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Samara: the international newsletter of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership

E-newsletter

Welcome to the Samara e-newsletter. The e-newsletter is published three times a year in March, June and September, starting September 2021. It aims to share up-to-date news and stories from across the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) as well as share information of relevance to the partnership.

The e-newsletter sits alongside the annual print version of Samara, published in December. More information and past issues of the print edition of Samara can be found on the dedicated webpage.

If you have any feedback or would like to get in touch with the Samara team, please email samara@kew.org

Issue 1: September 2021

This issue we hear about field work activities in Australia, Mexico, Pakistan and South Africa; we interviewed Janet Terry who retired from the MSB in July after more than 30 years and we outline the current plant health requirements for shipping plant material to the UK.

Clusters of orange flowers on tree branches
Butea monosperma, Pakistan. (Photo: Amir Sultan).
Two purple flower heads emerging from rocks
Conophytum spp., South Africa. (Photo: J.A.S. James).
Several purple flowers on a branch with opposite pinnate leaves
Guaiacum coulterii, Mexico. (Photo: Jesús Sánchez).
A row of orchid seedlings with corresponding identification tags ready for translocation
Pterostylis psammophila, Australia. (Photo: Dr Jenny Guerin).

Pakistan is rated as ‘comparatively’ forest-poor by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), with only 0.05 ha of forest per capita compared with a global average of 1.0 ha in 2019 (FAO, 2002). In addition, the severe impacts of a changing climate, the high rate of population growth (1.95%) and the subsequent pressure on land, together with a high demand for forest products, is placing additional strains on the country’s forest cover.

In rural areas, wood is an important commodity for fuel and timber, which is driving forest clearance at an alarming rate (90% of households are reliant on wood for fuel). And additional pressures exist due to severe overgrazing and the conversion of forests for agriculture.

IUCN conservation assessments show that many trees used for their medicinal properties in Pakistan are threatened with extinction, such as the Critically Endangered Commiphora wightii (Mukul myrrh tree), while Taxus wallichiana (Himalayan yew) and Rhamnella gilgitica are classified as Endangered and Vulnerable respectively. Much research still needs to be carried out on other species to lift them from the status of Data Deficient, such as Cercis griffithii (Afghan rebud), Malus chitralensis (Chitral crab apple) and Prunus bokharienis.

Dr Shakeel Ahmad Jatoi and Dr Amir Sultan filling out paper forms in the field
Dr. Shakeel Ahmad Jatoi, Principal Scientific Officer, Bio-Resources Conservation Institute, left, and Dr. Amir Sultan, Programme Leader, Principal Scientific Officer, National Herbarium of Pakistan, record herbarium specimen data during a seed collecting trip to Chitral in June 2021. (Photo: Syed Bilal Hussain Shah).

A two-year project funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation in collaboration with the Pakistan Bio-resources Conservation Institute (BCI) is aiming to collect the seeds of at least 70 rare, threatened and over-exploited useful tree and shrub species in Pakistan. This project (part of the Global Tree Seed Bank Programme) follows on from the successful partnership between RBG Kew and BCI in the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Pakistan Project – MAPs (2019) and the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change (Crop Wild Relative - CWR) project (2016-2018). Project funding has purchased essential equipment needed to increase the capacity of BCI staff to conserve seed collections, such as a seed aspirator, an incubator-drier, a freezer, and tree seed collecting equipment. Additional funding secured from the Alan Lennox Boyd Memorial Trust was used to purchase reference books and herbarium supplies.

Despite delays to the project due to COVID-19, the team in Pakistan led by Dr. Sadar Uddin Siddiqui (Chief Scientific Officer/Curator of the National Genebank of Pakistan and Director of the Bio-resources Conservation Institute) has been able to collect seeds and herbarium specimens from plants belonging to 18 families, 29 genera and 31 species. Collections in the 2020/2021 season were made across a variety of habitat types and include rarities in Pakistan, such as Wrightia arborea (Woolly dyeing rosebay) from which the root, bark and leaves can be used in traditional medicine, as well as Butea monosperma (Flame of the forest) and the climate change-resilient, but underutilized, Sideroxylon mascatense. This plant is a small, but viciously spiny shrub, that produces a sweet edible purple fruit (a bit like a plum), which is believed to have the potential to be brought more widely into cultivation.

