Down House and Ashdown Forest, 6 July
By Graham Heywood
Down House Garden Tour
Twenty-two adult Guild members and friends gathered at the gates of Down House situated in the rural Kent village of Downe for an early start to our tour of this wonderful English Heritage managed property. The village of Downe has an ‘e’ on the end so as to avoid confusion with County Down in Northern Ireland. Charles Darwin refused to rename his home and so it remained as ‘Down House’.
On this occasion we were also joined by a delightful 8 years old young lady called Amelia, the Granddaughter of Brian and Sylvia Phillips who had organised the weekend’s events. We learned that Amelia had recently travelled (by herself) from Switzerland where she lives, to be with Gran and Granddad for this weekend. Now that is dedication. It is pity she cannot be signed up as a junior member of the Guild!
Most of us on this bright and sunny day had arrived by 9:30 which gave us the opportunity to greet old and new friends before the gates to the property were opened at 10:00am.
Once inside we were introduced to our guide, Antony O’Rourke a graduate of Kew.
Antony has worked in numerous botanical gardens including the University of Bristol, Tresco Abbey in the Isles of Scilly and the Jerusalem Botanical gardens in Israel where he managed their centre for plant introduction and propagation. More recently he ran his own very successful Ltd company in west London designing and maintaining high end gardens for a diverse client base. Antony is a passionate plants person and has amassed extensive knowledge in the cultivation and natural history of many plant groups. On graduating at Kew Antony spent a year in the Jodrell Laboratory as Conservation Genetics Research Assistant from autumn 2001. He was awarded the Guild Dalziel prize in 1999 to visit Hawaii and left Kew in 2002.
His particular passion is for carnivorous plants, orchids, tropical plants and hardy herbaceous. Antony started a little over two years ago at Down and set about a programme of restoration of Emma Darwin’s mingled border, the Mound, Experiment Bed and re-evaluating the Glasshouse collection to truly reflect life at Down and bring the Darwin narrative to life.
We assembled adjacent to the boundary wall in front of the House that leads now into the shop and ticket office but was formerly in Darwin’s time his new study. Even today visitors can see artefacts from Darwin’s time displayed above and adjacent the fireplace. It was here at Down that Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection and where he wrote in 1859, his seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In subsequent decades, Darwin went on to develop his theory and published several important works based on his observations at Down. Among these other works are The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the emotions in Man and Animals (1872).
Following Antony’s welcome, he pointed out that the view beyond the boundary wall is not as it was when the Darwins moved into Down in 1842. The wall was very much higher than at present. Charles Darwin decided he wanted to be able to view the landscape beyond the wall and so reduced its height to give an uninterrupted view of the countryside. At the same time the road beyond the wall was lowered to maintain the family’s privacy from prying eyes. The spoil from the road went into the garden and was used to create an embankment around part of the house. The mound was removed during the many extensions and alterations to the house that took place over many years. The estate in Darwin’s time was in fact a ‘landscaped living laboratory’ and has been likened in some ways to Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
About Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England, the fifth child of Robert and Susannah Darwin. His father was a successful doctor, as was his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, whose own work and theories on evolution had a great influence on Charles’s later theories. Darwin, Antony informed us, went to Edinburgh University to Study medicine but soon realized he was unable to even watch an operation being performed. In 1828 he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, to become a minister. However, he soon gave up that idea also but continued to study. He attended John Stevens Henslow’s course in Botany, started a collection of beetles that became famous and read widely and received his Bachelor’s degree in 1831.
