Moving to Kew Gardens after 22 years at the Natural History Museum

View of the General Herbarium as it was until 2009: probably the best space in the World for working on plant collections that there has ever been

I feel as if I have shed my youth and if I’m honest, early middle-age too, as I leave the Natural History Museum and move to Kew Gardens. I leave with no ill-feeling or sense of regret as I enjoyed over two decades working with some of the most amazing people in one of the great British and scientific institutions. My experiences in the field and working on the collections have made a deep impression on who I am and the science that I try to do, if fitfully and in a slightly uncoordinated manner. I also leave behind several thousand herbarium specimens that hopefully should still be in use a long time after I am no longer around.

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Our field team on one of our expeditions to the very remote ‘Falso Fabrega’ in Panama. We were the first ever scientists to document the biodiversity of this particular ridge and peak

But things change, as they should do and always will; the Museum is moving away from taxonomy, the science (& art?) of classification, into more derived collections-based sciences. The emphasis is less on generating new collections and more on synthetic analyses of what they have.  It therefore feels like a very natural transition and of course a massive privilege to be moving to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, another great British and scientific institution to continue the eclectic mix of taxonomy, fieldwork and conservation focussed science that have got me this far.

Trabajando con la fundación innocent para apoyar a viviendas y nutrición

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Niños de la comunidad de San José a unos reuniones comunitarias celebradas en el bosque

Como parte de nuestros esfuerzos para fortalecer el impacto de nuestro proyecto Futuros Forest hemos sido muy afortunados de asociarnos con la Fundación innocent para expandir nuestro componente agroforestal con una mejor incorporación de árboles frutales. Fondos de la Fundación innocent nos están permitiendo incorporar tres comunidades adicionales, construir viveros de árboles frutales y desarrollar la capacidad dentro de cada comunidad para germinar, crecer y gestionarlos. Como es el caso de las otras acciones de nuestro proyecto comenzamos conversaciones con cada comunidad, atravez del ONG Herencia, sobre cómo esta adición podría encajar en sus planes de desarrollo. También tienen que pensar en qué tipo de frutales quieren producir: la cantidad para consumo personal y para vender. Si sienten que encaje dentro de sus objetivos luego de pasar a la fase más sencillo de construir los viveros y la obtención de semilla.

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Rolman Velarde del ONG Herencia en la parte de la parcela agroforestal Motacusal destinado a árboles frutales

Continue reading Trabajando con la fundación innocent para apoyar a viviendas y nutrición

Community development plans to support agroforest fruit orchards

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Members of the Monte Sinai community producing a visual map of their community and its resources. Image: Rolman Velarde

We  believe that the introduction of new approaches to land use needs to be done as part of a broader and integrated plan for a community. It would make little sense for a community to plant an agroforest plot unless they had considered the costs and long-term benefits of doing so. The reason for this is that at several stages in the process there will be challenges and decisions to be taken that will need require the community to remain motivated and able to evaluate the pros and cons of persisting with the system or abandoning it. Given the general lack of success of previous agroforest initiatives elsewhere we feel that this will be the key to our success. As part of our efforts to strengthen the impact of our Forest Futures project and with the support of the innocent Foundation, our main partners  Herencia,  have been working with three Amazonian communities: Remanzo, Jerico, Monte Sinai,  to develop medium to long-term management plans into which agroforest for fruit and annual crops will be integrated.

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Group discussions of the communities needs and priorities follow an evaluation of their resources and entitlements from the Bolivian state. Image: Rolman Velarde

Continue reading Community development plans to support agroforest fruit orchards

Our first Inga agroforest plots 14-17 months after planting

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Our Motacusal agroforest plot 17 months after planting. The closed canopy has prevented weeds growing. Notice the large amount of leaf-litter on the ground which will provide valuable organic matter for the soil. Image: Rolman Velarde

We established our first Inga agroforest plot  just over 17 months ago. Since then the seedlings have grown into 5 m tall trees, their crowns  touching and shading out any potential weeds. They have captured the site meaning that it no longer needs any maintenance, allowing farmers to choose when to pollard (prune) at a time that best suits them. In the Bolivian Amazon the best time of year to sow plants is at the beginning of the wet season in October and so we are planning to return to complete this last step in the process.

