Plant Conservation

If you ever wanted to know about the evolution of plants on earth and their role in our existence and protecting our natural world, then Plant Conservation: Why It Matters and How It Works is a must have. Director of Oxford Botanic Garden Timothy Walker’s book is an insightful and comprehensive manifesto on plant conservation. This is a subject very close to his heart, having been part of the group of conservation biologists that created the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) in 2000.

The book is divided into four parts, each detailing the 16 strategies of GSPC.
The essence of the GSPC is to highlight the critical importance of plants and how we need to conserve and protect flora and habitats. What Walker does is present stark facts and provides insights to safeguard our precious resources in a most engaging way.

The opening GSPC statement “without plants, there is no life” immediately makes the reader sit up and pay attention. The natural progression from this opening statement is to describe the role of plants and their evolution from water-based plants to land-based plants. This is an astonishing and detailed section that takes the reader back to “a Thursday 13,700,000,000 years ago.” The evolution of plants led to our success as a species.

What a thought—and all that in just the Introduction!

The author generously shares his vast knowledge of the natural world in clear language that is often peppered with witty observations. There is a rich vein of facts and interesting information panels that underline the content. Sadly, there are not enough images; for instance, the conservation project in Oxford where fields were transformed into hay meadows, could have benefited from some photographic images; this is just a minor quibble. In part one, The Global Garden, List describes the fascinating process in identifying plants and validating the reasons to create a global plant list. Also discussed are the reasons for conservation.

The description of the conservation of the snake’s head fritillary, or Fritillaria meleagris, is a fine illustration of common sense. The public were informed of this wild flower’s decline as a result of harvesting the flowers and were requested to admire the flowers “in situ” instead of picking them.

The project was a complete success. But this approach may not be possible all the time. Sometimes if the habitat is under threat, it is better to remove the plant (or collect its seed) to a new location, which is called “ex situ.”

This dilemma on how best to protect species is summed up in part two, Oath of a Plant Steward: To Conserve and Protect.

This section describes various methods to conserve plants against a background of habitat loss, climate change, and over harvesting. Walker clearly steps out the debate on the approach to conservation, be that “in situ” or “ex situ.”

One of the best ex situ solutions is the creation of seed banks around the world. At Kew Botanical Garden, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world. They have banked 10% of the world’s wild plant species to date!

Deeper into part three of the book, the author discusses the role of soil as the most precious part of any ecological system. All conservation is embedded in soil protection. If fact, as gardeners, our role in conservation goes beyond growing plants, but includes enriching and protecting soil. Also as important, we need to avoid peat compost and focus on creating our own compost.

Invasive species can devastate biodiversity and ecosystems. In England the control of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) costs £189 million each year. This highlights the importance of protecting habitats and controlling invasive species . . . many of which have escaped from our gardens. As gardeners, we have a duty to control any flora thugs in our midst.

Walker’s common sense prevails once again as he concludes in part four that the best approach to plant conservation is “Don’t despair—repair.”

Stark realities are always nearby as facts on global populations and food security is discussed. By 2050, the world’s population will be over nine billion. The underlining theme of this book is to be proactive, hence the success of seed banks and conservation of all wild flora and landraces. This book provides glorious insight into how a meeting of minds in 2000 is delivering on target-driven strategies for plant conservation.

Plant Conservation takes the reader around the world exploring flora and ecosystems and successful conservation projects from Madagascar to the Philippines. Yet the reader will not feel inadequate with the scale and demands of plant conservation because starting in the garden is the best way to promote diversity and plant conservation.

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