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Royal Society Pairing Scheme: science inside the UK Government

I was incredibly lucky to be paired with Dr Nichola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (@plantchief). Image courtesy of the Royal Society.

As a scientist employed for all of my career in institutions partially funded by the British state it might seem that I would have a good understanding of how the UK Government gets the scientific information it needs and what science goes on within it. The reality is that I had very little idea, based on a few assumptions, what I read in the media, and not very flattering television series such as The Thick of it. It was because of this, and an interest in how the science I and my colleagues do might influence policy, that I applied for the Royal Society Pairing Scheme. The scheme involves a scientist being paired with an MP or Civil Servant. The scientist spends two days shadowing their pair, preceded by  an introduction to Westminster and followed by a half day of seminars on science in government. I can honestly say that it was one of the best things I have done! Not just because I was paired with a very dynamic and welcoming Chief Plant Officer at Defra but because the whole experience gave me far greater confidence and belief in Government, as we enter a turbulent time for our Country and the World.

An entry from the new Plant Health Portal showing a summary of the information available on one of the most threatening pests of plants, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa.

I was very impressed by the quality of the science and engagement that takes place at the UK Plant Health laboratories near York. Also with the dedicated and friendly atmosphere. On our first day the agency launched the UK Plant Health Information Portal, a searchable database of the highest risk plant pest and diseases to UK farming, horticulture and forestry that includes over 900 reported pests that are scanned Worldwide. On our second day I was able to sit-in on the Plant Health Forum, a forum between government, trade bodies, NGOs such as the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission which meets regularly to discuss new concerns, pests and solutions. It was a very open and frank meeting and not really what I expected from Government.

One half of the 2016 Royal Society Pairing scheme scientist intake at Westminster. Image courtesy of Farah Ahmed.

Our science in government seminars provided an overview of how Government gets scientific information and the contrasts between the executive, Members for Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Lords. Government has three well established and connected sources of scientific information, advisors and an extensive network of contacts in academia. In contrast, MPs, who have very little time and minimal administrative support depend on their researchers to source scientific information. Unfortunately, the researchers themselves are very poorly paid and often recent graduates who stay a few months before moving on to another job and also have very little time themselves. The result is that MPs are very poorly briefed compared to civil servants and the executive. The Lords, fit somewhere in-between the two, having more time to devote to sourcing information but little dedicated support. This might be one of the reasons that the Royal Society started the pairing scheme sixteen years ago which I feel very privileged to have participated in.

Reforestation in Haiti, the value of botanical knowledge

Sadhana Forest Haiti staff and volunteers planting Brosimum alicastrum seedlings in the compound of an Anse-a-Pitre smallholder

Haiti is infamous for extensive deforestation, less tha 4% of its original forest cover remains, which in addition to threatening many of its endemic trees with extinction has also increased the destructive impact of natural disasters of which there have been several in the last couple of decades. Deforestation is widely recognized as a significant threat to the well-being and security of Haitians and as a consequence many projects have been set up to plant trees, some more successful than others. Probably the biggest challenge to reforestation is to ensure that the communities involved are engaged and that they feel that the benefits of protecting and looking after a tree outweigh the sacrifice involved in not converting it to charcoal for cooking. Charcoal is the main fuel in rural areas and demand for it is high, a small bucket costing up to US$2 leading people to burn cacti to produce it. One NGO which seems to have been successful in engaging rural communities to grow and protect useful tree species has been Sadhana Forest Haiti

5 litre containers of charcoal can be found at most local shops. Charcoal is produced from local trees and represents the main source of fuel for cooking and so essential.

One of the difficulties for NGOs reforesting in any country is access to the scientific information necessary to make choices about what is grown: will a species grow in the chosen sites? How quickly will it grow? Will local people recognise it as a species of value to be protected? Will it support livelihoods? Where can seed be obtained from? How does it germinate? Is it native? What is its conservation value? This information can be tricky to get hold of, especially in countries with little botanical capacity or knowledge repositories. Often the result is that the species selected are those for which seed can be obtained and that are very well known to be of livelihood value, normally non-native species such as avocado, mango, eucalyptus of little conservation or biodiversity value but highly recognizable. Some native and especially endemic species for which knowledge of livelihood value is likely to be restricted to older members of a community or a small number of botanists and whose propagation and germination requirements are less well known will be harder for NGOs to incorporate.

