Tiny, tropical and delicately beautiful Begonia elachista is an enigma in the world of plant research and conservation. Today (Friday) all at once it officially becomes the newest of its kind known to science; the smallest identified species of Begonia on the planet and recorded as critically endangered - in the name of tourism. The race is on to provide protection and hope for the future, starting with horticultural and scientific research at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).
In the wild, Begonia elachista is only known to inhabit a single limestone cave mouth within a national park in central Peru. But, this is not a safe haven for the recently discovered botanical gem. As the Peruvian park authorities prepare to construct a new tourist route to the cave, RBGE tropical biodiversity research scientist Peter Moonlight is collaborating with partners in Peru and the USA to put in place a strategy for a more secure future for this vulnerable but important rarity.
He explained: “Everyone has heard of Begonias and many people tend to associate them with hanging baskets and bedding schemes for public parks. Indeed, with some harshness, Monty Don has labelled them ‘repulsively ugly’. The truth is much more exciting. Begonia is currently the fastest growing plant genus we have. More species have been published in that genus than in any other in the past decade and there are now 1,840 accepted species.
As publication of the research paper by the European Journal of Taxonomy has drawn closer, there has been a new glimmer of hope. In the last few days the only captive living plant of this species has slowly started to flower in the research houses at RBGE. This could mark a small but incredibly important turning point in the story of Begonia elachista and help secure its future outside its threatened natural habitat.
Peter Moonlight concluded: “As a leading centre of research into Begonia and other key tropical plant families, RBGE is working to discover, study and secure the future of tropical plants and ecosystems for the next generation. Many are still poorly understood although they play a critical role in tropical ecosystems and are of great importance as environmental indicator species. In many cases they also have a strong role to play in the horticultural sector and as a food source, medicine or other products of benefit. The species discovery programme at RBGE gives previous hidden gems – including Begonia elachista a voice on the global conservation stage.”