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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Our Backyard Botanic Garden

Today I did something that seems oxymoronic. I put the BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) logo up on the home page of this website.

BGCI logo

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.

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



Wollemia nobilis – #FreeTheKew1

The awful news came through the other day that a plant of Nymphaea thermarum had been stolen from the Princess of Wales Conservatory at the world famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Security of the plants I deal with both at home and at work is of uppermost priorty, be it protection from disease, accident or theft. As such, I fully sympathise with Kew and really hope there is a positive ending to the story. The article led to a conversation about the lengths gardens go to so their plants are safe from theft. The example came to mind of the first Wollemia nobilis to be planted in the UK (and to be planted away from its native Australia). The tree was planted at Kew in 2005 by Sir David Attenborough and is grown in a cage. Initially the cage was for its own protection but now is a symbol of how precious the tree is. Every time I see the tree I wonder is it time it was released from its cage? It is starting to get big and its branches stick out of the sides of the metal frame. Could the cage be re-built next to the tree to allow its story to continue to be told? This led, one sleepless night, to me writing this limerick. I hope you enjoy it…..

There once was a young man called Noble,
Who was ready and willing and able,
To go for a walk, in the Wollemi park,
In a canyon, he then found a fable,

The Ausie discovered a tree,
As strange a plant as can be,
The Wollemi Pine, from a land lost in time,
And his countrymen shouted ‘whoopee!’,

Now they started a botanic movement,
To protect the secret place that Dave went,
And to grow this big pine, From a land lost in time,
To the UK a sapling was then sent,

It turned up right here at Royal Kew
In a cage it was grown, that is true,
To protect it from thieves,
And it’s vast enemies,
The tree then just flourished and grew,

Nowadays they aren’t quite as rare,
And at Kew there are more than a pair,
In the gift shop you see, you can buy 2 or 3,
And it’s sentence no longer fair,

So let’s make a planty decree,
To release this Wollemi tree
Let’s scream and let’s shout, to let the tree out
Wollemia nobilis be free!

Wollemia nobilis - #FreeTheKew1

Wollemia nobilis – #FreeTheKew1



I sit down to order some plants from Edrom Nursery in Scotland I am reminded that, for a while now, I have been promising a blog on a much overlooked genus of plants called Ephedra. Ben calls them the ‘green stick plants’ and they are just that; a bunch of green sticks growing out of a brown trunk. For most of the time that is.

Ephedra belong to an obscure group of plants called Gnetales, which includes plants such as Welwitschia mirabilis, whose leaves are potentially the longest in the world and a group of vines called Gnetum, the seeds of which are used as a spice.

So, what’s interesting about the Gnatales then?

Well, they are officially gymnosperms or non-flowering, seed bearing plants. Yet they have the same type of water transportation system as the flowering plants, Angiosperms. Not only that but they are insect pollinated just like the majority of modern flowering plants.


Ephedra californica

Gnetales have had scientists quibbling over their relationship to other plants for a long time. Botanists can’t decide if the Gnetophytes should be sister to and thus separate from all other seed bearing plants, or sister to all other Gymnosperms, or sister to just the Pinaceae … or actually not a gymnosperm at all but sister to the Angiosperms. When you look at the fossil record of other, now extinct, seed bearing plants the phylogenetic relationships of the Gnetales become even more complicated. The debate continues!

Ephedrine, an extract of Ephedra, is a main constituent of the banned substance Chrystal meth and alongside a cocktail of other drugs was found in the blood of actor River Phoenix upon his death in 1993. Ephedrine is a regulated drug, yet Ephedra is still used in Chinese medicine and Mormon culture where it gets its common name, Mormon tea. It’s a stimulant and decongestant used in the treatment of Asthma, hay-fever and the common cold. The Mormons use it instead of caffeine since this is a banned substance in Mormon culture.

So how do these obscure plants fit into the fossil garden?

Well first of all, they have a fossil record heading all the way back in time to the Permian 290 million years ago. It’s not until the early Cretaceous, however, that fossils of Gnetophytes become more common. So they certainly fit the pre K-T extinction event theme we have going.

I can’t grow Gnetum gnemon outside here, it’s just too cold. Welwitschia may grow but so far I have had only limited success growing it from seed and certainly not enough success to try putting one in our ‘dry’ bed. Hence I am limited to Ephedra.

Welwitschia mirabilis at Kew

Welwitschia mirabilis at Kew

With a distribution that takes in southern Europe, Asia (including the Himalaya), the south western states of the USA and much of South America there are plenty of hardy species to choose from. With their small scale like ‘reduced’ leaves and twiggy sprawling habit, they are certainly untidy plants. They all need extremely free draining soils in the fullest sun that can be given so we have planted them amongst our Proteaceae, where they will hopefully make a matted understory to the more glamorous Banksias, Grevilleas and Proteas.

My hope is that they will come into their own when they ‘flower’ and eventually produce cones in shades through red and orange to pink and white. We have Ephedra nevadense, E. sinica, E. chilensis and are soon to have (I just ordered it from Edrom) E. gerardiana v. sikkimensis.

