Curator’s live tour 1/7/20

Here is the latest live tour in the Garden which took place on 1st July; Nick discusses pollination including the evolutionary adaptations of flower colour and shape, the native grassland and the importance of knapweed and yellow rattle, and the plants of the Mediterranean Maquis.

We apologise for the low sound quality in this video, but there should be enough to enjoy the tour!

Plant blindness

 

You may or may not of heard of the term ‘plant blindness’; it’s a phrase that we in the Botanic Garden have been hearing much more of in recent years and will continue to throw around in the future. It refers to the slow shutting off of plant knowledge from generation to generation resulting in an inability to acknowledge plants around us. The simple things that were once common knowledge, such as dock leaves used for nettle stings are becoming bred out of a collective instinct and plants are becoming irrelevant and annoying green things to many people.

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: a safe haven for seed

By Helen Roberts

Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands located in the high Arctic and only 1,300 km from the North Pole. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The landscape is stark, unforgiving and wholly memorable. I visited these islands more than 16 years ago as part of a 6-week science expedition – I was part of a botanical group looking at the exceptionally low-growing Arctic Willow. 
Memories of that place are still strong today. Its beauty and sense of isolation is unique. The humdrum of everyday life is simply stripped away here. You are left with the landscape, weather and incredible flora and fauna. Although life became simple, the vastness of the place was exhilarating and I felt totally and utterly free. 
The stark landscape of Svalbard
Photo credit: Paul Williams [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]

The Arctic is an ideal refuge for seeds

Within this unforgiving landscape, nestled deep within a mountainside, is a seed bank of global importance. It holds 12,000 years of agricultural history and contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. 
The Global Seed Vault is the brainchild of renowned scientist Cary Fowler, a former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It started as a simple idea back in the 1980s in the spirit of global collaboration, and finally came to fruition in 2008 when the building was completed. However, building the collection within is ongoing.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Photo credit: Amber Case [via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
The facility currently holds about 850,000 different varieties of seed and acts as the back up for seed banks across the globe. This is a collection that is vastly important for food security and the safeguarding of crop diversity. Those 850,000 packets of seed represent more than 5,000 species and nearly half of the world’s most important food crops, from cereal and rice to unique varieties of legumes. The seed deposits come from over 60 different institutions and represent nearly every country in the world. 
The chosen location of the global seed vault is an interesting story. It needed to be located somewhere safe from both potential natural disasters and human conflict. Svalbard itself is a safe place to store seed both in terms of physical and social factors. Svalbard’s remoteness ensures an extra layer of security, while its geological stability and location, 130m above sea level, means the vault would be safe even in the worst-case scenario of sea-level rise. The storage facility is buried 150m deep into the side of a mountain where there is no radiation and where humidity levels remain low. The mountain also acts as a natural freezer, reducing the facility’s reliance on mechanical refrigeration. The local infrastructure on Svalbard is also very good despite its remoteness – Svalbard is serviced by regular scheduled flights.
Svalbard itself is also politically very stable and military activity is prohibited in the region under the terms of the Treaty of Svalbard of 1920. The local government is highly competent and Norway has long been recognised as a key country in the international efforts to conserve Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA). 

Building and running the vault

The Global Seed Vault is built to store up to 4.5 million different varieties of seed. Constructed to be highly functional, the rectangular edifice emerging from the side of the mountain is stark but architecturally beautiful. The structure is energy efficient; insulated by the mountainside, it maintains an ambient temperature of -7°C and therefore only needs a further temperature drop to -18°C to reach the recognised standard temperature for the storage of viable seed. 
The vault was built and paid for by the Norwegian government to provide a service to the world community. The structure took 12 months to build and cost NOK 50 million (approximately £4.6 million). The facility runs as a partnership between the Government of Norway, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Operations regarding the vault are administered and controlled by an international advisory council of experts representing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), national gene banks, the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). 

Inside the building

Some people are lucky enough to visit the seed vault on the rare occasions that you can gain access inside. I had to see the interior of the facility via a virtual tour. 
The front entrance is understated, although to gain access you have to go through half a dozen locked doors, each requiring a different key. Although, security appears minimal, it’s not. The facility is under constant surveillance by Staatsbygg, the government of Norway’s property manager and developer;  security cameras and sensors are located throughout the building. There is some natural security, of course, as the roaming polar bears outside outnumber the human population of Svalbard. 
From the entrance lobby, a 150m long tunnel extends into the mountain before reaching the three main storage chambers. At the moment, only one storage chamber is in use, in time the others will be filled as more seed varieties are deposited. 
Seed is only deposited three times a year and this is the only time when the vault is opened. 

Making a deposit


The metal shelves inside the Global Seed Vault.
Photo credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen
[via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]
On arrival to Svalbard, seed lots are x-rayed and taken to the vault by NordGen staff members. The seed boxes containing the seed, which have been carefully placed in 3-ply aluminium packages, are then wheeled by trolley to the main storage chamber within the vault. Each package will contain on average 500 seeds. 
The seed lots are placed on simple metal shelving and are assigned bar codes to allow easy retrieval. They are catalogued using an information system called the Seed Portal of The Svalbard Seed Vault. This allows depositors to submit seed inventories and the general public to look at basic information about the seed that is stored within. Storage is free to depositors and they control access to the deposits. It is an International Black Box system, which ensures that only the depositor can access the raw seed and open the boxes. 