On Henslow’s recommendations Darwin was offered the position of naturalist for the second voyage of H. M. S Beagle to survey the Coast of South America (1831-1836) Darwin wondered where he was going to find the money to fund his voyage, but this was eventually provided by his father. During the voyage Darwin studied many different plants and animals and collected many specimens concentrating on location and habitats. Darwin was influenced in his Beagle studies by the scientist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–33), which stated that present conditions were clues to the Earth’s past history. Darwin’s Journal of Researches was published in 1839. With the help of a government grant to cover the cost of the illustrations, the Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle was published in five volumes from 1839 to 1843. A number of scientists wrote articles on fossils, living mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. Darwin edited the work. He contributed information on the habits and ranges of the animals and made notes on the fossils. He also published The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), for he had studied the coral reefs in the Cocos Islands during the Beagle’s voyage. Charles Darwin went on to develop his theories of evolution that culminated with the production of, amongst other works, those mentioned above and the rest as they say, is History.
Charles Darwin Marries
Charles Darwin married his wife and first cousin in January 1839. Charles and Emma had 10 children of which 7 survived to adulthood. As the saying goes, “Money begets money “ and so it was with Darwin’s marriage to Emma. Emma also came from a wealthy family, namely the Wedgewood family of Wedgewood pottery fame. Antony said he was dedicated to presenting the garden as the Darwin’s would have known it, from the ornamental beds through to the produce grown in the kitchen garden and of course bringing to life the narrative of the experimental ‘Mr. Darwin at Down.’
We proceeded to a large Yew tree at the back of the House under the branches of which we sheltered from the increasing heat of the Sun; one of the same trees that Darwin’s children used to picnic under and construct swings from its branches. Antony continued with the history of the House and garden. Darwin and his wife moved into Down House with their two young children in the autumn of 1842. It was the family’s home for 40 years until Darwin’s death in 1882. Antony directed our attention to the centre of the house and pointed out that the original Georgian façade had been remodeled by Darwin to include a large bay window, the ‘insert’ extending the full height of the house. The House was to undergo several changes during the time it was occupied by the Darwin family.
Some few yards between the house and the yew tree under which we were standing is a very old specimen of a Mulberry tree planted by the Darwins. To the right of the Yew tree we examined flower beds planted with herbaceous perennials and annuals of the type that Emma Darwin would have used. These included amongst others, lobelia ‘Crystal Palace’ and other plant types now in use that have been confirmed by archive material and by photographs hung in the house. The common thread running throughout the gardens as we see them today is the pain-staking and meticulous re-creation of plantings that Emma Darwin and her family would have enjoyed. Such is the dedication of Antony, Head Gardener and his small number of assistants. Also on view in this area were re-created trial beds where Darwin conducted some of his research.
We moved on to the herbaceous borders, again planted with species that Emma Darwin would recognize where some of the plants had large labels inserted nearby. These Antony explained, identified sections of the herbaceous garden from which specimen pieces were taken for benefit of staff (and visitors) to help increase their knowledge of plant identification. Antony informed us that it was unlikely that Emma Darwin would have had all individual plant types labelled and this tradition has been maintained in the garden today.
Early photographs of the herbaceous garden confirm this practice.
Halfway down the central pathway were planted specimens of Climbing Rose ‘Blush Noisette being trained up a pergola. This variety replaced Dorothy Perkins, the latter being a 20th Century Rose. Blush Noisette on the other hand was amongst the Roses mentioned by and cultivated by Emma Darwin. Antony informed us that this variety of rose was confirmed by meticulous research into the date of this plant’s introduction and cross referencing with archive material at Down.
As we progressed toward the kitchen garden we entered the glasshouses, built in the early 1860s, thus giving Charles Darwin a more specialized growing environment that he required for his experiments. It was a much-improved situation from trying to cultivate tropical plants in his drawing room within a plant case. Once built, the new glasshouses were soon occupied by plants recommended and supplied by Darwin’s friend Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. As in Darwin’s time, the glasshouses are filled with Climbing plants, Orchids and Insectivorous plants. Orchids were grown by Darwin to explore the previously unknown link between insects and orchid pollination. Insectivorous plants, particularly sundew Drosera rotundifolia and Nepenthes spp. Darwin correctly predicted that one day a moth would be found that was capable of reaching the nectar of Angraecum sesquipedale and so it came to pass. Antony pointed out that Drosera rotundifolia first came to Darwin’s attention when he was walking in Ashdown forest (the venue for our next visit later that day). Climbing plants on display included Jasminum polyanthemum, Bignonia capreolata, Echinocystis lobata (wild cucumber) and Passiflora x Exoniensis. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the growth habit of climbers and made some notable observations. Darwin observed the wild cucumber to investigate how climbing plants use their stems and tendrils to find support. Darwin detected what he called circumnutation – gyration of the plant stems around the support provided by trellis fixed to the back wall of the greenhouse. His studies of climbing plants also included the effect of light and darkness to which plants were subjected and from which we have the word phototropism that resulted in his publication of On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865) and following joint experiments in collaboration with his son, Francis, The Power of Movements in Plants (1980).