Ephedra chilensis

Ephedra chilensis

Alas, we have no room for more ‘green stick plants’, as they can become big and I am afraid that although they are intriguing in other ways, they certainly aren’t aesthetically interesting. Ben got quite bored while I dragged him around to look at the 8 species of Ephedra that grow in Israel. On a recent Australasian Plant Society trip to The National Botanic Gardens of Wales I got quite excited to see a huge plant of Ephedra chilensis. It suffices to say that not many others did.

Ephedra chilensis

Ephedra chilensis at the National Botanic Garden of Wales

Maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to Gnetales?

London’s fossil trees.

Some of Ben’s family live in central London so we visit regularly.

I love London!

Many years ago I fell out of love with our capital and it’s taken me a long time to fall in love again.

One of the many things I love about London is that at every corner you turn and alongside all the streets you can see trees! The many parks are home to some of Britain’s finest trees and amongst the huge trees new trees are being planted.

Now, the majority of these trees keep a secret from the people of London…..

Their kind has been growing on this planet for (in some cases) over 150 million years!

The London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) for example is thought to be a hybrid between Platanus orientalis and P. occidentalis both species in the family Platanaceae in the order Proteales (yes their closest relatives are Proteas and unbelievably the sacred lotus (Nelumbo).  The fossil record of the Platanaceae goes back as far as the mid cretaceous, some 90 million years ago. A time when Pterosaurs still flew far above them and Iguanodons may have been happily munching away on them.

Plane trees on the Victoria Embankment

Unfortunately the London plane is currently suffering a mass extinction event all of its own. A fungal disease called Massaria or more specifically Splanchnonema platani is devastating them.

Newby on the block in more ways than one is the American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

As a response to the problem with Planes many new species of trees are being planted around London and one that seems to be used quite regularly is the Liquidambar.

Liquidambar styraciflua

One of the new Liquidambars in Paddington.

Sitting in the family Altingiaceae, its relatives have a fossil record extending back some 55 million (ish) years into the Eocene.

Foliage of Liquidambar growing in the Olympic park

Interestingly, underneath London is a Lagerstätten (an area of sedimentary deposit that exhibits extraordinary fossils with exceptional preservation) called the London Clay. The London clay was laid down during the early Eocene and amazingly hosts fossils of Liquidambar.

From the newest to one of the the oldest….

Gingko biloba, a tree, virtually extinct in the wild and grown and revered in Chinese and Japanese temple gardens (where it was discovered in the 1700s), is planted everywhere in the world’s largest cities.

Its elegant beauty, graceful habit and delicate looking foliage are the main reasons for its use but don’t be fooled into thinking this tree is fragile. It is also planted because it tough as old boots!

I love the shape of Gingko trees!

The fossil record of its relatives takes us all the way, 200 million years, to the Triassic (there are some, disputed, fossils from before this).  One Jurassic relative, Allicospermum, was very similar to modern Ginkgo and hailed from the area of the world that is now Yorkshire.

Our very own Ginkgo fossil

Ginkgo is currently regarded as closely related to conifers although there is a school of thought that they are more closely related to the long extinct Gymnosperms (nonflowering plants) the Cordaites.

Iconic Ginkgoes outside The Natural History Museum.

Incidentally, most of the Ginkgoes in London are male the reason being the females are a little bit smelly when in breeding mode! (click to read more on this)

On the subject of conifers, in London there are many. Most of the modern conifers have their roots firmly placed in the Triassic and certainly there are examples of all the major families living in London.

Pinaceae (pines), Araucariaceae (monkey puzzles), Cupressaceae (Redwoods and Cypress), Podocarpaceae (the southern hemisphere conifers) and Taxaceae (yews) are all present. Before the Jurassic they are hard to differentiate from their fossils. But during the Jurassic we start to see some fossilised fruit which makes life easier.

Notable London conifers for me are a small Giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) planted right alongside the A40 in the Paddington basin. It is planted so close to the edge of that road that one day (in a few hundred years) it will definitely tower over this main highway into central London.

On the corner of Hyde Park at the junction of Oxford Street, the A5, the Bayswater rd. and Park lane there stands a Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Again only a young tree, it stands there with a firm footing watching the madness of this junction unfold before it.

The Oxford street Metasequoia glyptostroboides

The Oxford street Metasequoia glyptostroboides watching the traffic.

There are many Monkey puzzles (Araucaria araucana) in London’s outskirts but not many in central London. Two, though, do come to mind. There is a youngish tree in Hyde Park that I remember as a small tree 10 or more years ago. It isn’t so small now! The other is not a tree but a pub, The Monkey Puzzle, in Paddington. It does I am pleased to say have a small ‘Puzzle’ in its garden although the large tree that gave it its name has long since gone.

As I walk around our capital I am always interested to see the great variety of plants being grown.  There are many Extant (current) species of plants related to fossil genera being grown in London’s gardens including Cycads, Magnolias and tree ferns but I am sure the owners of these great plants have little realisation that what they are growing is akin to a plant that survived the mass extinction event that saw off the dinosaurs.

I ask is this ability to survive the reason why they are doing so well? and in cases like the Plane trees of Berkeley Square (planted in 1789) the reason why they have survived in the dirt and pollution of London past and present?