short our decision to join BGCI means that out little garden hopefully has a BIG botanical future.