Sadhana’s community liaison officer, Nixon Casseus, discussing fruiting of a 4 year-old Brosimum alicastrum with the owner of a small-holding who has been looking after the tree

RBG Kew has been working in neighboring Dominincan Republic for several years and has developed a strong relationship with the Dr. Rafael Moscoso National Botanical Garden, an institution with an active botanical community and seed bank. This represents an opportunity to share some of the knowledge and expertise on additional potential native plants with Sadhana Forest and the households that they work with. To this end I spent a few days visiting Sadhana Forest Haiti and some of the households. I was struck with the commitment and planning behind Sadhana Forest, who with few resources have provided several thousand seedlings to thousands of households in a region spanning Haiti’s south eastern border with the Dominican Republic. Hopefully, in collaboration with the Dr. Rafael Moscoso National Botanical Garden and Kew we will be able to introduce more native species of livelihood value to be planted in the future.

The Sadhana Forest compound at Anse-a-Pitre, Haiti.

Producing an agroforest manual for rural people and NGOs

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First galley proof of our agroforest manual which is due for publication in September 2016

Since the start of our Forest Futures project I had been thinking about the best way to support the production of agroforests once we have left. We had committed to produce a manual but my initial thoughts were that this is a little old-fashioned and that an electronic publication formatted for mobile phones would be a good option. The reality, however, is that Bolivia has very poor internet access. Even in Cobija, the capital of the Pando, internet acesss is sporadic and poor. Once in the field it is only available at a few points along the main road . We therefore decided to opt for a printed manual, of the size that it will fit on a narrow shelf or somebody’s day pack and on high quality paper that will resist the high humidity of the tropics.


The next decision was how to best communicate to the people we working with. I believe that a majority text-based format would not be of great interest or very accessible for the communities we work with. I decided on an image-rich poster-like format. This was because posters remain a major communication tool by Government and NGOs in the region and so local people will be familiar with them, secondly I assumed that Governments and NGOs know what they are doing! Following this I had to think quite hard about content. Whilst the mechanics of establishing a plot are relatively straightforward to explain what has struck me working with rural people is that communicating the underlying principles of agroforestry as we practice it is very challenging.

Through our work with rural communities we realised that a lot of background knowledge needs to be communicated if people are to understand the point of agroforestry

This is in part because a lot of their knowledge on soils and and nutrient cycling is based on temperate systems, either in Europe or the Andes where soils are replenished by the action of frost or weathering of rock. Amazonian soils have been leached over millions of years and hold few nutrients for plants but this is not obvious looking at the lush dense forest growing on them. So not only do we need to explain that the soils are very poor but then explain how such rich forest grows on them. Similarly, it is less challenging for people living away from the Amazon to accept that cutting forest is not sustainable, but quite a different thing when it is your livelihood that depends on slash-and-burn and when you have always been surrounded by forest for as far as the eye can see and that this has been the case for as long as anyone can remember. The upshot of these considerations are a substantial introduction that attempts to explain all of the background and context whilst assuming little prior knowledge.

You can download the pdf version of the manual hereA printed version is available on request for those working in Latin America.

Exciting images of nettle flowers

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Partially dissected female flower of the subtropical shrub, Pouzolzia zeylanica showing the ovary exposed (left) and the elongated style and stigma (right) protected by tusk-like hairs. Image by Jia Dong, RBG Edinburgh

Working with Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh student Jia Dong and plant anatomist Louis Ronse De Craene has resulted in some exciting and thought-provoking images of nettle flowers. The aim of our collaboration is to understand how nettle flowers develop and in the process work out what parts they have in common and which they don’t. The samples used were from living collections at Edinburgh and RBG Kew, together with my own collections in alcohol made over several years. The results are some beautiful and very informative scanning electron micrographs which show that the part of the female flower which recieves pollen (stigma) and conducts it to the egg (style) is characterised by two classes of hairs, one comprising defensive tusk-like hairs (above) and the other receptive tubular like hairs (above & below).

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Stigma hairs at the tip of the ovary of Pilea grandifolia, a succulent herb from Jamaica. Stigma hairs in the nettle family are characterised by their rounded obtuse tips and cylindrical shape. Image by Jia Dong, RBG Edinburgh.

