Our first meeting of the 2016/17 season was truly fascinating. Sophie Leguil, the Plant Heritage Plant Conservation Officer, travelled all the way from her home in northern France to talk to us about the history of plant conservation, why it’s important and what’s happening to promote it throughout the rest of the world.
Plant conservation is what Plant Heritage is all about – not only is Plant Heritage the world’s leading, and biggest, plant conservation charity, it was also the world’s first, yet it’s a very young organisation – it was founded on the 27th of October, 1978.
Conservation of plants and animals didn’t really start until the early 20th century, and it was a reaction to the increasing pressure on natural resources caused by the industrial revolution (sound familiar?). As an example, the tree Franklinia Alatamaha has been extinct in the wild since the 1900s as it was harvested for wood, but it is also slow growing, so it had no hope of competing with more aggressive species. It now only exists in private gardens.
And this is the main reason why plant conservation is so important – with 500m people around the world still dependent on natural resources for their survival the loss of some plants from the wild can be devastating. Indeed, it is estimated that 25% of the world’s plant species are threatened with extinction.
Much of the work in global plant conservation is now focused on collecting information about which plants are found where, whether it be in botanic gardens or private gardens. Once they have this information, they’ll be able to start looking at programmes to reintroduce species into their wild habitats.
The other method being used to ensure plant conservation for future generations is the establishment of seed banks through the Global Seed Conservation Challenge (GSCC). These are seen as crucial because seeds can survive for hundreds of years in the right conditions and are very easy to transport. The GSCC’s Global Seed Vault can be found deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It is a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.
As well as hearing Sophie talk about the importance of plant conservation, we were also encouraged to join the campaign ourselves by becoming Plant Guardians. To be a plant guardian, all you have to do is own (or acquire via the Plant Heritage Plant Exchange) a threatened plant, and then register it on the Plant Heritage Plant Guardian Scheme. And, of course, do your best to keep it alive, and even to propagate from it. The more people who look after threatened plants, the more chance we stand of preserving our wonderful biodiversity.