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The Las Palmas fruit tree agroforest system 14 months after planting. This site was an abandoned cattle pasture and although the trees are growing slowly they look healthy. Image Rolman Velarde.

Continue reading Our first Inga agroforest plots 14-17 months after planting

Working with innocent to support livelihoods & nutrition

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Children from the San Jose community at a community meetings held in the forest

As part of our efforts to strengthen the impact of our Forest Futures project we have been very lucky to partner with the innocent Foundation to expand our agroforest component and better incorporate fruit trees into them. Funds from the innocent Foundation are enabling us to incorporate three additional communities, build fruit tree nurseries and develop the capacity within each community to germinate, grow and manage them. As is the case for our other Forest Futures actions we start by discussions with each community about how this addition to their community could fit into their development plans. They also need to think about what kind of fruit they want to grow: how much for personal consumption and how much to sell. If they feel that it fits within their long-term goals then we move on to the more straightforward phase of building the nurseries and obtaining seed.

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Rolman Velarde of Herencia in the part of the Motacusal agroforest plot destined for our first fruit-tree seedlings

Continue reading Working with innocent to support livelihoods & nutrition

Working on Cuban nettles in Berlin herbarium

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A Cuban species of nettle, possibly undescribed. The leaves are about 2 mm across. To the middle right of the picture you can see a small cluster of female flowers about 1/2 mm in length

Funded by the Synthesys project I am studying the Cuban nettle collections of the Berlin-Dahlem Museum. The aim is to finish my account of the nettle family for the Flora of Cuba project that I started five years ago. It might seem odd that Cuba has so many nettle species that I can still be working on it, albeit in a fragmented way, for five years. Also that Berlin should be an important repository of Cuban plants, but there is a reason.

Cuba has an exceptionally rich flora and is especially important for the nettle family, Urticaceae, which is represented by about 70 species in eight genera. Together the Greater Antilles, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, is a centre of species-richness for one group of nettles in particular, the genus Pilea. There are over 150 species of Pilea in the Greater Antilles, 60 of which are native to Cuba. The reason for such high diversity is unknown but may have something to do with the age of the islands, preponderance of limestone substrates or something else that we haven’t thought of yet. It does, however mean that I have been spending a lot of time looking at herbarium spcimens of this genus in the Berlin herbarium.

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Room K10 in the underground, bomb-proof Berlin-Dahlem herbarium. This is where the Cuban collections are stored

The connection between Germany and the the Greater Antilles started with botanist Ignatz Urban, who did a  lot of work documenting the plant diversity of the Greater Antilles. Tragically most of his collections were destroyed in World War Two when the herbarium was bombed. During the Cold War the connection that had established between Berlin and the Caribbean switched to East Germany and the Jena herbarium impulsed by the formidable Johannes Bisse who founded the National Botanic Garden of Cuba. This lead to the foundation of the Flora of Cuba project a collaboration between the many excellent Cuban botanists and their German counterparts, initially in Jena and then from 1993 in Berlin. So that is the reason that I am in Berlin looking at Cuban nettles!

Visitando a sistemas agroforestales Peruanos

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Participantes visitando la finca Marques en La Merced (Chanchamayo) con Juan Santos Cruz

Uno de los elementos más importante de nuestro proyecto es convencer a las comunidades rurales de que los sistemas agroforestales basados en Inga les ayudarán a utilizar sus tierras con mayor intensidad sin necesidad de talar el bosque. Esperamos lograr esto de dos maneras: 1) desarrollar parcelas agroforestales como demostración en una red de comunidades asociadas con el proyecto, y 2) tomar representantes de estas comunidades asociadas para visitar parcelas agroforestales ya productivas. Visitar estas parcelas es una buena manera de dejar que la gente vea por sí misma lo que sus sistemas agroforestales van a lograr en pocos años, y también de facilitar el intercambio de experiencias entre campesinos. Tal vez intercambios entre campesinos tiene más peso/fuerza que hablar con un científico, técnico o una ONG ya que tienen intereses y conocimientos similares/comunes.