Tubular hairs associated with the stigma are characteristic of all nettle flowers. They also appear very early in development. Combined this makes us think that they might have a role in pollination. Specifically in the reception of pollen. Being wind-pollinated, nettles don’t have a lot of control as to whose pollen reaches their female flowers and so there needs to be a way for them to control which pollen grains develop and fertilise the single egg. It seems likely that these hairs play a role and hopefully Jia will be able provide some more great images to test some hypotheses about this.

Female flower of Cecropia sp., a tcommon ropical tree from the Americas. In addition to stigma hairs you can see an apparent fold in the ovary. Image by Jia Dong, RBG Edinburgh.


An insight into tropical botany with Keynsham Primary school

Meeting Year 2, ‘Sapphire’ class at St Keyna’s primary school where I was asked several tricky questions

As part of my job I give talks to students or colleagues on aspects of my research and botany. Generally the less scientifically literate the audience the better and more insightful the questions. For this reason I was a little nervous and excited at meeting two classes at the St Keyna Primary School in Keynsham near Bath. I had been invited by my old friend Larissa Roberts who works at the school. After over 20 years working for a major museum I was also very honoured to be inaugurating their natural history museum! It might seem a poor use of resources for scientists to go and meet schoolchildren half way across the country and we struggled to find any resources to support for my visit. For me though it is very important. Botany is rarely taught in UK schools, there is no university degree in Botany in the UK anymore (imagine if that was the case for zoology or paleontology) and so the routes for recruiting young enthusiastic people from a variety of backgrounds into botany are somewhat limited. If visits such as mine inspire just one pupil to consider a career in botany then it would have a tremendous impact on our discipline.

Me, inaugurating the St Keyna Natural History Museum. A great collection of tarantula moults, birds nests and rocks! I should really have tucked my shirt in.

Some of the questions were quite a challenge. Mainly because although I should have I had not thought about them before. I was almost thrown by questions such as, ‘what is the rarest plant that you have collected?’, ‘what is the oldest plant that you have collected?’ and ‘how many new species have you discovered?’. On the basis of my answers I am not sure how well I would fair in a job interview. I was very pleasantly surprised to meet so many children with a spontaneous enthusiasm and interest in natural history and plants! I was also very impressed with how friendly and polite the children (and staff) were and of how well supported learning seemed to be at St Keyna’s. So all in all a very positive experience that I would gladly repeat.

Neotropical high elevation oak forests

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Oak forest at the foot of the Cerros Tararia in Costa Rica at 2,700 m elevation. These are large trees growing to 40 m in height and heavily festooned in bromeliads and liverworts.

I first came these majestic and mysterious forests in 2003 whilst collecting on the summit of Cerro Fabrega in Panama. We had hiked through montane tropical forest and cloud forest and suddenly we came into a forest consisting almost only of massive oak trees, covered in dark maroon liverworts and bright red bromeliads. It was a magical and unexpected experience. I had no idea that there were oak forests in the wet tropics and whilst I had seen small oak trees growing in semideciduous forests in Belize and El Salvador they could not be said to constitute a forest. Later on subsequent expeditions we came across these forests at between 1,900 and 3,100 m in Costa Rica and Panama, always characterised by tall trees festooned with epiphytes and very quiet. Indeed an oak forested portion of the La Amistad World Heritage site is known as the ‘Valley of Silence’.

View of the forest understory in the ‘Valle de Silencio’ at an elevation of 2,800 botanists providing a sense of scale.

What surprised me about these forests was their stature growing at such high altitudes, well above the stunted and gnarled cloud forests below them. Secondly, they have a rich diversity of plants associated with them, we documented over 500 species. Thirdly, in Latin America, they are restricted to mountains in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. They are also relatively unknown, both amongst botanists, ecologists and conservationists. Having done some more work analysing the patterns of species in these forests with Nadia Bystriakova and discussions with Dutch ecologist Maarten Kappelle we are planning a research programme on these high elevation oak forests. One which will seek to document and establish their importance as a source of plant diversity, both for conservation and science but also to evaluate the threats they experience across their range.