Moving on to the kitchen or walled garden (constructed in 1860) the garden is surrounded on three sides by a high wall where we saw a variety of vegetables growing in harmony with annuals Calendula, Cosmos and Limnanthes. The beds were accessed by a path lined with low growing box hedging that extended the full length of the kitchen garden Although Down has not experienced any significant box Blight (Cylindrocladium buxicola (syn. Calonectria pseudonaviculata) in this location, comment was made by some members of the very obvious variation in leaf colour of the hedge. Antony suggested this was the result of soil variation rather than any plant disease as it was not found on other box hedging within the kitchen garden.
Our next stop was a meadow that Antony explained was currently the subject of a concerted effort to preserve the Wax Cap fungi The Fungi Field is a site of National importance. The Wax Cap fungi are only found on unimproved grasslands. Antony informed us that at Down they keep the field regularly mown and remove the arisings to prevent nutrient build up. We were informed that the field presents a spectacular display in the early Autumn. The fungi field is not open to the public to preserve this delicate habitat.
From here we progressed to the Sandwalk. In 1846, Darwin rented from Sir John William Lubbock a narrow strip of land of 1.5 acres (0.61 ha) adjoining the Down Housegrounds to the southwest. Darwin had a variety of trees planted, and ordered a sand and gravel path a quarter of a mile long known as the “Sandwalk “ to be created around the perimeter. The Sandwalk became the place where Darwin would take frequent walks whilst pondering his various theories and research and thus became his ‘thinking path. The land rented by Darwin was eventually purchased by him in 1874.
On the Sandwalk, we stopped at a point where we viewed a sweet chestnut tree. Antony explained that this tree is in the spot where, in Darwin’s time, there stood a large Beach tree where the Darwin children used to play, the children called it the ‘Elephant Tree’ because of its size, shape and stature. It pre-dated the Darwins and died in the 1970’s. The Sweet Chestnut that was planted in error is to be removed and the other Beech Trees already present that are off-springs from the one the Darwin family knew, will be left to mature.
At this point, our tour ended but Antony recommended we continue on the Sandwalk through the wooded area and return to the kitchen garden via The Great House Meadow a15 acres field with a rich variety of meadow plants and grasses in which, in the Darwins time they used to graze their two horses, donkey and two cows. It was in this meadow that Darwin encouraged his children to watch for Bumblebees in the hedgerows and trees and also where Darwin determined that red clover depended on its pollination by Bumblebees. Antony told us to watch out for specimens of Epipactis purpurata (violet Helleborines) that were protected from rabbits and deer by wire netting.
Before Antony departed, our President, Mr Peter Styles presented Antony with a copy of A Century of Kew Plantsmen – A celebration of the Kew Guild by Ray Desmond and F. Nigel Hepper (obtainable from the Kew Bookshop or online). We began to disperse to complete our walk by ourselves and the writer was not the only one left with a feeling of both admiration and wonderment at Antony’s passionate and encyclopaedic knowledge of Darwin, his family and Down House. Back at the House, we had ample time to obtain lunch, take a self guided tour of the house and yet again marvel at the Head Gardener’s knowledge of Darwin and his family and overall passion for Down before departing to Ashdown Forest.
