Western Morning News – Cornish scientists set to save endangered plants

A critically endangered species of Rhododendron could be saved thanks to pioneering research in Cornwall.

Scientists at the Duchy College Rosewarne are working with the National Trust and Heligan Gardens to grow new plants from the buds of some of the rarest varieties that have become threatened by disease.

The aim is to cultivate them into strong plants, ready to repopulate parks and gardens.

Ros Smith, laboratory manager at the college said they hoped to make a difference.

“This work is of national importance, a lot of the plants we are working with were original introductions to this country from the 1850s there are also some rare hybrids and some unique plants that are under threat for a number of different reasons,” she said.

“What we’re trying to do is to conserve the plants from various threats such as disease, climate change and old age.

“We are working with the buds of the plant, taking out the individual flowers and planting them in a food gel which helps them to form new shoots and then after a few years of growth we can then look to transfer them into pots and put them into the greenhouses.”

Research by Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh shows that a quarter of Rhododendron species are under threat in the wild.

The 128 page Red List booklet highlights that of the 1,157 Rhododendron species surveyed, 316 are considered threatened with extinction and therefore require conservation action.

The BBC has recently filmed at Duchy College Rosewarne for an episode of the Great British Garden Revival due to be screened on January.

In the new series, TV presenter James Wong also visits the Lost Gardens of Heligan to see the plants back in their rightful place.

Ros said they were working with a number of local and national gardens, as well as the National Trust, to protect a number of species under threat,

“Our work with the National Collections Group has shown that often older plants could be harboring viruses or they may be just weakened because of their age.

“So our aim is to regenerate young vigorous plants and also remove the disease from them.

“The technique we use is to grow small pieces of plant material in a nutrient filled jelly under sterile conditions, so it’s a laboratory way of growing plants, before they are strong enough to place in the green house to acclimatise.

“In theory the plants could be affected by the things like viruses when they are rehomed, but we have seen that those that have been planted in infected areas have flourished and grown vigorously and are now big strong plants that are in flower.”

Ros has also been leading research, along with a number of degree students, looking at the potential impact of Ash die back.

She said: “So far the results have been remarkable. We’ve managed to grow some ash shoots in culture; we are now hoping to clone this plant and to create a decent number of young trees.

“The samples have been taken from one of our trees here, so it is not a strain that is resistant to Ash die back, but it could potentially be in the future.”

Head of Rural Economy at the Cornwall College Group, Dr Phil Le Grice, said: “We cannot under estimate how important this conservation and research work is for future generations.

“Ros and the student volunteers are using pioneering techniques to help conserve and protect those species that have become endangered for a multitude of reasons and I feel incredibly proud of the work that they are doing.”