25 June 2018

Plant explorers: the adventure continues

Field science is behind some of the most rare and endangered plants now protected and displayed at the Temperate House. Kew Scientist Elinor Breman takes a break from expeditions to explain why it continues to be part of Kew’s heritage.

Elinor Breman

By Dr Elinor Breman and Meryl Westlake

Inside the Temperate House

Protecting endangered species 

New plant species are being discovered and described every year and Kew scientists are at the forefront of these expeditions. 

This isn’t just an exercise in exploration. 

One in five plants are threatened with extinction. 

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) is seeking out rare, threatened and useful plants to harvest seeds from the wild and store them. It helps us prevent the species going extinct and provides options for the future. 

Adventurous science 

Like the plant explorers 250 years ago, scientists like me are visiting some of the world’s more remote regions, relying on local knowledge and facing harsh environmental conditions. 

Thanks to technology, those expeditions have become easier. 

We can combine satellite imagery with herbarium record data and distribution models to best tell us where we need to go to find a particular species. GPS marks out location with a metre accuracy. 

Vehicles can take us to places that were previously reached by foot - or horse. 

Clothing, tents, food and stoves have evolved to be lighter and more weather resistant. Vaccinations and antibiotics help us deal with tropical diseases. 

That’s not to say it’s risk free. 

My colleagues and I have faced tropical diseases, torrential rains, precarious roads, unrelenting sun and more to find and conserve global plant diversity 

Working together 

The nature of plant exploration has changed. 

Once, Kew would send people to all corners of the world in search of plants that could help the Empire. 

Now we work in partnership with scientists and governments in country so to better understand plant diversity. 

The MSBP alone worked with partners in 95 countries and has projects in the field in 54 of them right now. 

We follow permits, quarantine processes and international conventions that help us move plant material between countries; we can’t just take them. 

Now, we are focused on building up the resources and abilities of our partners to better meet their own obligations to international agreements like the Convention on Biodiveristy and the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. 

50% of the seeds Kew’s horticultural team use from the MSB seed vault are on display in the Temperate House. 

You can see the Velvet Daisy Bush (Olearia pannosa subsp. cardiophylla) from the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Come to the glasshouse yourself to learn about this long-lived marvel and the threats it currently faces in the wild. 

Exploration in the future 

Exploration is not just about banking the world’s seeds. 

Our Tree Gang are in the British Virgin Islands carrying out post-hurricane remedial work on the country’s trees. 

In Colombia, a huge partnership between Colsciencias and Kew resulted in a ground-breaking research trip to Boyacá, a region previously unexplored due to local tensions.  

We have scientists studying edible orchids in Zambia, and medicinal plants in Kyrgyzstan.   

This tradition will not stop. Expeditions will lead us to discover plants and fungi that could help us solve some of the world’s most pressing issues like food security and biodiversity loss. 

I’ll be soon heading to the Alps to collect seeds of alpine plants threatened by climate change and habitat loss with MSBP partners from three countries.   

We want a world where plants and fungi are understood, valued and conserved - because our lives depend on them. The adventure continues. 

Book your ticket today and see plants from around the world at the Temperate House or read about their amazing stories