Hannan Majeed and Syed Bilal Hussain Shah using a pole pruner to collect seeds from the top of a tree
Hannan Majeed, right, and Syed Bilal Hussain Shah, collect seeds of Flacourtia indica in Shahdara, Islamabad Capital Territory, as part of the medicinal trees and shrubs project (Photo: Sadar Siddiqui).
Two orange flowers
Flowers of Butea monosperma (Flame of the forest). (Photo: Amir Sultan).
Clusters of orange flowers on tree branches
Butea monosperma (Flame of the forest) in full bloom in Rawalpindi District, Pakistan, in April 2021. (Photo: Amir Sultan).
References
  • FAO (2002) An overview of forest products statistics in South and Southeast Asia. Eds. Ma, Q. & Broadhead, J.S.. EC-FAO Partnership Programme.

The Succulent Karoo biome stretches along the west coast of South Africa, spanning an area of approximately 111,000 km2 between southern Namibia and the uplands of the Western Cape Province. It is home to 5000 vascular plant species, 40% of which are endemic. The world’s richest succulent flora occurs here. This diversity is remarkable for a region that receives 100 to 200 mm of rain annually (Mucina et al. 2006). In addition to this limited winter rainfall, the plants depend on the contributions of fog, dew and water vapour to meet their water requirements (Matimati et al. 2012).

Landscape photograph of rocky slopes and distant mountains with little vegetation
The Northern Cape landscape. (Photo: J.A.S. James).

In the past two years, an unprecedented upsurge in wild plant poaching from the Succulent Karoo and the adjacent Nama Karoo biomes has escalated the need for conservation in these regions. The partnership between RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has achieved over 7500 seed collections of native South African species to date. However, the species of the Succulent Karoo are relatively under-collected due to the high endemism of this biome and the remote locations of populations, which make accessibility for seed collections difficult. Thus, there are still many hundreds of rare and threatened plant species yet to be secured by seed banking.

The recent poaching increase is the result of a new interest in caudiciform and dwarf succulent species on foreign markets. Since mid-2019 there has been an increase in the number of poacher arrests and confiscation of wild plant material, which is brought to SANBI for identification, expert statements, and curation. In 2019 SANBI received on average 400 confiscated plants per week, which rose dramatically in 2021, to over 1500 plants per week. The genus Conophytum (Aizoaceae) has been especially targeted by poachers, while other confiscated genera include Anacampseros (Anacampserotaceae), Lithops (Aizoaceae) and Portulacaria (Portulacaceae). Many of these succulent species are already threatened and in some cases are critical habitat species, meaning that they only occur in an area less than 10 km2. This is the case for 48 Conophytum species, which occur as single populations, often on one ridge of a single mountain. Rare populations such as these are easily driven to extinction through over harvesting and several Conophytum species may already be extinct as a direct result of recent poaching.

Poaching compounds the pressure on these species from climate change. Models based on the key climatic and geological variables that influence Conophytum distribution predict a severe contraction of suitable habitat for most of the genus, increasing their extinction risk (Young et al. 2016).

In efforts to save these species from extinction in the wild, MSB South Africa has joined with the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW), a SANBI programme that surveys and documents plant taxa of conservation concern, providing data essential for updating the IUCN Red List. A new MSB Karoo biome extension project is also currently being developed to respond to this conservation crisis.

Group image of 9 people in front of a dry mountainous landscape
Team photo: Maria Kotze, Nomndeni Nkosi, Jacqui James, Ruby Davies, Pieter van Wyk, Leandra Knoetze, Volenti van der Westhuizen, Adam Harrower and Gavin Links. (Photo: A.D. Harrower).

