Collecting nettle seeds, no easy task!

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Collecting Pilea cellulosa fruit on the border with Haiti whilst trying to avoid 300 escaped prisoners. Collecting the fruiting bodies is relatively straight forward but recognising and extracting mature fruit is not.

For a week now I have been accompanying a team from the Jardín Botánico Nacional and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank on a field trip to collect seed of plants endemic to Hispaniola for banking at the Jardín Botánico and Kew. I have been taking advantage of this trip to collect nettles but also to learn how to harvest and bank their seeds. The Greater Antilles which includes the Dominica Republic  / Hispaniola is a centre for species diversity for nettles and most of the 100 or so species found here are found nowhere else. Given obvious pressure on the island’s forests both in the Dominican Republic as well as in Haiti, banking their seeds could support their reintroduction as a last ditch attempt to prevent their extinction.

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Fruiting Pilea microphylla. For scale the leaves are 3 mm in length. Ripe fuits are brown in colour, immature flowers and fruit pale cream to pale-green.

The seed bank at Kew which banks the seeds of >50,000 species currently has only 14 sp of nettle which for me seemed a little on the low side given that there are about 2,000 species Worldwide. Support from the Bentham Moxon Trust is helping me to increase this figure significantly, both by enabling me to help develop seed-collecting protocols for nettles and so encourage seed banks to collect them, but also because I am learning from them how to collect seeds, something that I can do myself on future fieldwork in collaboration with other seed banks. Continue reading

Collecting nettles in the Dominican Republic

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One of very few collections of Rousselia humilis, a rare and unusual species that we found on the very first day! Click on the link to see a brief description.

I have just spent an amazing week with a team from the Jardín Botánico Nacional Dr. Rafael M. Moscoso and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank collecting nettles in the Dominican Republic, thanks to funds from the Bentham Moxon Trust. The Dominican Republic represents half of the island of Hispaniola, the other half being Haiti. Thanks to a rich geological history, varied climate and very high mountains (to 2,760 m) the country is host to a very rich and diverse flora of over 5,500 species, many of which are only found on Hispaniola. We made some very interesting collections, the first two on the first day! One was of a genus, Rousselia that I have never before seen alive and of which few collections exist in herbaria, and which by coincidence I posted about a couple of months ago. The other was of a very unusual tuberous species of Pilea, a genus of ca 715 species of mainly succulent herbs, over 70 of which are found only on the island of Hispaniola.

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An unusual tuberous species of Pilea growing in cracks in limestone karst cliffs on Sierra San Francisco in the Province of San Juan, Dominican Republic. These tubers probably serve to store water during dry periods.

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Useful Plants Project workshop: rural livelihoods conserve plants

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Delegates at the Useful Plants Project workshop held at the Millennium Seed Bank from July 22-24. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Stuppy and the Millennium Seed Bank.

Last week the Millennium Seed Bank hosted a week-long workshop on useful plants and livelihoods as part of the evaluation of one of it’s flagship initiatives, the Useful Plants Project. The event was also an opportunity to take a broader look at Kew’s livelihoods projects and how we could maximise the way in which they meet rural communities’s needs and thereby increase their impact. The breadth and scope of Kew’s projects never ceases to amaze me: from the Great Green Wall project in subSaharan Africa to the restoration and conservation of dry forests in Peru, the conservation of forest reserves in Madagascar and of course the Useful Plants Project (UPP) itself; an ambitious and innovative initiative that seeks to link rural communities, livelihoods, restoration and the ex-situ conservation of seeds in Mali, Botswana, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa. Continue reading

Birth of a new research project… Ascension Island


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Ascension Island, southern approach. Image courtesy of the Guardian newspaper

It always surprises me the unpredictable mix of chance, curiosity and vision which can result in the birth of a new research project. Several conversations over the past few months with the British Ambassador to Bolivia, colleagues at Kew and at the Natural History Museum are hinting that a new research project focussed on a small forest on the UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island could be forming. It would be a project with strong links to the history of Kew Gardens, the Royal Navy and of two of the most famous UK scientists of the 19thC, Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker and their idea of using forest to capture moisture from clouds to provide  an isolated and important staging post in the middle of the South Atlantic with freshwater. Darwin and Hooker, each famous in his own right had visited the isolated volcanic island of Ascension in the South Atlantic during the first half of the 19thC. Both were struck by the barren nature of the island’s central peak and lack of water. For unlike many island peaks Ascension island had no forest to trap and extract moisture from passing clouds and so the Royal Navy Garrison stationed there suffered from water shortages. Darwin and Hooker set upon the idea of planting a ‘fantasy’ cloud forest using the most appropriate species from around the World  supplied from the Tropical Nurseries of Kew Gardens and the South African Botanical Garden in what was also a great experiment in reforestation and forest species assembly.

