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Coffee (Coffea species)

Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa )

Gathering seeds of Bixa orellana, in Mali

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)












Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) Giant Amazon waterlily (Victoria amazonica )

Cáfe marron (Ramosmania rodriguesii )

Wood’s cycad (Encephalartos woodii )

18 l KEW Summer 2010

He realised, for example, that a successful wild harvest of the commercially valuable Brazil nut was dependent on the health of the surrounding Amazon rainforest. This is because the tree requires female euglossine bees to pollinate it, and they will only mate with males that successfully gather a cocktail of scents from several orchid species, all of which only thrive in undisturbed forest.

Today, the need to understand, conserve and restore biodiversity lies at the core of Kew’s endeavours, and is the basis of the new Breathing Planet Programme. Its taxonomists add to our knowledge on the planet’s biodiversity by seeking out, naming and describing the unique characteristics of species that are new to science (see Kew magazine, spring 2010). Experts estimate that 270,000 plant species exist on Earth. However, with some 2,000 new species being uncovered every year, we are far from knowing the exact figure.

‘Biodiversity is important because there’s simply so much we don’t know about it,’ says Bill Baker, head of Kew’s palm research programme. ‘We can’t risk squandering biodiversity in an ad hoc manner. It’s impossible to prioritise plants that are more important than others, as we don’t have a clear picture of how these different species interact. The interactions are undoubtedly so complex that the loss of one thing can be catastrophic.’

At the MSBP, seeds arrive daily for banking in the subterranean store. The curation staff clean every new collection, and germinate a selection of seeds from each one to ensure they are viable. This process is helping to increase knowledge about the unique environmental conditions required by each species to germinate and grow. ‘Through the germination testing, we’re learning a great deal about how to ensure the survival of different species,’ explains Paul Smith. ‘It’s not just a matter

Kew scientists research a huge diversity of plants and fungi, including those pictured left, in pursuit of everything from cancer cures to habitat restoration, sustainable crops to conservation of banking the seeds, it’s about turning those seeds into plants.’

The MSBP uses this knowledge to work around the world on projects that reduce wild harvesting and preserve biodiversity, by helping communities cultivate species that are of value to them. For example, its Useful Plants Project is working with communities in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Mali and Mexico to propagate useful plants in community gardens. This project is combining traditional knowledge about each plant’s uses, with horticultural expertise on how best to grow it. This also reduces pressure on wild populations and makes more plants available to the local community.

A long-term aim for Kew is to use its knowledge of cultivating plants to help restore damaged ecosystems. Some of the Earth’s most damaged ecosystems are those on islands. Their isolation means that many have endemic plants – species that don’t grow anywhere else. However, their limited area and environmental conditions make it hard for plants to compete with introduced, non-native species or adapt to climate change. Kew’s UK Overseas Territories team works to try to deliver the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) within the UK’s 16 overseas territories. The GSPC, adopted in 2002, aims to halt the loss of plant diversity.

‘Conservation of biodiversity underpins the work we do,’ says Martin Hamilton, Coordinator of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) Programme. ‘We identify threatened species and then work to get them established in ‘ex-situ’ conservation. Some of the plants in the UKOTs are on the edge of extinction, so we work to get those re-established in suitable, preferably protected, areas in the wild. We’re a long way from being able to re-establish biodiverse ecosystems. The difficulty is that once you’ve changed the landscape, you’ll never get it back 100 per cent. But we hope, in time, to be able to establish functional natural systems. For example, we’ve helped to set up native plant nurseries in the Falkland Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and St Helena to provide plants for future restoration work.’

Closer to home, Kew is working to protect the diversity of our native plants. With half of all European plants threatened with extinction, one of the MSBP’s early achievements was to collect and bank seeds from virtually all the UK’s 1,400 native species. More than 250 people from 37 organisations helped gather the seeds, and their efforts have ensured that seeds from the 300 or so endangered species are now safely stored for posterity. In Kew’s Jodrell


Why does biodiversity matter to me?

‘You are biodiversity. Most of the oxygen you breathe comes from plankton in the oceans of the world and lush forests around the globe. The fruit and vegetables you eat were likely to have been pollinated by bees, and the water you drink is part of a huge global cycle involving you, clouds, rainfall, glaciers, rivers and oceans. Your diet depends almost entirely on the plants and animals around us, from the grasses that give us rice and wheat, to the fish and meat from both wild and farmed landscapes.

‘Your body contains up to 100 trillion cells and is connected with everything around you and the wider world in a wonderfully complex and timeless system. You share your atoms with every being and object in the natural world, you are both ancient and inconceivably young.

‘You share the planet with as many as 13 million different living species, including plants, animals and bacteria, only 1.75 million of which have been named and recorded. This incredible natural wealth is a priceless treasure that forms the ultimate foundation of your human well-being.

‘The disappearance of unique species is a loss that cannot be calculated and leaves us all much poorer. We can stop this loss, the question is – will we? The International Year of Biodiversity is our chance to prove we will.’

Source: – the official website of the UK’s International Year of Biodiversity campaign

KEW Summer 2010 l 19