Rare plants & seed trade ethics

Iain Brodie of Falsyde auchgourishbotgard@falsyde.sol.co.uk
Tue, 24 Jun 2008 13:51:33 PDT
I would be grateful for the chance to comment on this extremely important subject and have followed the various important contributions on this PBS board closely and with keen interest. In contributing please bare with me if I use some possibly unfamiliar terms but these are subject specific to this debate and their use avoids any possible risks of ambiguity.

In the main, endemic plant conservation can either be achieved 'in situ' which means at the location of natural origin, or 'ex situ' at some other, hopefully safe, location which may or may not be well away from natural distribution. Throughout history man's role in destruction of plant diversity has been egregiously awful, whether from ignorance, greed or utter desperation. However, by the same token there are many examples of men and women working in the opposite direction and from whose efforts we have today species of plants which would otherwise no longer exist, or even whose existence would have gone unnoticed and not missed when lost.

The reality of life is that efforts to protect natural heritage, plants or otherwise, costs money often a very great deal of money and as in the case of the Wollemi Pine which is the best known recent example to demonstrate that there is an unarguable case to be made to engage with the general public allowing them to subscribe to conservation by this means, there are others, in producing surplus plants for sake to enable to fund conservation and allow the public to enjoy and treasure such plants. For me that's an unarguable example of a 'win-win'.  

Amongst committed gardeners around the world there is a huge knowledge base and expertise in growing endangered species in cultivation based on their work with less endangered or very common species within any given Genera. It is better to learn and make blunders working with species not at risk, disseminate that knowledge amongst the like minded and utilise it to propagate species ex situ while other disciplines resolve the circumstances such as forest destruction, over grazing, fire, etc, etc which created the risks to those rare plants, or animals, birds etc.

At Auchgourish Botanic Garden in Scotland we grow some difficult and oft times rather rare species of plants, over 76% as at 1st January this year are from wild origin seed sources, the highest percentage in European botanic gardens. It is also necessary to try to ensure plants of any given species are grown in groups sufficient in size to ensure genetic diversity and to minimise risk of cross pollination. One of this, and one of that, has nil conservation value and amounts to nothing better than stamp collecting. Some of the skills being developed here with e.g. the commoner Lilium are proving useful in achieving propagation for the really rare and invariably more difficult species. For Lilium, so called amateur gardeners can substitute any other genus, or genera, and the work they do has equal value to that achieved in the large well known institutions, they do it for love while many of the latter do it for a salary. Perhaps the last remark might be a bit harsh. Not all of the amateurs are without criticism however but they do have a defence in that not always do they have access to the best of knowledge or most up-to-date techniques which is where this forum and others like it, regardless of Genus or Genera interests, have and do provide solutions based on participants experiences being exchanged. One example of where this knowledge might have avoided the crises in Europe now facing a very rare Asiatic Lilium species into whose well meaning and skilful custody its care was allocated, BUT its propagation by him was restricted each year to scaling and when an attempt was eventually made to collect seed for another grower it transpired after 30 years to have been reduced to a single clone now amounting to three or so plants, which is, not are, now down to being incapable of reproduction by normal means. The rational, as given to me, was that growing from scales allowed bulking up much quicker, indeed but a clone is a clone. That fact with its concomitant limitations, & dire consequences, the grower was totally oblivious too until now when too late.

There will come a time, much sooner than later, when the countries from where much of our working plant material comes, will ask us, often western gardener individuals and botanic institutions, what practical work and worthy outcomes have we achieved with their natural resources. To have failed to maintain sustainable ex situ populations will be rightly condemned and for it to be seen in many instances to have been used in the foundations for building populations of multihybrids rather than conserving their species where will the defence come from, where will be the case for continued access to seed material? For me personally the idea of only being able to achieve viable plants by means of seed, solely through the route of embryo rescue, owing to their parents being so vastly unrelated, is to say the least 'perplexing' and is one means to define, and illustrate the extent of man's disconnect with nature. It seems to me to be a waste of science and a loss to biodiversity. Could the money & effort not be put to better use. !!!

My only caveat in all of this debate comes in two parts, what you learn you share with others which is where I see this forum as being very worthy indeed. The other part is about to get me into bother with some, to wit; I for the life of me cannot see the merit in expending possibly rare genetic resources as well as time, money and effort hybridising plants. I acknowledge my opinion is contentious and I have no wish to offend, none what so ever, but as a straight talker I think there is to some extent or another an element of "look at me, see how clever I have been". Hybridising plants within any genera isn't really that very difficult at all, heaven alone knows how much of it happens by default despite my best efforts here at ABG due to the bees and other insect pollinators we have in Europe and around the world too. However, perhaps my world view of joy is just too limited due to my Presbyterian upbringing but I am inclined to ask to what propose and benefit, when in the case for me, the Lilies for example which are so fantastic in their range of colour, shape, seasonality, etc, means I am unlikely to live long enough to fully appreciate but a tiny wee mite of what Gaia has to offer in the way of natural variability. At this point I can already feel the heat coming my way so perhaps its time to scuttle back to the safety of my mountain eyrie. Its just the view of one man, myself, & which no doubt be vigorously 'approached' by those with a contrary view, ce la vie ! I will probably be drummed out of the Brownies and Scouts now.


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