Ashdown Forest and Pooh Bear
On arriving at The Education Barn we enjoyed a welcome cup of tea and biscuits served by Brian and Sylvia Phillips who live quite close to the Forest and who visit the Forest frequently, taking a keen interest in the Management and Conservation of the Forest.
Once more refreshed we were introduced to and welcomed by Steve Alton, Conservation Manager of the Forest. Steve briefly outlined his background.
Steve joined the Forest in December 2013 and has over 25 years experience in the conservation sector. Originally a conservation officer for the Wildlife Trusts, he then spent 13 years running the UK Programme of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank project at Wakehurst Place. At Ashdown Forest Steve oversees the-day-to-day conservation of the Forest, and has a particular interest in interpretation.
A very brief History of Ashdown Forest
We learned that Ashdown Forest came into existence as a Norman deer hunting forest in the period following the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is currently an area of approximately 6500 acres and has 48 car park areas ensuring that visitors from all directions are able to easily access the forest whilst at the same time spreading the effect of its many hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving by car each year.
At the highest points of the Ashdown Forest are the remains of several Barrow Mounds dated by the University of Sussex to the late Iron Age. At the nearby Pippingford Army Training Area there is a large hilltop settlement mound that is a Class A Listed Protection Ancient Monument site. The site includes Iron Age stock and hunting enclosures with recent finds of leaf-cut flint arrow heads dated to the middle Bronze Age period now on display in the East Grinstead Museum. The Hilltop hunting settlement is thought to have been constructed by the local Wealden Chieftain named Crugh who was gifted lands by his High Wealden Chieftain Uncle who lived at Marks Cross in East Sussex.
Prior to the conquest, Ashdown seems simply to have been an unnamed part of the vast, sparsely populated, and in places dense and impenetrable woodland known to the Anglo-Saxons as Andredes weald ( “the forest of Andred “), from which the present-day Weald derives its name. The Weald, of which Ashdown Forest is the largest remaining part, stretched for 30 miles (48 km) between the chalk escarpments of the North and South Downs and for over 90 miles (140 km) from east to west from Kent into Hampshire.
Ashdown Forest is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 but, as part of the forest of Pevensel, the sub-division of the Weald that the Normans created within the Rape of Pevensey, it had already been granted by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain. This rape was strategically and economically important, extending as it did inland northwards from the English Channel coast towards London, It was awarded to William during the Norman conquest of England. Two important conditions applied to a forest like Pevensel: the king could keep and hunt deer there, while the commoners – tenant farmers who had smallholdings near the forest – could continue to graze their livestock there and cut wood for fuel and bracken for livestock bedding, who claimed right of pasture there.
In 1662 the forest was granted to one of Charles II’s closest allies, George Digby, Earl of Bristol, and it was formally disafforested to allow Bristol a free hand to improve it. His attempts to do so were however frustrated “by the crossness of the neighbourhood “ and the fences he erected were thrown down and the crops he sowed were trampled by cattle. He defaulted on his rental payments to the Crown and left. Subsequent Lords of the Manor suffered similar opposition from the commoners. Compromise proposals were made to divide up the forest that would leave sufficient common land to meet the needs of commoners, while giving the rest up for improvement. These unresolved tensions came to a head when, in 1689, a major landowner and ‘Master of the Forest’, Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, brought a legal suit against 133 commoners in the court of the Duchy of Lancaster. The court decided to appoint commissioners to divide up Ashdown Forest’s 13,991 acres (5,662 ha) in a way that would meet the needs of both defendants and plaintiffs. The commissioners made their award on 9 July 1693. They set aside 6,400 acres (2,600 ha), mostly in the vicinity of farms and villages, as common land, where the commoners were granted sole right of pasturage and the right to cut birch, alder and willow (but no other trees). The commoners were however excluded forever from the rest of the forest, about 55 per cent of its area, which was assigned for “inclosure and improvement” (though substantial areas had already been enclosed by then, so in such cases the decree was merely confirming the status quo).
