Conservation Extremes


The gardens that we support around the world through our partnership with BGCI are going to breathtaking lengths to rescue biodiversity in their local areas. Here are just two examples.

In one “tiny little habitat remnant” of Renosterveld in South Africa’s Swartland, a beautiful, dainty flower thought to be extinct was rediscovered during some fieldwork in 2018 – Oxalis fragilis, from the wood sorrels family. It’s a rugged landscape, where farms and wineries are expanding. The fragilis of its Latin name is defined as meaning 1) fragile, brittle, easily broken 2) (figuratively) weak, fragile, perishable.

It’s hard to find and particularly hard to conserve because the seeds can’t be dried and seed-banked, they must germinate immediately.

Oxalis fragilis “It would be a tragedy if it went extinct.”

The job of getting them to reproduce, in order to build a living collection, falls to Dr Donovan Kirkwood and his small team at Stellenbosch University Botanic Garden. [See Don on fieldwork above, photograph by Anso Le Roux and check out their Instagram @subotgarden]. They have been hand-pollinating each flower individually. “Initially I thought it would be a little 10-minute job,” says Don. Turned out it was 2-3 hours every couple of days, for every set of pots they have, bent over the trays with tweezers and a magnifier. The bits of the flowers they are working on in the endeavour to fertilise them are only 2 or 3mm apart, so he admits, “It’s a bit fiddly. You definitely get better with practise!” 

If the pollination has been successful and seedpods are produced, the timing of the next steps is critical. “The trick with us is to catch them when they’re ripe enough to be viable to grow, but before the little pod splits open and spurts its 20-30 seeds everywhere… But not being able to store the seeds means we get a very gratifying and instant lawn of baby Oxalis fragilis for our labours! Each of the tiny little leaves is a brand new seedling and a different individual.”

Don studied both botany and zoology as an undergrad, with the intention of becoming a well-rounded zoologist, but says he, “very rapidly realised that plants were far more lovely than animals… Oxalis fragilis is a lovely example, beautiful scent. It would be a tragedy if it went extinct… The curse of being an ecologist is that you see a wounded world around you everywhere.”  This flower is just one of the highly threatened species that Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden have been able to make more safe through The Botanist – BGCI funding.

Renosterveld amid the farmland of the Western Cape, South Africa. Image wikipedia.

Meanwhile, in East Africa, the man-made and natural challenges are of a different kind. The Rwenzori, commonly known as the ‘mountains of the moon’ divides Uganda and Congo – one of the most politically troubled areas in the world. Godfrey Ruyonga of the community-owned Tooro Botanical Gardens which specialises in native trees and alpines describes his seed collecting missions. “We will go on foot, it takes about 3 days. The first day you move and camp. You stopover the second day and the third day you reach your destination, most likely. If you need you will take a fourth day, it’s acceptable. So you plan that. Then you go back…”

The terrain is not easy.  “Mount Rwenzori is a high mountain, a difficult climb, not everyone can do it. Some parts, where we would get some unique flora, there are lakes up there, and some difficult valleys to cross… It takes a little bit more effort, but the park is so rich.” They need to be accompanied by a security escort, and members of the Uganda Wildlife Authority team, who manage the national parks.

They have in their sights 16 rare species, 8 are trees. “There are some we haven’t seen in the past 30-40 years, so we believe they are there, but until we get there we can’t be sure 100%…Whatever collection we are making, most of them will be competing with the primates there who eat the same fruits. So we really have to be spot on so we get enough time.” says Godfrey. If the mission yields no seeds but they find one of the plants the project is focused on, they can log the GPS data, and more economically deploy one of the park rangers to revisit and continue the quest.   

Plant nurseries at the NGO Tooro Botanical Gardens, Uganda

The patience and dedication of the teams we have got to know through the BGCI projects has been a huge inspiration to us in Islay. Restoring biodiversity is painstaking, it’s taking place in remarkable landscapes, and it can involve personal risk. In Don Kirkwood’s words, “I think we’ve reached the point where there are enough species on the brink that just holding them safe for a few years, it’s pretty important.” Let’s not downplay it; these conservationists are crusaders for a better world. It’s an honour to back them.

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Further Reading

More about the partnership between The Botanist and Botanic Gardens Conservation International here >

Follow BGCI on Twitter >

Watch an introduction to the Stellenbosch project with Don on IGTV here >

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