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Plant story - Acanthus syriacus, a difficult species for seed collecting

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has conserved the rare plant Acanthus syriacus. Farmers cut the plants back because of the hard and harmful spines that hurt them and their cattle. Collecting the seeds of Acanthus syriacus

Acanthus syriacus (Photo: S. Khairallah)

Introducing Acanthus syriacus

Acanthus syriacus is a 60-80 cm high perennial with large, oblong to lanceolate leaves of which the lobes are very spiny at the base. When mature, the plants are very spiny and difficult to touch. As a result, collecting seeds of Acanthus syriacus presents a kind of challenge.

This plant's generic name is derived from Greek Akantos, spine, because of the many spines on different parts of the plant. The attractive leaf-shape inspired the Greek sculpture "Callimaque" for the ornamentation of the Corinthian capital. This species is becoming very rare in Lebanon. It is not found everywhere, and is endangered. Farmers cut the plants green because of the hard and harmful spines that hurt them and their cattle. 

The challenge of seed collecting

The efforts to collect Acanthus syriacus go back to July 1998, when Dr Michiel Van Slageren, from Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, and Simon Khairallah from the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), found six plants along the main road near Jubb-Jannine in the southern part of the Beka'a Valley. Unfortunately they couldn't collect a single seed, because all the seeds had disappeared. Without knowing the reason for this, conservationists from Kew made another visit to the site the following year, but the plants in the area had been completely destroyed and there was no trace of Acanthus syriacus. Since that time and until 2001, many trips were organised to different Lebanese provinces to collect wild species, but we had no success in finding more Acanthus syriacus.

It was only in the spring of 2002, when Simon Khairallah and Joêlle Breidi from LARI, found three sites of Acanthus syriacus during a collecting trip in the Merjeyoun - Biader el A'adass - Rachaya - Hasbaya region in south eastern Lebanon. The largest population among all was in Merjeyoun, where around 50 plants were standing on the border of a wheat field. It was a big surprise! Four trips were made since the discovery to Merjeyoun before the maturity stage to check the situation and everything seemed to be fine. However, close to the time of collecting the seeds the situation had completely changed - not a single seed was collected in Merjeyoun or in Hasbaya, as all the plants were subject to diseases and insect damage. Checking finally the third site in Biader el A'adass, plants of Acanthus were intact: not cut, not ploughed, but for our good luck, seeds were present, mature and healthy.

So finally after four years of searching in the fields and looking for Acanthus syriacus, we succeeded in collecting about 800 seeds with unexpected luck.

Story by Simon Khairallah and Joêlle Breidi, LARI, Tal Amara, Lebanon | More plant stories

Get involved - Adopt a Seed, Save a Species

We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.

Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.

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