The land award of 1693 is largely responsible for shaping the map of Ashdown Forest today. The common land is highly fragmented and irregular in shape, broken up by many private enclosures, large and small. It tends to lie on the periphery of the forest near existing settlements. Some of the largest enclosures, such as Hindleap Warren, Prestridge Warren, Broadstone Warren and Crowborough Warren, mostly lying towards the centre of the forest, were used for a time for intensive rabbit farming. Some of these enclosures have today acquired interesting uses: Pippingford Park, in the very centre of the forest, occupied by the army in 1939 as a defence against Operation Sea Lion, remains an important military training area, Broadstone Warren is a scout camp and activity centre, while Hindleap Warren is an outdoor education centre.
Although the 1693 land award envisaged enclosure and improvement for profitable gain, the land it allotted to private exploitation has in fact largely remained uncultivated; this has helped Ashdown Forest to retain the appearance of being an extensive area of wild country that is so valued today. That said, there is nevertheless a visible contrast between the areas of common land, maintained by the conservators, which are predominantly heathland, and the extensive privately held lands, which are generally either quite heavily wooded or cleared for pasture.
Modern Day Management
Steve informed us that today, the forest is a product of human intervention and overall responsibility for the upkeep and management lies with East Sussex County Council. The council delegate the management of the forest to a Board of Conservators comprised of representatives of the county council, Wealden District Council and five ‘commoners’ – people who have a traditional right to graze livestock and collect firewood and bracken in the forest. The 1974 Ashdown Forest Act provided for the right of access on foot over the entire forest area.
Free access over the whole of the forest and the need to manage the forest to ensure it survives undue damage creates competing pressures that tax the skills and authority of the Board of conservators and staff.
The Ashdown Forest Trust that was formed after the 1988 Act reiterated the aim to promote the conservation of Ashdown Forest as a quiet and natural area of outstanding natural beauty and as an amenity and place of resort for members of the public.
However, the forest is still being changed. One and a half million visitors per year, mostly by car alone (hence the provision of 48 car parking areas dotted around the Forest) creates a very challenging management task for the conservation staff. An example of this is in the removal of trees, mostly birch scrub that if left alone would destroy the area as an important heathland reservation. Horse riders, walkers and dogs compete for territorial rights of way.
Dogs can be off the lead provided that they are under control. Steve informed us that fly-tipping is a great nuisance. One of the worst enemies of the Forest is the atmospheric nitrogen from the hundreds of cars that need to be accommodated. Steve remarked disdainfully that the ‘poison’ is all around the forest. Nonetheless there is a natural process of change. The area arose from a post glacial landscape that is now more open due to grazing by large animals. The Forest today is home to approximately 6000 fallow Deer and they suffer significantly from being killed by cars. As many as up to a dozen Deer a day are killed by cars in the Forest. Although as Steve said, this is probably an under estimate because not all kills are reported to the staff. Animals that have been home to the forest are Deer, Exmoor ponies wild Boar and European Bison.
There are often complaints from the public when for instance, the staff remove large numbers of trees to ensure the heathland areas do not get over run and thus change the landscape for good. There are often heated debates in the local press decrying the removal of trees and demands for the practice to stop. Steve’s predecessor was no less immune from criticism of the need to employ heavy machinery and use of controlled burning. He was known to staunchly defend these practices but also admitted that whilst these management practices were sound, what they (the staff) had failed to do was communicate effectively to the public why such practices were necessary. Clearly this kind of reaction can only be met with gentle persuasion and education. Steve Arnot is passionate about interpretation. At present over 60% of the forest is heathland and 40% tress/ shrub land. In ages past, Bracken and Gorse were collected by people for bedding down their animals and for other household uses. Men simply took what they needed to survive; the landscape was abused and exploited by Man. In the 18th Century half the forest was sold off and the other half ploughed. Today there are no more than five grazing rights. Steve informed us that if left alone for 5 -7 years, the forest would return to Birch scrub. The forest as it is today, he informed us is rarer than tropical rainforests!
