Protecting a golden jewel of the woods and mountains
At the height of summer, a fragile beauty of the Scottish Highlands is receiving care and protection in the capital city. This week, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) introduces the arrival of the delicate Melampyrum sylvaticum (small cow-wheat) into its native plant conservation programme at Inverleith.
Normally to be found in the woodlands and mountain ranges, Melampyrum sylvaticum has particular habitat needs, it is highly sensitive to light and moisture climate and is vulnerable to a number of threats. Being hemiparasitic, it needs to receive nutrients from other plants. In its mission to explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future, RBGE is not only committed to conserving species around the world, it has an obligation to care for native Scottish species.
Martine Borge, a Scottish Rare Plant Programme Horticulturist at RBGE explained: “Many of Scotland’s most extraordinary plants are struggling for survival and dangerously small populations are under threat. Not only this, the Scottish natives are losing their habitat as a result of how land is being used, being vulnerable to pathogens and competition from invasive species adds to what is left, creating a harsh habitat for the remaining.
“This a lovely and sensitive plant, an essential part of our wonderful diversity. It absolutely deserves to have places where it can grow happily even, for now, if that means it needs a generous benefactor to play host in the city.”
While visitors can now see the first small population of Melampyrum sylvaticum alongside other Scottish native plants at the Garden, scientists and horticulturists are actively engaged behind the scenes to secure them a better future. Working with conservation partners, including NatureScot, this work supports the Cairngorms Nature Action Plan.
“We are doing everything we can to prevent the worst from happening,” added Martine. “By growing such plants in our four Gardens, we are providing an insurance policy against their loss in the wild. The goal is to increase the numbers by growing them on here, in safe environments and to understand as much as we can about them.”
It has been observed that If the population of small cow wheat is to survive, a new generation must be able to grow from seed every year. Martine continues, “The seeds it produces are very heavy (they look like pine nuts) and cannot travel by themselves, it’s believed to be completely reliant on Wood Ants to pick them up and carry them to a good spot every year.
“Over the past year, we have been assessing the possibilities and considering different horticultural methods that might allow this lovely plant to be re-introduced into suitable areas. This involves configuring how to store the seed in a way in which it can flourish and considering the species’ preference to different host plants: we know, for example, it is often found in rowan trees. We are also working out whether it is better to let the seed fend for itself directly in a natural plot, or get it settled with a host in a container before trying to get them established together later in the season.”
To find more about this vulnerable species and others, visitors can see specimens growing to the right of the path in the Experimental Garden, near the East Gate at RBGE: look out for the distinctive yellow circles. Please remember to book your ticket slot before visiting.
Some further reading:
The Experimental Garden is located in an area of the Edinburgh Garden which has long been dedicated to the cultivation of native Scottish species. It uses these species to showcase the principles of evolution to visitors. Researchers from RBGE and University of Edinburgh are investigating the genetics and breeding behaviour of many of the plants growing there to discover more about how they have evolved.
The area has a marked trail through Scottish native woodland leading to a pond and a ‘ruined’ bothy. The pond supports a wide range of dragonflies and damselflies and other pond dwelling wildlife. The naturalistic planting features prominent stands of avens (Geum urbanum and G. rivale) and campion (Silene dioica and S. latifolia), as well as foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea). One of the recurring scientific topics at the heart of the Garden is hybridisation. While hybridisation is commonly used in horticulture and plant breeding to develop new cultivars, it also occurs in nature and can give rise to new species. The researchers are monitoring hybrids in the Garden, and which combinations are most successful. This could lead to the identification of the genes responsible for hybrid vigour.
For more on Scottish natives conservation visit: Target8 | Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (rbge.org.uk)
Cairngorms Nature Action Plan outlines how people and nature can thrive together within the National Park over the coming years. The Cairngorms National Park was established in September 2003. It’s aims include to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area, to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area, to promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public and to promote the sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities. Action for Cairngorms Nature - Cairngorms National Park Authority.
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a leading international research organisation delivering knowledge, education and plant conservation action around the world. In Scotland its four Gardens at Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan attract 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.” Learn more: www.rbge.org.uk
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