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The cloud forest, 160 years after it was planted on a design by two of Britain’s most famous scientists: Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker

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UK Ambassador visits and we present our project to the Governor of the Pando

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HM Ambassador to Bolivia, Ross Denny talking with the leader of the San Jose community on a visit to one of our agroforest plots in Bolivia. Click on link to see clip of children being filmed for BoliviaTV. Image Alejandro Araujo.

As well as working directly with rural communities through our collaboration with the Bolivian NGO Herencia, the strategy for our project is to influence regional decision-makers. We were very lucky therefore to be able to host a visit by our Ambassador, Ross Denny and for him to use the opportunity to formally introduce our project to the Governor of the Pando, Lúis Adolfo Flores Roberts. Ross Denny visited our agroforest demonstration plot, tree diversity inventory plot and the children’s Bosque de los Niños forest reserve being developed in collaboration with Herencia. Ross’s visit attracted a lot of interest from the local media which we were able to benefit from through several television interviews with Ross himself, forest engineer Rolma Velarde and I, to be broadcast nationally soon. Continue reading

Inga establishment on heavily compacted degraded soils

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Seedling growing on a site where topsoil was removed with a bulldozer. Obvious signs of stress are the yellow hue to the leaves and the brown fungal infection.  Click to see a clip with further explanation.

In addition to restoring soil fertility to abandoned slash-and-burn sites we are also working to use Inga to rehabilitate degraded pasture and severely degraded soils. Soils that have been heavily compacted by cattle over several years or by heavy machinery. Rehabilitating such sites, especially in the case of cattle pasture could have a significant impact in the region because adding value to such marginal land could help reduce the pressure on natural forest. With this aim we planted two such sites in March 2014. Revisiting the sites in July has shown mixed results with some of the seedlings doing very well (see image below) whilst others are clearly suffering (see image above). In comparison with slash-and-burn sites where we have lost very few seedlings, and most of those to overzealous weeding, Continue reading

Our first Inga agroforest plot four months on

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Inga seedling planted on February 27 with the Motacusal community. This picture was taken on June 27 and shows how quickly Inga edulis can grow on an abandoned slash-and-burn site. Click on image to watch a clip.

We have established Inga agroforest plots on abandoned slash-and-burn sites, degraded pasture and land used for road grading where the topsoil is removed with a bulldozer. Our seedlings have established on all of these sites but with slower growth and more ill-health on the bull-dozed and pasture sites.  We planted out our plot at Motacusal, an abandoned slash-and-burn site, four months ago and since then the seedlings have done very well, some growing to 1.5 m in height. At this site we have 1,200 plants growing and they look close to ‘capturing’ the site, that is to dominating the weeds and no longer requiring weeding. Thanks to the nectaries on their leaves most of the seedlings have their own group of ants taking the nectar and protecting the plant from leaf-eating insects such as crickets, grasshoppers and stick insects. As the dry season is just beginning here, with rainfall reducing to once a week, it will be interesting to see whether the seedlings continue to grow or become dormant until the rains return in November. Overall a very positive start! Continue reading

Weeding: essential for agroforest plot establishment


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Inga seedling six weeks after planting and already being strangled by a vine which if left unchecked will have killed within a few weeks

Although fast-growing Inga is not the fastest growing plant on a bare site. Several species of grass, vine, tree and shrub, commonly known as ‘pioneer’ species specialise in just such conditions. For the first few months they can outcompete Inga  which once over-topped will struggle to grow. Indeed some of the weedy vines are capable of strangling and killing seedlings after only a few weeks. Weeding is therefore essential and if not done can lead to the loss of the site. It is also risky though as it is easy to damage  seedlings by mistake and in the case of vines, disentangling them from a seedling, once they have tendrils or suckers firmly attached is a real challenge. Continue reading

Baseline soil observations

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Small soil auger for making 30-40 cm soil profiles

The big assumption of our Inga-based agroforest system is that we will improve soil fertility, specifically by increasing soil organic matter, nitrates and in the case of cattle pasture countering compaction. These are all assumptions based on previous work, sometimes with different agroforest tree species. If our work is to have real impact with policy makers and local government in the Pando then it is also important not only that it serves the needs of rural communities but also that we can demonstrate this impact in a verifiable way. Hence the need to take some basic baseline observations. Continue reading

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