Ten people are now employed to manage the Forest. As part of the management regime, large areas are set fire to as part of controlled burning. This employs 4-5 members of staff. One year later, seedlings of heather appear and Gorse rejuvenates very easily. As for livestock, Exmoor ponies graze the forest and are so hardy a species they can survive the winter quite easily feeding on young shoots of Gorse. There are also 300 Hebridean Sheep that graze on Molinia caerulea but this is killed off in October. The forest is also home to the Rigged Galloway cattle; an ancient form of Galloway. Steve went on to explain by way of a diagram the management balance that he and his staff colleagues aim for. There is a delicate balance between the forest being undermanaged and over-managed. The aim being to maintain an optimum regime of management and to be as little disruptive to the public as can be, given the fine balance that has to be achieved.
As for funding, this is helped by public donations and countryside stewardship grants; (European Union). In conclusion Steve asked us to be on the lookout for the rich fauna and flora of the forest. Birds we were to look out for include wood warbler, turtle dove red start- rare! and flycatcher. Plants to look for include Drosera, Bog Pimpernel and Vaccinium.
At this point Steve wished us an enjoyable exploration of the Forest and members gave Steve a resounding applause. The final act before departure was to take a photograph of the group together with Steve and for our President Mr Peter Styles to present Steve with a copy of ‘A Century of Kew Plantsmen – A celebration of the Kew Guild by Ray Desmond and F. Nigel Hepper.
A. A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh Bear
Ashdown Forest is famous as the setting for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories written by A. A. Milne, who lived on the northern edge of the forest and took his son, Christopher Robin, walking there. The artist E. H. Shepard drew on the landscapes of Ashdown Forest as inspiration for many of the illustrations he provided for the Pooh books.
Alan Alexander Milne was born in Kilburn, London to parents John Vine Milne, who was born in Jamaica, and Sarah Marie Milne (née Heginbotham) and grew up at Henley House School, 6/7 Mortimer Road (now Crescent), Kilburn, a small public school run by his father.One of his teachers was H. G. Wells, who taught there in 1889–90. Milne attended Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied on a mathematics scholarship, graduating with a B.A. in Mathematics in 1903. He edited and wrote for Granta, a student magazine. He collaborated with his brother Kenneth and their articles appeared over the initials AKM. Milne’s work came to the attention of the leading British humour magazine Punch, where Milne was to become a contributor and later an assistant editor. Considered a talented cricket fielder, Milne played for two amateur teams that were largely composed of British writers: the Allahakbarries and the Authors XI. His teammates included fellow writers J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse.
A Not So Great Adventure
We left the Education Centre car park in convoy to assemble at Gills Hill car park from where we continued on foot led by Brian, Sylvia and Granddaughter Amelia. It was not long that we heard what we guessed was the call of a Turtle Dove, heard first by our President. Out came his Binoculars but after several minutes of scanning the tree tops, we did not see it and we hurriedly caught up with the rest of the group. The first part of our trek was in open heathland but with heads down we were soon pulled up short as we gingerly negotiated a very narrow path with gorse and brambles being pushed out of the way, resulting in a few cuts and scratches. This was no place for a doddery 75-year-old I was thinking, yet there was no turning back now. After all, if an 8-year-old girl could do it then surely I could I told myself.
Eventually after a few near mishaps trying to avoid the potholes and ditches (more reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland than Winnie the Pooh) we emerged into a clearing known to Pooh Bear as The Enchanted Place. From here we enjoyed the magnificent view across the valley below that includes Pooh Bears 100 acre wood, that in reality is some 500 hundred acres.( the Forest rises to an elevation of 732 feet (223 m) above sea level, its heights provide expansive vistas across the heavily wooded hills of the Weald to the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and South Downs on the horizon.
