Botanising Israel, Part 12 – Another search for Iris lortetii (CAUTION – may contain very cute, sleepy, bees)

Our 2018 trip to Israel was timed to coincide with the flowering of Iris lortetii.

I had first encountered this Iris in 2014 when we had come across it at Ramat Hanadiv. It was the one species I really wished to see in flower in the wild more than anything. It is, i think, the most beautiful of the Oncocyclus Iris species.

Iris lortetii occurs in two populations one in the north of Israel called Iris lortetii var. lortetii and a southern population found growing within The West Bank known as Iris lortetii var. samariae. It was this latter population that we attempted to find first during our trip. I cannot say that we entered The West Bank without some trepidation, especially as there had been recent recent protests in the area.


The ridgeline road between Itamar and Givat Ha'Arba'a in the West Bank.

The ridge-line road between Itamar and Givat Ha’Arba’a in the West Bank.

Alas, we did not find Iris lortetii on this trip despite having clear instructions and maps as to where we may find it. We did however find The West Bank full of other fabulous plant species.

Ophrys umbilicata

Ophrys umbilicata

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Anacamptis pyramidalis

Centurea eryngioides (pink form)

Centaurea eryngioides (pink form)

Centaureaeryngioides (yellow form)

Centaurea eryngeoides (yellow form)

Scorzonera papposa

Scorzonera papposa

Wild Chicorum endiva

Wild Chicorum endiva

Asteriscus hierochunticus ( a little plant I desperately want to grow)

Asteriscus hierochunticus ( a little plant I desperately want to grow)

We gave up our search for the West Bank Lortet’s Iris but we knew where we would find some of the variety Samariae in flower for sure.

Iris lortetii var. samariae in our friends nursery.

Iris lortetii var. samariae in our friends nursery.

Luckily a friend has a nursery and seed company in Israel and we knew he would grow Iris lortetii var. samariae as well as its northern counterpart. We were not disappointed.

Iris lortetii in cultivation in Israel

Iris lortetii in cultivation in Israel with hand pollinated flowers covered in silk bags so that there will be no cross pollination between these plants and the other species grown at the nursery.

A few days later we had word that the northern populations were at their peak so we set out on a mission to find them. First stop, however, were some plants that had been trans-located for their own protection.

We got to this fenced clump of plants just as the sun was coming around to hit their south eastern side and our timing could not have been more perfect.

fences around the clump of Iris lortetii for their protection. The plants, however. are escaping.

Fences surround the clump of Iris lortetii for their protection. The plants, however. are escaping.


Can you spot the pollen on the fall of this flower?

Can you spot the pollen on the fall of this flower? if you look closely you can just make out the culprit.

Solitary male longhorn bees use the flowers as overnight shelter. they are atracted by the dark spot on the fall and prefer to use the east or south east side of the flowers to shelter as the dark spot heats up more quickly in the sun in the morning which warms them up and gets them set for the day ahead.

Solitary male longhorn bees use the flowers as overnight shelter. they are attracted by the dark spot on the fall and prefer to use the east or south east side of the flowers to shelter as the dark spot heats up more quickly in the sun in the morning which warms them up and gets them set for the day ahead.

Male bees were clambering out of each of the flowers as the sun hit them.

Male bees were clambering out of each of the flowers as the sun hit them.

and they were absolutely covered in pollen.

and they were absolutely covered in pollen.

We counted what looked like three different species of solitary bee emerging from the Iris flowers. We watched this amazing pollination phenomenon for ages and it was only when all the little male Eucerini bees had flown away that we moved off to see if we could find truly wild Iris lortetii.

We drove almost to the border with Lebanon before we spotted them growing on a sun baked hillside above the road. The drift of pale flowers, each bigger than my fist, didn’t stand out much and it took quite a keen eye to spot them. But when you did spot them there was no missing them.

Iris lortetii habitat

Iris lortetii habitat with Euphorbia and Ranunculus.


The Flowers came in quite a variety of different colours.

The flowers came in quite a variety of different colours in the northern population…..

including this darker one similar to Iris lortetii var. samariae

including this darker one similar to Iris lortetii var. samariae

I will never forget meeting with this, in my oppinion, the most beautiful of the Royal Iris.

I will never forget meeting with this, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the Royal Iris.

Iris lortetii is assessed by the IUCN as Endangered with only just over 2000 mature individuals known. You can download its RedList assessment here

If you would like to know more about the incredible pollination strategy of the flowers being used by night sheltering bees you can download a paper about the phenomenon in related Iris atropurpurea here

The Sapir Lab at Tel Aviv University studies the pollination and evolution of flowers and the evolution of flower colour. The team, through Tel Aviv University Botanic Gardens, are also involved in the conservation of Israel’s threatened Iris species including Iris lortetii. You can find out more about what they do here





The search for Disa x brendae

First published as part of #Adventbotany2018 

Neither my partner Ben or I actively celebrate Christmas.

