Capturing Diversity – The Kew Connection

Stedson always grumbled that the other conservation programmes on the island got a lot more attention and resources – whether it be counting turtles or monitoring the birds.  But I did see over the course of over 6 years how the plants issues were taken more seriously.  Stedson himself got more funds for propagating species and Kew Gardens were hugely helpful in maintaining herbarium specimens, ensuring if things went awry on Ascension itself there was a seed bank and material somewhere else from which to rebuild a population.  There was also a large project to look at invasive species in more detail.  Part of this programme was to conduct the first detailed plant survey on both St Helena and Ascension Island.  I’d had plenty of time to talk to one of the team, Andrew, a former teacher in St Helena who walked regularly – I’d been on a walk across to the Barn with him on St Helena as well as having travelled on the RMS on the same voyages.  His colleague, Phil Lambdon, I had come across on a set of visits I had done to Kew Gardens.  Dating back to the early 2000’s and my time in BVI, I had come across a fantastic champion of plants in the overseas territories called Colin Clubbe.   Colin was out in BVI building up relationships with the National Parks Trust and Conservation and Fisheries Department where I worked, and we had a lot of chats about potential ways that his taxonomy work and species data could be mapped.  As often happened, if another Brit trundled across my office I would try and do a bit of socialising with them and I also tagged along on a couple of his walks in the bush.  We ended up crossing paths several times, at conferences in Bermuda and Cayman, on work in Montserrat and then in Ascension and St Helena.  So much so, now being based back in South East England, I made it a point to try and get over to Kew Gardens at least once a year to have a catch-up with him.  Colin was such a great host, and I had several chats with an American guy, Martin Hamilton, who was trying to bring some of the territories up to speed on how to log records of species.  He had a database that could record locations of key endemic species, show where invasives were and monitor patches of forest.

It was a great privilege to see behind the scenes at Kew.  Colin’s office was on the Green near the main entrance to Kew Gardens, and the offices connected to one of the most fantastic Victorian buildings I have ever had the pleasure of being inside.  The Herbarium was established to store plant specimens, leaves, twigs, flowers and seeds, of everything the collectors would bring back.    Plant material was placed in newspapers, usually from the country of origin, a Combretum in a Daily Nation from Kenya,  a bamboo orchid from Malaysia in a  New Strait Times, a bromeliad from Jamaica in a Daily Gleaner – and squeezed into travelling cases to preserve the material. By careful drying, laying out and storage, these specimens could travel thousands of miles and still be used as keys by specialists back at Kew.  Modern methods such as digital photos , seed banks and genomes are doing so much to continue this tradition, but there was something so tangible about these historical documents in the room.  Also olfactible – you could smell the specimens.

And the room itself was impressive – just trust the Victorians to produce a practical space with artistry thrown in.  It was made of iron to make it fire resistant, painted cream and blood red, with slim iron columns supporting a metal mezzanine above, and every nook and cranny filled with ceiling high shelving stuffed with these wooden storage bundles. I remember Colin pulling out a bundle for me and he opened up a card.  There, neatly laid out , was the flattened shape of a stem and flower, and decorative cursive writing documented the key features and location of the find.  And the collector was also named in the same handwriting – Charles Darwin.

He also took me round a quadrangle of offices which included the remarkable library.  In amongst the usual journals and tomes, there were fantastic albums full of stunning paintings of flora; scientifically accurate but artistically sublime.

Over the few years I went to discuss issues with Colin and Martin, a new building was erected.  Plant collections had fallen out of favour once, but now again were being seen as vital storage locations as the native habitats of these plants came under more and more pressure.  And as well as Colin and Martin, I met plenty of dedicated scientists who were looking in detail at different plant species and helping botanists around the world, record, monitor, treasure and conserve their biodiversity. Phil Lambdon was one of these botanists.

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