Tuesday, 25 June 2013

First visit to Wakehurst

Today, accompanied by Mark Ballard and Dan Crowley, I visited Wakehurst Place to meet with some of the other members of the seed collecting team. 

We met in the Millennium Seed Bank to discuss where the project was and how the initial planning phases where coming together. 

We briefly touched on the list of trees that we are hoping to find whilst in Korea. One particular line of enquiry that caught my attention was the prospect of bringing back some seed from native Asian ash species.
Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place 
As almost everyone is probably aware due to its high media coverage, the British landscape is currently under a threat from Chalara fraxinea, or, as it is more commonly known, ash dieback disease. C. fraxinea causes ash trees to lose their leaves, experience crown dieback and will usually result in the tree dying.

Scientists are currently researching within native species of ash to find resistant trees that may possess genes that are able to withstand the attacking fungus.

However, searching for resistant trees within non-native species is much more of a challenge, as most non-native ash trees within the UK grow as specimen trees in arboretums such as Westonbirt, or in people’s gardens and private collections.

This lack of population (specimen trees commonly grow on their own) also means that there is a lack of potential genetic variation to find resistant trees amongst.

By taking a population sample from non-native species in their natural environment – as we plan to do in South Korea – the search for resistant trees can be carried out with a larger and genetically more varied sample of non-natives.

If genes resistant to C. fraxinea are found amongst the seeds we collect, there may in the future be the opportunity to hybridise and produce a new and resistant species of ash.

Although this may not be a very fast solution to the problem and will not prevent the threat that knocks on our countryside’s door, I am still very excited to be part of the process.

If you are concerned about ash dieback disease and would like to learn more,
please take the time to read this.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Living, Growing, Dying

Westonbirt arboretum was created in the early 1800s by an ambitious and equally wealthy man by the name of Robert Holford.  Holford, as was his want, created the arboretum for his own pleasure. However, to say that the arboretum was created can come across as mildly misleading, a more appropriate wording would be to say that this is when it began. The reasoning behind this wordplay being that Westonbirt is an ever changing, living, growing and dying collection. It almost exists itself as an organism. When one tree gets to the end of its life another‘s is just starting. One of the many things Holford spent his money on was financing plant-collecting expeditions. Plant collectors such as David Douglas would bring back species from all over the world, many of which still grow in the arboretum today. 

Since then the arboretum has grown and developed, spreading across the valley into Silk Wood until in the 1950s when it was placed into the hands of the Forestry Commission where it remains. Westonbirt has now grown to become the premier tree collection in the uk. You would be hard pressed to pick up any good book on trees, flick to the index, run a finger down to 'W' and not find Westonbirt's name. The arboretum now comprises of over 2500 different species from around the world. It is an invaluable source of education and understanding, not to forget a great day out. 

Several seed collecting expeditions have happened over the years, the most recent of which was to Japan. The trip helped to develop the arboretum’s tree collection with more diverse species of maples amongst other trees. The trip also forged a good relationship with the University of Shizuoka and the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute of Japan. These are key successes that we wish to repeat with our upcoming trip to Korea. 

The Holfords may be gone from Westonbirt, but their passion for gathering new plants and expanding the collection still remains.  Evidence of this can be found in the words of Simon Toomer, the director of Westonbirt, who has said…

"New trees and shrubs are the life-blood of the arboretum and seed collected from naturally-growing trees is invaluable for collections with scientific objectives such as Westonbirt."

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Something to look forward to...

I am working as an arborist at the UK's premier tree collection Westonbirt Arboretum. I have been given the exciting opportunity to go on a seed collecting expedition to South Korea in September of this year. With me will also be going someone from Bedgebury PinetumWakehurst Place and Kew, The Royal Botanic Gardens. I am yet to meet these people, but I hope to introduce them to you all very soon. I am starting this blog not only to track my own progress through the adventure, but also to give anyone who is interested an idea of the world of seed collecting from the view point of someone taking their first steps into it.