Richard Lewis, a botanist working for Falklands Conservation and collaborating with Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) Team, is spending six months in the Falkland Islands, studying their native and introduced plants, collecting seed and preserved plant specimens. Here he describes the significance of his latest seed collection.
Richard Lewis during fieldwork on Mount Usborne, East Falkland
I was thrilled to find large stands of the silvery buttercup (Hamadryas argentea) in a few remote valleys on Weddell Island. The low levels of grazing in some parts of the Island have allowed this scarce species to thrive along with many other rare plants. I had tried to collect seeds of this species several times before in other parts of the Falklands but always been defeated: once a cold spring had made the plant flower late, another time the plants only had male flowers, so no seeds were set, and a third time some goats had escaped from a nearby farm and eaten all the female flowers – they must be tastier than the male flowers! The buttercup seeds have been carefully dried and sent to the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), where they will join seeds collected previously from the 12 other endemic species, preserved at low temperatures so they will stay alive and viable for decades or even centuries.
Female flowers of silvery buttercup (Image: Rebecca Upson, Falklands Conservation)
Male flowers of silvery buttercup (Image: Mike Morrison)
The 13 endemic plant species found only in the Falklands include some beautiful and unusual species, such as lady’s slipper (Calceolaria fothergillii) and snake plant (Nassauvia serpens). Unfortunately five of them are considered at risk of extinction. For example two species,Moore's plantain (Plantago moorei) and false plantain (Nastanthus falklandicus) are restricted to the southern coasts of West Falkland, where they are being affected by an invasive plant, mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), which can grow over and smother them. Keeping seeds carefully preserved at the MSB ensures that should these plants become extinct in the wild, they can still be grown from seed so future generations will still be able to learn about and appreciate the unique natural heritage of the Falklands.
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) is an ambitious project to preserve the seeds of wild plants from around the world. In 2010, working with partners all around the world, including several of the UKOTs, it met its first objective to save seeds from 10% of all known species of seed-bearing plants. It has now set a new goal to preserve seeds from 25% of known species in safe storage by 2020.
The MSBP has been working with Falklands Conservation and the Falkland Islands Government since 2004, with the aim of eventually preserving seeds from all the native flowering plants. The seeds of the 13 endemic species join seeds of a further 117 native species, which have been collected by local volunteers and botanists from Kew and Falklands Conservation. Over 80% of the native Falklands flowering plants are now in the MSB, with just 25 species left to collect.
Not only are these seeds saved in case of extinction in the wild, but they are also made available for research and other use. For example, several species which have undergone germination trials or full horticultural protocols are now on display in the Rock Garden and Davies Alpine House at Kew. By displaying these fascinating and unique plants, we hope to highlight the botanical significance of the far-flung UKOTs. Some seeds have also been sent back to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, to be grown at the Stanley Nurseries native plant nursery, which produces plants for habitat restoration projects and for sale to local gardeners. Seeds of some of the rarest species, such as Moore’s plantain, are being used by researchers at Kew to better understand issues affecting conservation, such as possible hybridisation with thrift plantain (Plantago barbata).
- Richard -