Continuing our journey, we were led by Amelia and her Grandparents to another clearing called Roo’s Sandy Pit of Pooh Bear’s fame. Here we relaxed a little and at this stop Amelia scurried towards the bottom of the ‘Pit’. Not one to be outdone by his Granddaughter Brian responded to Amelia’s request for him to join her. Brian gingerly started his descent and soon found himself being propelled by gravity towards the bottom but in trying to slow down he tumbled head over heels before coming to a halt. ‘Are you alright shouted Pooh Bear?
Actually, it wasn’t Pooh but a chorus of concerned members who were in wonderment that no great harm had come to Brian – just a few grass stains on his trousers and a little dent to his dignity.
At this point we decided it was time to depart and foregoing the pleasure of throwing sticks into the stream that runs under Pooh Stick Bridge we headed back to the car park and so ended another very pleasant and informative Kew Guild Visit.
Graham Heywood, Vice President.
Millennium Seed Bank and Wakehurst Place, 7 July
By Sylvia Phillips.
Thirteen members gathered at Wakehurst Place on Sunday morning for a tour of the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB). Our guide was Dr John Dickie, Head of Seed and Lab-based collections at Kew. We were treated first to a talk in the seminar room explaining the work of the Seed Bank, before touring the laboratories and cold store.
All life on earth depends on plants, but the MSB is the only seed bank in the world concentrating on wild-collected seed on a global basis. Plants are essential to mankind for food, medicine, construction etc, as well as regulating climate, controlling flooding, nutrient recycling and other ecosystem services. Yet the natural environment is being destroyed at an ever increasing rate. At least 20% of plant species are threatened with extinction through habitat loss, expanding human populations and climate change. The MSB is addressing these problems through seed banking, and has a target to bank 25% (75,000) of the world’s bankable plant species by 2020.
Dried and frozen seed can live for many decades when stored in optimal conditions. Seed is collected in the field and brought to the MSB. There it is cleaned, dried at 15°C and 15% relative humidity, and finally frozen and stored in underground vaults at -20°C. However, seeds vary greatly in how long they can be kept in storage. We learned that tales of wheat being germinated from the pyramids in Egypt were a fraud! Research at the MSB investigates the importance of collection timing, temperature and moisture content on different seeds, and includes regular germination testing of the stored seed to develop propagation protocols for each species.
We learned that three plants provide 50% of all human food energy: rice, wheat and maize. Wild relatives of these important crops contain useful genes that can be used in breeding programmes to improve the crop by conferring useful traits like disease resistance or higher yield. In many countries humans are also dependent on wild plants e.g. in Tanzania wild plants provide 30% of household livelihoods, and in most countries livestock primarily eat wild forage species. 75% of the world’s people rely on plants for traditional medicines, such as aspirin which originated from the bark of willow and has been used as a painkiller for at least 2000 years. Drugs derived from the Madagascan rosy periwinkle have much improved the chances of recovery from childhood leukaemia . Seed supplied by the MSB has helped in the development of a biological control for Japanese Knotweed. The banking of wild collected seed is an important way to preserve some of the world’s plant diversity and potential before it is lost forever.
Some seeds do not survive drying and freezing, particularly trees from tropical rainforest and some alpine species e.g. certain species of Primula. Methods have been developed to store these seeds (known as “recalcitrant”) in liquid nitrogen.
The MSB is actually a partnership between Kew and 170 partner institutions in 85 countries. Seed is kept in trust for conservation and research purposes. It is supplied to organisations for a variety of purposes e.g. habitat restoration, conserving endangered or endemic species and improving rural livelihoods, but always with the prior consent of the partner institution in the country where the seed was collected.
The talk was followed by a tour of the laboratories, following the route of incoming seeds through the cleaning, drying, testing and freezing processes. We were led down to the underground vaults, viewing the many rows of shelving carrying kilner jars of seeds.
Finally we were shown the accommodation area for international students coming to the MSB on training courses, enabling them to take MSB expertise back to their own partner countries.
We came away with a much better understanding of the worldwide scope and expertise of the work done at the MSB, and an appreciation of how that work is contributing to the protection of the natural environment for the benefit of humanity.