The most recent seed deposits

Last year, the first tree seeds were deposited from Norway and Finland. In February, pine and spruce seed was taken to the vault for storage from the Norwegian Forest Seed Center and the Finnish gene reserves forests of Lappträsk and Puolango, and Filpula and Lovisa. This deposit provides a back-up in the event that global climate change, forest management techniques and other factors, such as pests and disease begin to compromise the genetic diversity of these forests. It is a method of conserving the existing genetic resources and enabling long-term monitoring of the genetic variation within these forests, including any changes that occur because of tree breeding. This long-term tree seed project involves the countries of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Norway. 
The last deposit of seed was on 26th May 2016, with deposits from Germany, Thailand, New Zealand and the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan. Germany placed over 6,000 accessions into the vault of a number of different crop varieties, New Zealand deposited a number of varieties of sheep food including rye grass and white clover, Thailand deposited some 20 samples of very special chilli peppers and the World Vegetable Center deposited 1,200 seed lots from a number of different nations. 

Our agricultural future

The importance of this seed vault is apparent; it ensures the survival of the world’s most important crop species. Some seed varieties within the depths of this safe haven can survive for up to 4,000 years. In terms of food security, that is long term planning for human agriculture. 

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.


References:

Doomsday Vault Opened for Syrian Seeds: 
What is NordGen?:
Croptrust: 
Forest seed destined for Svalbard:
Forest tree seeds arrive at Svalbard’s ‘Doomsday vault’:
Arctic seed vault ‘key to future global crops’:
Storing the World’s Seeds in a Frozen Mountainside:
From sheep food to chili peppers – seed deposit at Arctic Vault takes the world one step closer to future food security: 
In the vault: David Osit:
Svaalbard Global Seed Vault:

Know your knotweed advice

By Nicola Temple

Researchers at the University of Exeter‘s Penryn campus have had a comprehensive look at Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)  guidance from a range of sources on the web, including government sites, environmental NGOs, weed control companies, the media and the property market. They’ve found that this advice is often contradictory and even misleading.

A Japanese knotweed contaminated area in Hertfordshire
is identified with signage.
Photo credit: Peter O’Connor via Flickr [CC By-SA 2.0]
Japanese knotweed was introduced to the UK as an ornamental in the mid-1800s. It quickly became a problem plant, spreading swiftly and widely across the UK. This brutish invasive can penetrate building foundations and drains and is estimated to cost the UK economy £165 million a year.
The plant can grow from very small fragments of rhizome that weigh as little 0.01 g [1]. The rhizome material is capable of surviving for three months in a salty environment, which allows it to spread in coastal regions. Disturbing the rhizomes underground only promote growth and cutting the material above ground stimulates new above ground stems. It is the very definition of nuisance.

Japanese knotweed and the law

Two pieces of legislation were enacted to  provide the legal teeth needed to help control Japanese knotweed [2]. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Section 14), it is illegal to plant or otherwise cause Japanese knotweed to grow in the wild. Offences can carry a maximum £5,000 fine or six months in prison, or both, in magistrates court. A Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine or maximum prison sentence of 2 years, or both.
The second piece of legislation is under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (Section 33), where it is classed as ‘controlled waste# and must therefore be disposed of according to the Environmental Protection Act (Duty of Care) Regulations 1991. If you keep, treat or dispose of knotweed in a manner that is likely to allow it to spread, a magistrates court can impose a maximum fine of £20,000 or prison sentence of 6 months, or both. A Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine or maximum prison sentence of 2 years, or both.
Allowing Japanese knotweed to spread to your neighbours can also be considered a private nuisance. Failure to control this plant on your land could therefore result in a prosecution or community protection notice.

Mixed messages

Japanese knotweed growing along a fence in East London.
Photo credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr [CC licence BY-SA 2.0]

The research, published today (4th July) in the journal Applied Ecology, included a content analysis, which objectively describes written, spoken and visual communication, and allows researchers to quantify different types of content. This is a method often used in social research, but rarely applied to ecological questions, such as invasive plants. The results showed that there is conflicting advice out there, particularly about the disposal of Japanese knotweed, which could result in people taking the wrong course of action that leads to the unlawful and environmentally harmful spread of the plant.
“It is important to provide clear advice about the waste disposal of Japanese knotweed,” explained Beth Robinson, a PhD researcher in Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute and lead author of the study, “as it can regrow from small fragments of rhizome and incorrect disposal of waste material can result in further spread of this plant.”
Even government websites were found to have conflicting and unclear information. The researchers point to Devon and Cornwall councils as both having valuable and accurate information about knotweed management. However, most of us are likely to consult the website of our own local council with the assumption that the information they provide is accurate.
“We recommend that local and national authorities collaborate and work towards disseminating more consistent messages,” said Robinson.
A tendency by the media to sensationalise the risks associated with this invasive plant can lead to unnecessary anxiety and expenditure.  An extreme example of this was headlines in 2013 such as ‘Murder andsuicide by husband driven mad over knotweed‘. Stories such as this make it sound as though the plant might have a psychoactive effect – driving people mad by its sheer presence, when indeed there are serious underlying mental health issues.
The Exeter researchers stress that Japanese knotweed needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis. While some knotweed invasions do require professional assistance, small-scale occurrences in domestic gardens may be effectively controlled and disposed of responsibly by the homeowner.

Visit the Cornwall Council website for some reliable information about Japanese knotweed and its management. 


The paper in Applied Ecology is titled ‘Weeds on the web: conflicting management advice about an invasive non-native plant’ and is authored by Beth S. Robinson, Richard Inger, Sarah L. Crowley and Kevin J. Gaston.


Sources:

[1]   &nbs
p; Macfarlane, J.S. (2011) Development of Strategies for the Control and Eradication of Japanese Knotweed [MPhil Thesis, University of Exeter] <https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/11862>

[2]     Cornwall County Council (2016) ‘Japanese Knotweed Legal Issues’ [website accessed 4/7/2016] <https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/environment-and-planning/trees-hedges-and-woodland/invasive-plants/japanese-knotweed/japanese-knotweed-legal-issues/>