Saving Endangered Plants

Tom Mitchell
Tue, 06 Sep 2011 12:49:26 PDT
It's interesting (at least to me) how the thread I started on Veratrum overlaps with the extremely important discussion underway on the role of nurseries and gardeners in plant conservation. 

I could not agree more with Tony A's perspective on this subject and below I add my tuppence worth.

I have, in cultivation, V. album and V. nigrum from about 25 locations each across their range in Europe, which I've collected myself. I also have a dozen other Veratrum species, many grown from wild collected seed.

What was my motive in assembling this collection? Obviously that Veratrum are beautiful and varied garden plants, as we all seem to agree - a motive that many alleged conservationists seem to regard as suspect at best and downright immoral at worst. 

Why does my collection matter? Because Veratrum species are packed with alkaloids, most of which have never been investigated pharmacologically. As I noted in the introduction to the Veratrum page on the wiki, Cyclopamine, which is extracted from V. californicum, is showing great promise in the treatment of previously intractable brain, breast and pacreatic cancers. My friend Margaret Owen, who as Mark Brown pointed out has the UK National Collection of Veratrum, has been approached by academics from both the UK and the USA with a view to sampling the plants in her collection for alkaloids related to Cyclopamine. Evidently academics in the pharmaceutical world do not have the same scruples about dealing with us amateurs as their colleagues in botanical gardens.

Many of the populations from which I have collected Veratrum plants are threatened by development, which is (I don't need to explain to anyone in this forum) a vastly more significant threat to wild plant populations than collecting. No botanic garden is interested in maintaining a collection of Veratrum. For example, RBGE, in many ways a model botanic garden is to the best of my knowledge the only place in the UK other than my garden where V. woodii is in cultivation. Margaret wrote to RBGE asking for seed from their plants, which were growing on the justly famous rock garden there. She never heard back and, when she went to look at the plants herself, found that they had been overgrown by a neighbouring plant clump and have probably been lost.

Who in this tale is doing the most for Veratrum conservation? 

1. The botanic gardens and self-appointed guardians of ex situ plant conservation;
2. The halfwits who would rather allow seed of V. fimbriatum in populations where natural recruitment is negligible to be dispersed and lost forever than collected and propagated or;
3. 'Selfishly' motivated amateurs like Margaret and me?

Answers on a postcard.

Best wishes (and apologies to the many academic botanists and botanical garden employees who would agree that the lunatics are running the asylums),


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