We prefer to hide away from the crazy world that Christmas has become and endeavour to find ourselves as far away from humanity as we are able. Previous years Christmas avoidance techniques have seen us winter climbing on a mountain in Snowdonia, snowed in in a bothy on an off-grid peninsula in Scotland and searching for Narcissi in the driest parts of the highlands of the Negev desert. Last year we found ourselves, on Christmas day, in a little explored valley on a mountain in South Africa; an adventure that I will tell you about forthwith.

We had just come back into Stellenbosch from a few days hike in the mountains that had seen us, after quite a scary ridge scramble, discover a new population of critically rare Gladiolus rhodanthus (a story for another time maybe). Almost as we were driving into the city centre, we got a call to come to the office of Stellenbosch Botanic Gardens’ curator. ‘I am sorry to be in a rush’ Martin exclaimed ‘but you will need this map and magazine article before I head off for the Christmas break’. Martin allowed me to photograph the relevant documents before dropping a pin in a blank patch of a google map, chivying me out and locking the door behind us both.

We had been issued a hand drawn treasure map, and with it a mission had been set to hunt for the rarest of lost jewels.

We went to bed that night weary from the events of the previous 24 hours and needing an easy day the next, so we decided our treasure hunt would be best left for the 25th December.  This seemed like just the way to avoid Christmas.

Christmas eve was spent searching for the needle leaf Feather bush (Aulax pallasia) which was certainly not a taxing experience. We found it growing in a stand of vegetation that had burned just a couple of years earlier. Its vivid golden leaves re-sprouting from in-between its jet black, old flowering stems. The whole landscape was full of bright flowers and the diversity of species incomprehensible. It felt like the lid of a treasure chest had been opened to reveal its contents to us.

Aulax pallasia in the regenerating Fynbos treasure chest.

Aulax pallasia in the regenerating Fynbos treasure chest.

The next day, Christmas morning, and it was time to get up. We had no idea what the day would bring so an early start, to allow for all eventualities, was necessary. We drove up through the Franschoek pass in the sombre dagian light and parked our car in a little carpark at the entrance to the Mont Rochelle Nature reserve alongside a large stand of Sapphire blue Aristea major.

Our quick step down the slope towards the rushing water of the Dutoitsrivier was so very welcome in the knowledge of the uphill ascent that we would have to endure once we had crossed the tannin stained waters of this frog filled brook. The mid-summer sun was rising above us and the vivid fynbos colours were starting to assault our morning eyes. Citrine flowered Leucospermum conocarpadendron came as a welcome surprise as we sweated up the steep, stepped slope. Growing at the absolute edge of its range we were bemused to find it here and at such high altitude for a lowland growing species. On we went up and up, little rest in the form of flat land came our way as we wound the narrow path.

Leucospermum conocarpadendron

Leucospermum conocarpadendron

Small cobalt Moraea sparkled from the brown topaz restios as we indelicately tramped through them and occasionally a clump of Erica coccinea would stand out from among the silver rocks like fire opals. But as we climbed higher and higher towards where we thought the map lead us the flowers became fewer and further between.

Erica coccinea

Erica coccinea

At nearly 1500m in altitude we reached the short, coarse, restio dominated snowfields and water catchments that can be found along the back sides of the high ridge lines of South Africa’s cape fold mountains and we knew that this was where we would need to leave our path and head across country. We needed to drop down into the next small valley to search its streams and kloofs to find the precise location of the specific gem we were hunting for.

Disa orchids are a group of about 180 species found throughout Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar and Reunion Island.  …..

Whilst, like many other Orchid genera, in cultivation they readily hybridise only on four occasions have hybrid Disas been found naturally.

  • Disa × brendae (D. caulescens × D. uniflora) (South Africa, SW. Cape Prov.)
  • Disa × maculomarronina (D. hircicornis × D. versicolor) (S. Africa)..
  • Disa × nuwebergensis (D. caulescens × D. tripetaloides) (South Africa, Cape Prov.).
  • Disa × paludicola (D. chrysostachya × D. rhodantha) (South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal).

It was the first of these South African hybrids we were hunting.

Discovered 1985, and last seen in 1986, Disa x brendae was stumbled upon by the last people to manage to push all the way into the kloof we were now stood in, Brenda Anderson (for whom it is named) and Dave van der Merwe. Its parents, D. uniflora and D. caulescens, being two of the most commonly known and grown species of Disa. These two species had also been used to create the very similar looking man-made hybrid Disa ‘Linda’ by Mr H. Mayer.

