Experts at Kew's UK Native Seed Hub hope for happy ending for rare Rapunzel plant
An endangered wild flower which inspired the classic fairytale Rapunzel is being conserved for the future by experts at Wakehurst Place, the Sussex country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The rare Spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) – also known as Rapunzel – is under threat of extinction in the UK. It survives in just a handful of locations in this country, all of them in East Sussex.
An endangered wild flower which inspired the classic fairy tale Rapunzel is being conserved for the future by experts at Wakehurst Place, the Sussex country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The rare Spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) – also known as Rapunzel – is under threat of extinction in the UK. It survives in just a handful of locations in this country, all of them in East Sussex.
Now horticulturists working to restore the species are planting Rapunzel in the UK Native Seed Hub at Wakehurst Place, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, giving visitors the opportunity to see this intriguing and exceptionally rare wildflower for the first time. Other plants raised in the nursery at Wakehurst will be restored to the wild and used to provide a sustainable source of seed for future conservation, with Kew working in partnership with the Species Recovery Trust and other local organisations.
Spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) also known as the Rapunzel plant (Image: Paddy Wood, RBG Kew.)
Wakehurst visitors will be able to see the Rapunzel plant - which has delicate cream-coloured spikes of flowers - for themselves when the UK Native Seed Hub opens for the summer on Friday May 3.
Rapunzel is among 16 species of British wildflowers being grown in the Seed Hub to provide vital supplies of seeds for conservation projects around the country. Further species - many typical of threatened habitats in the Sussex Weald and Downs - will be planted this summer.
Ted Chapman, Co-ordinator of the UK Native Seed Hub (Image: Paddy Wood, RBG Kew)
Ted Chapman, Co-ordinator of the UK Native Seed Hub, said:
“Rapunzel is one of the rarest plants we have in the UK Native Seed Hub and, having discovered the best way of propagating the plant, we are delighted to be planting it out as part of our conservation work. Our vision is to secure its future in the UK and make the sight of this beautiful plant more common. It has such a fascinating story both as a medicinal plant and the species that caused Rapunzel to be locked in her tower. It is great to be able to give our visitors the chance to see it.”
Dominic Price, Director of the Species Recovery Trust, said:
“Spiked Rampion is now so rare in the wild that it would be impossible to secure its future without both the plants and the expertise from the UK Native Seed Hub. The future for the plant is already looking much brighter"
In the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, an expectant mother craves a Rapunzel or rampion plant in her neighbour’s garden, and is desperate to have it at any cost, even “to the point of death”. The plant was believed to have medicinal qualities and her husband is compelled to collect it for her. When stealing it, he is caught by the neighbouring enchantress and agrees to hand over the child, at birth, to be raised as her own. At twelve years old, the beautiful daughter Rapunzel is locked away in a remote, stairless tower in the middle of the woods. The most famous line from the story comes from when the enchantress visits Rapunzel, and calls out “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair”.
The story goes on to have a happy ending and horticulturists are hoping for a ‘happy ever after’ outcome for the Rapunzel plant. Today there are less than 300 plants surviving in the wild, in damp acidic soils along streams, verges and in coppiced woodland. A decline in woodland management at some locations, which has increased the level of shade, is exacerbating its decline.
Experiments by Kew staff have developed reliable propagation methods and, as a result, they are now able to produce much larger numbers of plants for reintroduction to the wild. Experiments are also being carried out with sowing, planting and habitat management techniques to discover exactly what Rapunzel needs to thrive.
Ted Chapman said:
“Rapunzel is just one of a range of wildflowers being grown in the UK Native Seed Hub. Other highlights at the moment include a massed display of vibrant yellow cowslips (Primula veris) and the stunning red flowers of pheasant’s eye (Adonis annua), another very rare wildflower.
"The bank holiday is also the perfect time to visit Wakehurst to enjoy spring flowers in our garden, woodlands and Loder Valley nature reserve, including magnolias, rhododendrons and primroses.”
For some background information, see the Kew Magazine.
Notes to editors:
UK Native Seed Hub production site
The UK Native Seed Hub production site opened at Wakehurst Place last summer to enable visitors to see conservation work to restore threatened habitats in the UK. It includes 32 seed production beds, a willow sculpture trail with ten giant flower sculptures made by renowned sculptor Tom Hare, interactive displays, and an apiary. Visitors can also find out more about how experts at Wakehurst care for the rural landscape, including using a flock of Southdown sheep for grazing.
Rapunzel survives at only nine sites in East Sussex and due to its restricted distribution, small population size and ongoing decline it has been assigned the conservation status of Endangered, with a high risk of local extinction. Six of the sites have less than 10 plants each and the total wild population in Britain is less than 300 plants. Rapunzel is a long-lived herbaceous perennial and is found in the UK in damp, acidic soils along streams, verges and in coppiced woodland. The general decline in woodland management and scrub encroachment at some locations is exacerbating its decline by increasing shade of which it is intolerant. Attempts to conserve and restore the species are further confounded by grazing of the young seedlings by slugs, snails, rabbits and deer. In cultivation, germinating the seed has also proved challenging, but after a series of experiments Kew staff have succeeded in breaking dormancy through a prolonged period of chilling.
Rapunzel fairy tale
Reviewers of the Grimm brothers’ story describe links to earlier and similar tales, where parsley was obsessively desired during pregnancy. Others make a link between medicinal herbs used in pregnancy and rather than an enchantress suggest the neighbour was a witch or medicine woman. The brothers Grimm kept their own dictionary and it includes several plant species that could be the Rapunzel, including Phyteuma spicatum. On the continent the plant is known as the white Rapunzel. It is first known in Britain as a cultivated plant and the description in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 states, “Some affirme that the decoction of the roots are good for all inflammation of the mouth and almonds of the throte and other diseases happening in the mouth and throte, as the other Throte warts.” Rapunzel was first recorded as a wild plant in Britain in 1640, and in Sussex in 1824.
Wakehurst Place is the country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and home to formal gardens, natural woodlands, nature reserves, and a sixteenth century mansion. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, located at Wakehurst, is the largest wild plant seed collection in the world. The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10% of the world’s wild flowering plant species (c. 30,000 species) and aim to conserve 25% by 2020.
Wakehurst is on the B2028 between Ardingly and Turners Hill (Junction 10 off the M23), West Sussex, RH17 6TN and open every day from 10am, except December 24 and 25. For more information ring 01444 894067 or see the Visit Wakehurst pages on the Kew website.
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