Schultesianthus crosbyanus, an unusual epiphyte in the tomatoe family with near black trumpet shaped flowers found in high elevation oak forest

Bolivian Amazon at a crossroads: oil, gold and paved roads

Lush swamp forest one of several forest fomations in the Pando, one of the areas of highest primate diversity in the World

I first went to the Pando in the Bolivian Amazon in 1988 as a young undergraduate. Returning in 2013 as a middle-aged botanist it was a pleasant surprise to find that although the capital Cobija had grown a lot much of the forest remained and that sustainable Brazil nut harvesting remained the major source of income for rural communities. It also remained one of the forests with the highest diversity of primates in the World. A single locality having up to thirteen species of monkey! That all looks about to change though as a triple whammy of semi-legal gold-mining, oil exploration and road building took off in 2015 and which by 2018 will have completely transformed the infrastructure, economy and likely the social fabric of one of the least deforested parts of the Amazon.

Road building between Puerto Rico and El Sena is well underway, a two-lane dirt track being transformed into a four-lane paved highway by a Costa Rican company

Asphalt roads are clearly of benefit to Amazonian communities, providing improved access to healthcare, education and markets and assist with the seasonal Brazil nut harvest. Roads also, however push back the frontiers of the forest and facilitate currently unsustainable agriculture, such as slash-and-burn, cattle-ranching or intensive soya / oil-palm production. Finding a balance between the opportunities and risks posed by asphalt roads is very difficult and rarely achieved. Oil extraction and transportation will also have an impact, changing the economy of the Pando and possibly replacing natural forest with its Brazil Nut and rubber trees as a major souce of employment and incomes. It also of course brings with it the risks of any large mining operations.

The port town of El Sena, now neighbour to several gold dredging barges (to the right of the image) and associated ‘industries’

The rapid growth of semi-legal artesanal gold mining in the Pando could have a far greater impact. The mercury used to separate gold from the river sediment has profound health risks for those mining but also for the whole ecosystem downstream, and for decades to come. Artesanal gold mining also attracts people desperate for money, from all over South America, together with many other strands of the black economy leading to social and political instability.

How to pollard Inga trees for agroforest systems

A member of the Motacusal community pollarding the first Inga tree.

In addition to getting the timing right it is also important to pollard at the right height, point on the stem and using the right tools. Pollarding involves cutting the top and branches off of a tree. Normally this is done to promote resprouting at the top of the stem but in the case of our agroforest system we want to allow light into our plot for the cultivation of annual crops or fruit trees. This means that we need to cut the stem at the right height so as to shade the crops below and to give them enough time to grow and be harvested before the branches have regrown to their original length. For this purpose we are aiming to pollard at approximately 1.30 m in height, the height of somebody’s chest.

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It is important to cut the main stem using a pruning saw, a few centimetres above or below a branch point, ideally at a height of between 1.30-1.50 m.

The best place to cut the stem is a couple of centimetres above or below a branch or branch scar. The reason for this is that new branches will sprout from these points. If you cut through the branch point or scar then the tissue from which new branches will develop will be damaged and new branches will be generated at the nearest point above or below it, meaning that it will be higher or lower than desired. The choice of implement is also important. Whilst it is much quicker and more natural to want to use a machete, this is not the ideal way to cut the branch. The reason for this is that it is hard to get a clean clut with a machete as Inga wood splits very easily and the split wood is vulnerable to insect and fungal infections.

Herbarium visit to La Paz (LPB)

The sorting bench where incoming material is identified in the La Paz (LPB) herbarium

One important task for specialists in a particular plant group, in my case nettles, is to visit national or regional collections and not just rely on the collections of our own institutes, no matter how good they are. As part of a conference and field trip I have just spent a couple of days in the La Paz herbarium. My colleague Nicholas Hind will spend three weeks there identifying plants from the daisy family (Compositae) and running an identification course. There were 92 boxes of unidentified Compositae waiting for him when we arrived!This herbarium was founded by German botanist Stephan Beck in 1984 and currently houses over 400,000 herbarium specimens. The reason why such visits are important both for the specialist but also for the herbarium are that although there is an active inter-herbarium loan system for plants it relies on material being accessioned, mounted and identified. This can be a real challenge to achieve in a country where there are few funds and even fewer botanists. The visit of a specialist allows material that has not been mounted or accessioned, together with unidentified material, to be reliably (one hopes) identified and so used as reference for future identifications. Continue reading Herbarium visit to La Paz (LPB)

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.

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.