There is now a race to bank the seeds before populations are decimated by poaching. Earlier this year MSB South Africa joined CREW on a field trip to assess and bank seeds of the species currently under the most poaching pressure. It was incredible to see the effort that goes into succulent poaching. To find them, the team had to scramble up steep rocky mountainsides under the blazing sun in the dry expanse of the Northern Cape, our vehicles becoming specks in the distance. The dry remains of succulents that had succumbed to the severe drought in recent years were scattered across the landscape, a reminder of the delicate balance of this region and the losses that may be brought about by climate change.

A succulent plant on cracked ground with several seed capsules.
Aizoaceae: Cheiridopsis robusta. (Photo: J.A.S. James).
Two purple flower heads emerging from rocks
Conophytum growing on a cliff face. (Photo: J.A.S. James).

Species of the genus Conophytum grow as single bodies (smaller than your thumb) or in small dense clusters that camouflage well with their rocky surroundings. They often grow tucked into rock crevices and (in some cases) are only present on impossible to reach cliff faces, which may indicate that the more accessible plants have already been poached. In two cases, poachers were at the sites only a few hours before us. It was a privilege to see these species in their natural habitats, but tragic to know that if the poaching continues, we might be some of the last. Yet, there is still hope for these species, in the seeds of 11 species collected on that trip and others that will soon be stored in the vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank, protecting these species for the future.

References
  • Matimati, I., Musil, C.F., Raitt, L. & February, E. (2012) Non rainfall moisture interception by dwarf succulents and their relative abundance in an inland arid South African ecosystem. Ecohydrology. 6: 818-825. https://doi.org/10.1002/eco.1304.
  • Mucina, L., Jürgens, N., Le Roux, A., Rutherford, M.C., Schmiedel, U., Esler, K., Powrie, L.W., Desmet, P.G. & Milton, S.J. (2006) Succulent Karoo Biome. In: Mucina, L., Rutherford, M.C. (Eds.) The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria. pp. 220-299.
  • Young, A.J., Guo, D., Desmet, P.G. & Midgley, G.F. (2016) Biodiversity and climate change: Risks to dwarf succulents in Southern Africa. Journal of Arid Environments. 129: 16-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2016.02.005.

Bridging the gap between the US Rocky Mountains and the Mexican Sierra Madre is a complex of 50 mountain ranges known as the Madrean ‘Sky islands’ Archipelago. With a diversity of habitats from desert shrubland to pine-oak woodlands, arranged across varied topography, the region is a priority for research and conservation, but botanical collections are under-represented from the Mexican territory (Deyo et al. 2013) and climate change is projected to erode and fragment the montane habitats (Yanahan & Moore 2018) before they have been fully studied.

Through the MSB Partnership, the Seed Bank of Facultad de Estudios Superiores Iztacala Universidad Autónoma de Mexico (FES-I UNAM) and RBG Kew have cooperated since August 2018 with the Herbarium of the University of Sonora (USON), in the important effort to conserve the Sonoran flora through seed banking. The aim was to diversify the collections of the seed banks involved and support their research studies, by collecting at least 150 accessions of native species of interest. Using USON in Hermosillo as the main base, field work was concentrated in 17 municipalities of Sonora State, as illustrated on the map in Fig. 1.

A map of Sonora state highlighting the municipalities of Agua Prieta, Alamos, Caborca, Cucurpe, General Plutarco Elías Calles, Guaymas, Hermosillo, Huásabas, La Colorada, Mazatán, Nácori Chico, Pitiquito, Puerto Peñasco, Santa Cruz, Suaqui Grande, TEpache and Ures.
Figure 1. Municipalities visited in Sonora State. (Map: FES-I UNAM).

During the 2018 and 2019 collection season, teams comprising staff from Kew, UNAM, and USON worked together in the field. The work was intense, the months of June, August and October of 2018 were the best for seed collecting. To maintain safety in these border regions the team were careful to seek cooperation with landowners and other biologists in the field. Although the 2020 health emergency forced many activities to stop, fortunately a team of local collectors located in Guaymas, led by Pablo Carrillo (Fig. 2), worked very hard despite the restrictions and managed to collect many species of interest.