Mid way between its two parents D. x brendae shares the large wing shaped petals, maroon linear markings on its petals, upward protruding viscidia and its corymbose grouping of unopened buds with Disa caulescens whilst its scent and inferior pointing conical spur were attributed to uniflora. Its overall flower size was evenly mid-way between the two. This combination of traits, and the flower size leaning towards one of the largest within the genus, made it an alluring quarry for us to try and track down.

Everything had stacked up for this to be a successful hunt. The weather was good, the location not so far from our accommodation in Stellenbosch and the plant had last been seen in flower (‘18 well developed spikes, 16 of which were open’) on the 23rd December, 1986.

We reached our valley destination and made our way down stream first, walking to the point where the water dropped off an impassable cliff. We then started picking slowly through olivine moss and tall emerald restio interspersed with runnels of amber water. Every so often a large alabaster flower shone out from the banks amongst the peaty soil and sphagnum and our hearts would stop for a split second until we ascertained it was just another one of the beautiful Gladiolus (possibly G. carneus) that had made this valley their home.

Gladiolus aff. carneus

Gladiolus aff. carneus

It was when we reached about half way along the valley floor that we started seeing the Disas. On the edges of the little streams and hanging from waterfalls that flowed merrily down small offshoots into the main kloof Disa caulescens was there in full flower. We decided given the abundance of one of Disa x brendae’s parents that each of these little tributaries should be checked for Disa caulescens’ hybrid offspring. Slowly, battling through, sometimes thick, vegetation we pushed our way up the, steep, slopes of each of the small streams looking for anything that resembled the small cliff that it had originally been described from. We climbed each one until we reached the point from which the water gurgled out from its sphagnum home. Then, crossing to the next, we worked our way down zigzagging and constantly searching for the pink diamonds we had been sent here to find.

Disa caulescens

Disa caulescens

In the margins of one such stream we found a swathe of jasper ericas, as yet without identification, and at the foot of another the rose gold crowns of a lone King protea. Every so often we came across an invader in the little valley in the form of pine trees that had escaped from the lower plantations of Franschoek. As we made our way further up the tributary of the Dutoitsrivier these unwanted mountain outlaws steadily increased in number until finally we reached their base in the bowl created by a small waterfall. Initially we had tried battling them, chopping them down when we saw them, but as their numbers grew stronger, we just had to push through them when they stood in our path. A menace for the mountain’s ecosystem, their presence was more than alarming in such a remote and beautiful spot.

the, as yet unnamed, Erica species we found.

the, as yet unnamed, Erica species we found.

Pine invaders

Pine invaders

Finally, we had pushed to the very top of the little kloof, beyond the pine ridden waterfall lay snowfield catchment and restio heath, a harsh environment for delicate fynbos gems. Yet we had not seen anything of Brenda’s orchid.

Disa habitat

There was one last little trickle of water to check, tinkling through a barricade of dead pine trunks and thick spiny scrub. We pushed our way in to this closed off rill, delicately trying not to fall through the moss into the deep cleft that the water had created. Inching our way, desperate for any sign that an orchid may be there. Then, just as hope was fading, jade green tongues showed themselves from among the etiolated moss that had been totally shaded out by the dense vegetation above it. Not many of them, but larger than those of the Disas in the valley floor. Could this be it? The only location for Disa x brendae? Alas, there was no flowers to be seen that would confirm our find.

The green tongues of Disa leaves

The green tongues of Disa leaves

The fynbos here had not burned in a significant period. Long enough indeed for two generations of pines to establish. Our hunt it seems, despite the promise, had been scuppered by nature herself. For the time being it seemed she was going to keep these most precious of gems for her own gratification.

We photographed the spot, made GPS records and collected detailed information about the site and then retreated leaving the valley to its pine outlaws, Gladioli, Ericas and its solitude high in the mountains. We will wait, until the overdue smelting of the landscape spreads through the spot and then, maybe, we will return, or send others, to see if nature has decided to reveal the secret home of Disa x brendae to us by allowing her pink diamonds to sparkle again in their fynbos treasure chest for Christmas.


With thanks to Stellenbosch municipality and Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve trustees for allowing us full access to the Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve.

Thanks also to The Western Cape Nature Conservation Board (CapeNature) for our permits to collect within the Western Cape and Martin Smit formerly of Stellenbosch University Botanic Gardens (now at Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam) for all the support and assistance.

Further thanks to the RHS Blaxhall Valentine Bursary Fund for their financial contribution without which we would not have been able to make such a expedition.


Anderson, B and Van Der Merwe, D. March 1986. A new natural Disa hybrid, Veld and Flora, the Botanical Society of South Africa.

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