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Welcome to Kew's UK Overseas Territories programme blog

Pat Griggs
14 October 2010

Find out about the plants of the UK Overseas Territories and how Kew's UKOTs programme is helping to understand and conserve them.

From the Antarctic to the Mediterranean and from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, the islands and peninsulas that make up the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) hold many more unique plants than the whole of the UK mainland. Botanists and horticultural specialists from Kew Gardens are working with conservation organisations within the Territories to identify, monitor and conserve their botanical riches.

Kew's UKOTs Programme blog will provide updates on conservation projects, interesting plants from the Territories in the Gardens and Herbarium and on other team activities - please check back here regularly to find out about progress.

The UK Overseas Territories

Aerial view of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory (Photo: Chagos Conservation Trust)

The 16 UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are mostly remote groups of  islands.  Some Territories, such as South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territory, experience harsh winds and low temperatures throughout the year, whilst Ascension Island in the Atlantic, the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean have tropical or sub-tropical climates.  Many emerged from the oceans millions of years ago as a result of volcanic eruptions. With their diverse climates and environmental conditions, the Territories accommodate many different plants and animals, some of them unique to particular islands. St Helena in the South Atlantic has 44 plant species found nowhere else in the world. 

Kew's connections with the UKOTs

Collecting and identifying plants on Montserrat

Kew has long-standing links to many of the UKOTs, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when it was involved in botanical exploration around the world, particularly within the British Empire where it contributed to the development of crop resources for local use and as export commodities.  Today, botanists and horticultural specialists from Kew continue to investigate plant diversity in the UKOTs, with a particular emphasis on carrying out thorough botanical surveys.  These surveys help to establish which plants grow where, whether they are under threat from natural events or human activities and how they can be conserved into the future.   

Botanical research and conservation activities

Collecting plant specimens from the Falkland Islands

The UKOTs programme team at Kew contributes to conservation projects in Territories in the South Atlantic (South Georgia, Falkland Islands, St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha) and the Caribbean (Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, Cayman Islands), as well as in Bermuda and the British Indian Ocean Territory.  Projects involve regular fieldwork alongside local partners to assess different types of vegetation to find out which native and introduced plant species are present and monitor any vegetation changes. 

Providing horticultural support for native plant re-introductions on St Helena

They also provide support for a range of horticultural activities within the Territories, such as helping local horticulturists to build the nurseries needed for the propagation of threatened plants or to develop cultivation skills.  Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has organised seed collecting expeditions within several Territories to bring seeds of native and threatened species back to the UK for long-term safe storage.  They are also helping conservation organisations in the UKOTs to acquire the skills and equipment required for their own seed collecting programmes.

Herbarium specimen of one of Ascension Island's unique plants, Euphorbia origanoides, collected during the HMS Challenger expedition in 1851

The plant specimens collected during fieldwork are added to the 8 million dried pressed plants already held in Kew's Herbarium.  All of the UKOTs plant specimens, both recent and historic, are being scanned electronically so that digital versions can be made available online through the UKOTs online herbarium.  Each digital image is accompanied by the information available on the specimen label, from collectors' notebooks and research data, to provide a valuable conservation resource for use in the Territories.

Monitoring the growth of Rondeletia buxifolia a unique species from Montserrat

As well as displaying UKOTs plants in the glasshouses and Gardens at Kew, Kew's horticultural team are investigating the best conditions to cultivate recently collected plants, many of which have never been grown outside the Territories before.  You can see UKOTs species in the Temperate House and the Rock Garden.  For species that are particularly threatened in the wild, the skilled staff of the Conservation Biotechnology Unit propagate plants from tiny pieces of leaf or from seeds or spores that are difficult to germinate under normal glasshouse conditions. 

- Pat -

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