Pablo Carrillo holding a pole pruner to collect seeds from the top of a tree he is standing next to
Figure 2. Biol. Pablo Carrillo collecting Parkinsonia microphylla in the town of La Pintada. (Photo: Pablo Carrillo).

Through the efforts of the teams, we have just finished the project with even better than expected results. In total, 244 accessions representing 44 botanical families, 147 genera and 194 species were collected and conserved, of which 49 are endemic species. Three species are included in some category of risk in accordance with the Official Mexican Standard NOM-059 SEMARNAT 2010, 14 are in Appendix II of CITES and 17 are in the Least Concern (LC) category of the IUCN.

All the species collected have biological, ecological, or economic importance, however the following species are especially emblematic:

  • The Guayacán, Guaiacum coulterii A. Gray, a native tree of the thorny scrub of Sonora, has medicinal properties and its wood is useful for construction as well as being very beautiful as an ornamental plant and a source of food for different species of pollinators. It is classified as threatened in Mexico and vulnerable internationally (Fig. 3 & 4).
    Several purple flowers on a branch with opposite pinnate leaves
    Figure 3. Flower of Guayacán, Guaiacum coulterii. (Photo: Jesús Sánchez).
    Three small red oval fruits of Guaiacum coulterii hanging on the end of a branch
    Figure 4. Fruit of Guayacán, Guaiacum coulterii. (Photo: Jesús Sánchez).
  • The Cabeza de viejo (‘Old Man's Head’), Lophocereus schottii (Engelm.) Britton & Rose, is a columnar cactus which has medicinal properties, found in Sonora’s thorny scrub and dunes. It is classified as subject to special protection in Mexico.
  • The Saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea (Engelm.) Britton & Rose, is perhaps one of the most appreciated species for its beauty in Arizona and Sonora. It has threatened status in Mexico.
  • A Nopal, an Opuntia spp., collected in the Sierra de Mazatán, is probably a new species for science that is being described by specialists.

In conclusion, the state of Sonora is, without a doubt, a place rich in plant diversity that should continue to be studied and conserved. Much remains to be discovered, collected and conserved in the most remote and inhospitable areas that are unfortunately not very easy to access.

Thanks to this project, valuable information has been created on the flora of the sky islands within Sonora, and knowledge has been developed on how security can be maintained within the area, also on the bi-national distribution of species that are threatened in the United States and little known from Mexico. We acknowledge generous support of John and Catherine Emberson to the Kew Foundation to enable this project to happen.

References

Over the last month, staff at the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre have been undertaking several orchid translocations. We translocated 116 plants of Sandhill Greenhood (Pterostylis arenicola) to Torrens Island, with help from Coastal Officer Darren Kennedy to measure and tag plants. Darren will water and help monitor the plants. We also translocated some Bayonet Spider-orchids (Caladenia gladiolata) to a private heritage agreement near Scott Creek Conservation Park (CP). In addition, Jenny and Thai translocated the Two Bristle Greenhood (Pterostylis psammophila) to exclosures in Sandy Creek CP last week, with the help of Kym Smith from the Friends group who helped record, tag and plant the greenhoods in the exclosures. Kym will help monitor this translocated population in the future.

Thai and Kym kneeling down plant orchids
Thai Te and Kym Smith measuring, tagging and planting the endangered Pterostylis psammophila at Sandy Creek Conservation Park. (Photo: Dr Jenny Guerin).
A row of orchid seedlings with corresponding identification tags ready for translocation
Pterostylis psammophila plants propagated using symbiotic in-vitro methods ready for translocation. (Photo: Dr Jenny Guerin).

In the lab we’ve also isolated fungus for a number of threatened orchid species lately for some symbiotic in-vitro propagation work later this year. We’ve been trialling some methods for some difficult species so we were recently delighted (and relieved) to see some success for black-beaked duck-orchid (Caleana disjuncta). We’re doing further research on the Copper beard-orchid (Calochilus cupreus) at the moment for ‘Green Adelaide’ so we’re hoping for similar success before we take off into the wilds again. The world count got up to nearly 40 plants last year so we’re hoping to augment this with propagated plants…and find more populations.