Continue reading Visitando a sistemas agroforestales Peruanos

Forest Futures Peru visit

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Participants visiting Marques farm in La Merced (Chanchamayo) with Juan Santos Cruz

One of the most important elements of our Forest Futures project is to get rural communities to believe that Inga-based agroforest systems will help them use their land more intensively without the need for regular land-clearance. We hope to achieve this in two ways: 1) develop demonstration agroforest plots in a network of partner communities, and 2) take representatives of partner communities to see established working systems. Visiting established communities is a powerful way of letting people see for themselves what their agroforests will like in a few years but also, as  importantly,  it facilitates the sharing of experiences, farmer to farmer.  Speaking to somebody from the same profession who is using agroforest is likely more convincing than speaking to a scientist, technician or NGO whose livelihoods are not on the line.

Continue reading Forest Futures Peru visit

Ghost flowers in the nettle family

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A pickled Flower of Boehmeria zollingeriana, 1.2 mm in length viewed under a Zeiss Axioskop microscope. You can clearly see the two stigmas (ling filament like structures) and if you look carefully the two overlapping eggs within the ovary (dark egg-shaped structures)

Nettles are characterised, amongst other things, by having flowers with a single egg in their ovary and a single stigma, the structure which conducts the pollen to its target. Work by developmental biologists almost a century ago suggested that the ancestor of nettles probably had two eggs per ovary after discovering that at a very early stage of development nettle ovaries contain two eggs one of which disappears as the flower develops resulting in the single egged flower which characterises the family. It was therefore a great surprise when plant collections from Costa Rica examined in the 1990s were found to have flowers with two or three eggs and stigmas per ovary. These very unusual plants were described as a new species: Boehmeria burgeriana  by colleagues Melanie Wilmot-Dear and Ib Friis. Continue reading Ghost flowers in the nettle family

Soleirolia, a genus of small but perfectly formed nettles

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Close-up of a flowering stem of Soleirolia soleirolia showing the male (left) and female (right) flowers. The leaves of this tiny creeping herb are about 3 mm across

I first came across this tiny creeping herb in my garden where it had been planted as an ornamental. The bright green leaves, mostly less than 3 mm across form an attractive carpet. Until now I had never been able to spot its flowers despite having checked several times over the last few years. My guess is that this species has a relatively narrow flowering time in spring and the flowers are so tiny that they are only visible with a hand-lens. For several years the genus has intrigued me, not so much because of its small size and creeping habit but because of its distribution and evolutionary relationships.

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Engraving  of a female Soleirolia flower produced by the Anglo-French botanist Hugh Algernon Weddell in the 1850s. Weddell must have had access to microscopes of the very highest quality to produce such a drawing as the flowers that are about 1.5 mm in length

Firstly because Soleirolia consists of a single species that in the wild is only known from the Mediterranean island of Corsica. This is the only genus of nettle I know that is restricted to a single island or to the Mediterranean and I am very keen to try and found out why this could be (the history of the Mediterranean basin is quite a turbulent one). Secondly Soleirolia has traditionally been grouped with the  widespread Parietaria and intriguingly with Gesnouinia,  which also includes a single species but is restricted to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst they look very different as plants their female flowers share many similarities of form.  It might be, therefore, that Soleirolia and Gesnouinia should be viewed  as Parietaria species that have diverged morphologically as a consequence of being isolated on islands, a common phenomenon in evolutionary biology. I am currently testing this possibility using DNA sequence data and could have a better idea in a couple of months.

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Endemic to Cosrica but now an ornamental and escaped weed throughout much of the temperate World Soleirolia soleirolia forms bright green carpets of tiny leaves

 

 

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