International agreements for plant conservation

With over 20 per cent of plant species considered at risk of extinction, and many tens of thousands still awaiting discovery, three world-leading research institutes in Scotland and China have signed landmark agreements to address the challenges of understanding and conserving plant diversity.

Species repatriation, shared research into plant pathogens and extensive skills transfer are on the agenda after the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) established Collaboration Agreements with Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) and Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Experience of working in China for more than a century, has allowed RBGE to collect the largest Living Collection of Chinese plants in cultivation outside their native country. Along with XTBG and KIB, it is recognised as a leading centre of expertise in plant science and conservation. The two new agreements are regarded as the logical next steps in the race to understand and conserve China’s globally-important flora, of some 30,000 species, and lay the foundation for new work on the vast but poorly understood plant diversity of the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

The commitments were made during an intensive 14-day visit to China by RBGE Regius Keeper Professor Simon Milne MBE with Director of Science Professor Pete Hollingsworth and Horticulturists Martyn Dickson and David Tricker. As well as developing the Scotland-China partnerships and planning future collaborations, the team and their Chinese hosts undertook fieldwork in various parts of Yunnan. This included such climatic extremes as the tropical region close to the China/Laos/Myanmar border region and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan).

“These agreements on new collaborations are ambitious and broad-ranging,” explained Professor Milne. “While designed to further scientific research and best practice in horticulture and to enhance plant conservation, the strategy also has an emphasis on education and public engagement and development of botanic gardens.

“The move means closer cooperation with China on species reintroductions, conservation horticulture and taxonomic research and has the potential to open up even more partnerships in the wider region. By sharing information on the strategic responses to biodiversity loss and exploring opportunities for expanding ex-situ collections, there is huge potential to make a real difference.”

Joint expeditions and education programmes will be undertaken. A Conservation Genetics workshop is planned to provide a conceptual framework for pragmatic integration of genetic thinking into conservation planning and there is scope for funding joint supervision of PhD students. There will also be opportunities to share experiences on botanic garden management and profile-raising.

The agreements, co-signed by Professor Chen Jin, Director of XTBG, and Professor Sun Hang, Director of KIB extend an already active programme of partnership. A key feature of this has been management of the Jade Dragon Field Station, designated the UK’s first joint scientific laboratory in China in 2005, and Lijiang Alpine Garden on the Yulong Xue Shan

KIB and RBGE have also played a lead role in coordinating global efforts in plant DNA barcoding, including techniques to understand which bamboo species are eaten by Giant Panda, to enhance design of habitat restoration programmes. Other initiatives have involved evaluating biodiversity risks from rubber plantations, and identifying environments which are sub-optimal for sustainable rubber production. Forthcoming projects will review the masterplan for Lijiang Alpine Garden and the field station and also explore opportunities for developing a Species Recovery Programme as a focus for linking horticulture to conservation and science at the site.

The developments have been welcomed in Scotland by Chinese Consul General Pan Xinchun, who concluded:  “These agreements serve as another testimony to the already existing close co-operation between the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Chinese counterparts and will inject fresh impetus into joint efforts in species conservation and research. I am confident that both sides will work together to bring these new agreements to fruition in contribution to the biotic protection of the mother earth.”


For further information, images and interviews please call Shauna Hay on 0131 248 2900/07824 529 028 or Claudia McLaren on 0131 248 2925


The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and China

  • China has a flora of global importance: some 30,000 species representing approx. 10% of the world’s total. Understanding and conserving plants in China is thus globally important.
  • The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has a long history of working with China, dating back more than 100 years and continuing to this day.  Key historical events include George Forrest’s botanical expeditions to China (1904-1932) and the visits of Chinese botanists to RBGE in the 1930s and 1940s (including those of Chen Fenghuai, the ‘father of Chinese botanic gardens’).
  • RBGE was an editorial centre for the Flora of China project, an international collaboration to publish a comprehensive summary of all Chinese wild plants, completed in 2013.

International relations

  • RBGE has hosted visits from senior Chinese leaders including Hu Jintao, and maintains a very close working relationship with the Consul General in Edinburgh. 
  • The Chinese Scottish tartan was created to signify the special relationship between China and Scotland.  Its green bands symbolise the great co-operation between Scottish and Chinese botanists at the RBGE.



  • RBGE’s Chinese collections of living plants, preserved herbarium specimens, and archival notes, photographs and letters are an internationally important scientific and cultural resource.
  • Its living plant collection contains more than 1,600 Chinese species – the largest collection of Chinese plants outside of China.
  • The Chinese Hillside showcases Chinese plants to our 900,000+ visitors each year.
  • It has a world-leading collection of Chinese Rhododendrons - a major tourist attraction in Scotland promoting a charismatic and ecologically important component of the Chinese landscape.


  • RBGE is twinned with the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), and jointly established the Lijiang Field Station, the UK’s first joint scientific laboratory in China. The field station is located on the Yulong Xue Shan, or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – which has a remarkable flora of c 3000 plant species.
  • RBGE works closely with the wider botanic garden network of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Current activities include:

  • We collaborate with scientists in Kunming to monitor and understand large-scale changes in tree cover to inform forest restoration policy interventions.
  • We collaborate with KIB on the international plant diversity projects (e.g. Pan-Himalayan flora)
  • RBGE’s horticulture staff provide training support to the Chinese Union of Botanic Gardens, and host Chinese trainees on placements (including collaboration with the Confucius Institute at Bangor University in the British Council funded 2 Dragon project).
  • RBGE scientists are leaders in understanding the diversity and distribution of Chinese Rhododendron species. A current collaboration with the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda is producing a book based on a stunning collection of Rhododendron photographs.  
  • China is a centre of diversity for yew trees (Taxus) which are a source of anti-cancer pharmaceuticals. With collaborators in Kunming we have determined the number and distribution of Taxus species, providing a framework for both conservation and future drug discovery.
  • Global demand for rubber for car tires is driving a rapid expansion in land conversion to rubber plantations. We collaborate with scientists in China to evaluate risks to biodiversity from rubber plantations, and to identify environments which are sub-optimal for sustainable rubber production.
  • RBGE and KIB coordinate global efforts in plant DNA barcoding – telling species apart with DNA.
  • We are now using DNA techniques to understand which bamboo species Giant Panda eat to inform habitat restoration programmes.
  • RBGE undertakes research on fossil pollen in China to understand the factors that drive long term changes in vegetation types. We are also working with scientists at KIB, and training students, in a large-scale project to investigate the evolution and diversity of pollen throughout the flowering plants

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a leading international research organisation delivering knowledge, education and plant conservation action in more than 50 countries around the world. In Scotland its four Gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan attract nearly a million visitors each year. It operates as a Non Departmental Public Body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Government. It is also a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees appointed by Ministers. Its mission is “To explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future”.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)