Magnified image showing the tear drop shaped seed of Caleana disjuncta with fungal hyphae protruding
Black-beak duck orchid (Caleana disjuncta) protocorm on oatmeal agar media. (Photo: Dan Duaval, SASCC).

On the 27th August, we put on a display at Adelaide Botanic Garden of some of the endangered orchids (12+ species) we’re currently propagating for the ‘Back from the Brink’ project. This was a good opportunity for landholders, volunteers, partners and sponsors to see some of these interesting orchids in flower.

Kolkhuri jonjoli, Staphylea colchica Steven

Ian Willey (RBG Kew)

Staphylea colchica is native to the Caucasus region where it is known commonly as kolkhuri jonjoli (კოლხური ჯონჯოლი Georg.), Colchis Bladdernut, Caucasian Bladdernut, Jonjol or the Jonjoli tree. Staphylea colchica is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing up to 4 metres in height with three or five ovate leaflets with finely toothed margins. In spring its small, white, fragrant bell-shaped flowers are borne on racemes and develop into greenish-white bladder-like papery fruits containing orange seeds (hence its name “bladdernut tree” in English). The flowering shoots with buds of ‘Jonjoli trees’ are edible and are pickled by fermenting in brine to produce Jonjoli, a revered delicacy in the Caucasus, and in Georgia are a common feature of the traditional feast “Supra”.

People from across the Caucasus region will have eaten Jonjoli, and an export market exists in countries with a significant Caucasian diaspora. S. colchica’s cultural value is both a blessing and a curse. Jonjoli occupies a special place in the region’s cultural identity with the tree recognisable and cherished by many. However, wild populations are threatened by the over collecting of reproductive parts for culinary purposes. Harvesting the flowering shoots and buds limits the plants’ ability to reproduce from seed, further decreasing the viability of source populations. Additionally, S. colchica distribution is severely fragmented across its native range, and the number of individual plants per population is low. A preliminary assessment in 2005 reports that distribution in the Caucasus has reduced by 50%, but a full global IUCN Red List assessment remains incomplete, and more field data is needed to establish a reliable baseline. Taxonomic studies are needed to validate species status and more research is needed to understand threats to the species and the true rate of decline.

Two ex situ seed collections of S. colchica are banked in Georgia and duplicated to the MSB. These collections are a key component of efforts to protect this species and seeds can be made available for use dependant on prior consent from partner institutions. However, S. colchica requires greater protection in situ. Overharvesting and land-use change are very real threats but by promoting sustainable harvesting and engaging communities, as was done in the Darwin Initiative-funded Enhancing rural Caucasian livelihoods through fruit and nut conservation, this culturally significant plant can be protected.

More information on other species conserved through the project can be found in the project booklet (pdf).

A cluster of white flowers and buds
The flowers and buds of the Jonjoli tree. (Photo: National Botanic Garden, Georgia).
A group of people standing in a circle listening to a member of the British Georgian Society in front of a Jonjoli tree
The Georgian Ambassador to the UK, Her Excellency Ms Sophie Katsarava, with the British Georgian Society presenting the cultural importance of Jonjoli whilst standing in front of Staphylea colchica at Kew Gardens, July 2020 (Photo: I. Willey).

A fond farewell to Janet Terry

Three people stood holding a framed certificate infront of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Janet (centre) as part of the MSB team delivering seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on behalf of The Prince of Wales. (Photo: Ahmed Amri).
Janet holding a small glass vial containing a seed
Janet holding the billionth seed to be banked at the MSB. (Photo: Paul Little).

Circa 1984, when Janet began a Saturday job working in the restaurant at Wakehurst, she could not have envisaged the 3-decade long career which would follow, when she would go on to travel the world and meet, train, and collect with “so many of our wonderful partners” and “see so many strange and unique seeds and know we have them safely stored”.

When an opportunity arose with the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR, now The Crop Trust) which was running a seed handling unit at Wakehurst, Janet applied for the job as “it sounded interesting!”. Teams went out in the field (predominantly Africa) to collect cultivars and specimens of all the major crops. These got sent back to Janet, who had to sort and distribute them to the crop gene banks which were working on them. In 1990 a seed processing job came up with Kew and Janet moved to work for Kew. Work started on setting standards for collecting and storing seeds. As Janet says, these standards remain largely unchanged today – “keep it dry, keep it cool and it will live longer”.


We asked Janet to reflect on her incredible journey:


What will you miss most about working at the MSB? The people – definitely! Especially the contact with counterparts in equivalent positions around the world, who we can share ideas and experiences with.

What's the favourite species you have handled? The grapple - Harpagophytum. We collected them in Botswana. They were quite challenging to collect and even more so to clean!

What's your first memory of working here? That the Seedbank was in the Mansion – Lady Price’s bedroom was the lab and Sir Henry Price’s bathroom was the x-ray room. The stark contrast of working in an Elizabethan mansion whilst concentrating on cutting edge work! There was a large computer which took up a whole room in the Orchard building. In those early days the field data sheets were loaded onto this huge computer, so from the outset the data has been stored digitally.

What advice would you give to somebody about how to clean a collection? Slowly and carefully!

How do you see seed processing changing in the future? Funding for ‘business as usual’ processing is difficult. People love to fund new and exciting projects, but we need to be able to sustain the day-to-day processing, otherwise we may end up without processing roles and just dry and store seed at -20°C. Without viability testing, we cannot distribute the seed. This highly skilled work by practical applied scientists needs to be supported. I wish their skills were valued more highly. It’s also learning from others – the partnership, collaboration and knowledge that is the MSB’s strength.

If you hadn't worked here, what else might you have liked to do? When I worked for IBPGR, I went to a conference at their headquarters in Rome and a network contact from Indonesia offered me a job working with Orangutans. I was very tempted - things could have been very different!

What are you planning to do in your retirement? Nothing at first - that’s the point! Then I’ll probably get a part time job, working outdoors.

If you could be one plant, what would it be and why? A Welwitschia, as it’s slow growing and they live for an awfully long time. I would sit and watch the world go by!

A close up image of a woody seed pod with several stalks protuding with hooks on
A Harpagophytum fruit. (Photo: Elly Vaes, RBG Kew).
A single Welwitschia plant in the desert
Welwitschia mirabilis. (Photo: Andrew McRobb).

Somehow, we can’t imagine Janet letting the grass grow under her feet for very long! Thank you to Janet for sharing her thoughts and memories with us.

What are the new requirements for sending plant material to the MSB?

Due to the UK leaving the European Union, there have been changes to Plant Health rules for shipping plant material to the UK.

All seed collections coming into the MSB from outside the UK now need to come with a phytosanitary certificate issued by the relevant authority in the exporting country. A phytosanitary certificate is an official document declaring that plants and plant material are free from pests and diseases. If seed collections arrive with this documentation, then none of the collections are classed as quarantine and the seeds and plant material will be processed as normal. This applies to wild collected and commercial seeds and plant material. The processing and long-term storage of the collections will be no different.

If a phytosanitary certificate cannot be obtained, then material will need to come in with a Letter of Authority (LoA) from the UK Plant Health Service, which can be obtained from the MSBP Conservation Coordinator for your region. However, any material coming in under the LoA will be treated as 'quarantine' upon arrival and restrictions will be placed on the future use of these collections.

As usual, before seed collections are dispatched to the MSB, species lists should be sent to the Seed Collections Manager who will check the list for any prohibited species and CITES-listed species (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Copies of all documents should be attached to the outside and also put inside the shipping box. Please also send the airwaybill (AWB) number and copies of the documents to the Seed Collections Manager, so the consignment can be tracked.

A desk with a row of paperwork, a row of seed packets and a set of herbarium specimens partially wrapped in newspaper on
Preparing the paperwork, seeds and herbarium specimens for shipment. (Photo: RBG Kew).

Recent publications from across the MSBP:

Updates to the field data form

We are currently in the process of updating the field data form to improve its compatibility with the data required for IUCN threat assessments. We expect the update to be ready before the end of December.