Behind the scenes at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
December 17, 2014 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Are you interested in plants? The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew aren’t just a tourist attraction -- they also run one of the world's leading botanical research institutes. To show off how important and fascinating modern plant science can be, they've commissioned a series of snazzy short videos to showcase their work. Start with the award-winning Forgotten Home of Coffee (6:00) (based on this worrying Kew study from 2012), then come back for the rest.

1. Beyond the Gardens - The Future of Taxonomy (7:23)
Taxonomy unlocks our knowledge of the living world, but it has to change to keep pace with technology and the demands of society.

2. Beyond the Gardens: The Plant Family Tree (9:09)
The Herbarium at Kew is a vast Victorian maze filled with arcane books, learned scientists and cabinet after cabinet of dried catalogued plants.

Tracing 160 years, Mark Chase, Head of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew, reveals how the Herbarium has evolved from a modest collection of dried plant specimens, to a hub of ground-breaking scientific discovery that has shaped our understanding of the plant family tree forever.
3. The Plant Family Tree - Gwilym Lewis on plant relationships (3:33)
Behind the scenes, Kew houses over 7 million plant collections representing the different growing stages and geographical range of the world's 250,000 known flowering plants.

Gwilym Lewis, Head of Legumes at Kew, talks about the biggest buzz of his life, his passion for taxonomy and the importance of plant relationships in our every day lives.
4. The Plant Family Tree - Felix Forest on plant evolution (2:23)
Over millions of years, a few plant species at the bottom of the plant family tree have evolved and multiplied into thousands of new species. Each new plant is of a different shape, texture, colour and size, and can sometimes be entirely unrecognisable from its ancestor.

Felix Forest, Head of Molecular Systematics at Kew, talks about the humongous task his team has undertaken to understand why and how plants have evolved over millions of years, and what triggers their evolution.
5. The Plant Family Tree - Ruth Clark on all life on Earth (2:34)
Without plants, no other life on the Earth can survive. Animals, birds, insects and humans all rely on plants to live.

Ruth Clark, Legumes Assistant at Kew, explains the vital role plant taxonomists play in understanding and protecting plant life around the world and the habitats we rely on, and why plants are the key to safeguarding our future.
6. The Plant Family Tree - Mark Chase on plant DNA (4:00)
If too many plant species become extinct, habitats around the world will collapse and be unable to deliver the vital ecological services needed to support life, such as modifying the climate and providing clean water and cool air.

Mark Chase, Head of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew, talks about why plant names matter to science and how DNA technology is enabling scientists at Kew and around the world to answer new questions about the relationship between plants and our changing climate.

7. Beyond the Gardens: The Crop Wild Relatives Project (7:13)
80% of our calorie intake comes from just twelve plant species, 50% of our calories come from just the three big grasses; wheat, maize and rice. What would happen were we to lose one of these crops?

This video discusses why wild crop relatives are so important for our future food security, and how Kew and the Millennium Seed Bank are helping to safeguard them.

You can read more about this work on the Kew website.

8. Beyond the Gardens: The Forgotten Home of Coffee (6:00)
Coffee is one of the world's favourite drinks, one of the most important commercial crop-plants, and the second most valuable international commodity; Arabica coffee is considered to produce the finest coffee beans.

A study conducted by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in collaboration with scientists in Ethiopia, reports that climate change alone could lead to the extinction of wild Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) well before the end of this century.

9. Beyond the Gardens: The Fungarium at Kew Gardens (5:35)
The largest organism in the world is a mushroom that is over 1,000 years old, covering hundreds of acres in a forest in Oregon USA. All plants on Earth relay on fungi to live, and fungi out number plants six to one. Kew has the largest collection of dried fungi in the world, around 1.25 million specimens.

10. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (5:17)
Discover more about the importance of plants to our lives and how the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is helping to save wild plants and habitats for our future. Over the last ten years we have successfully banked 10% of the world's plant diversity. Seeds from deserts, to mountains, of all different shapes and sizes. Find out more.

(via the awesome @KewGIS twitter feed, itself via this mildly polemic essay: The Horticulture of Happiness).
posted by rollick (12 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, this made my day. Thanks!
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:52 PM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do they know that all seeds can be safely stored at -20 C or whatever? Isn't it plausible that this could kill some portion of species?
posted by dilaudid at 3:05 PM on December 17, 2014

Not all species of seed survive the drying/freezing process. The ones that can't are called recalcitrant seeds (as opposed to orthodox seeds), and have to be cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen. I think whether a seed is counted as orthodox or not is a fairly fluid definition. Would love to know more about the mechanisms, honestly. In my experience, research labs tend to have "stability studies" on their wishlist of low-priority projects.
posted by rollick at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

How do they know that all seeds can be safely stored at -20 C or whatever?

I went to their seedbank at Wakehurst earlier this year. There's a lot of things they can't store because freezing and/or drying kills them, and which therefore need to be kept alive through planting and through cuttings in nurseries and gardens.
posted by dng at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2014

It's an extraordinary, world-changing place. Shame the UK government is intent on fucking it over.
posted by cromagnon at 3:28 PM on December 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

I just learned in the past couple of years that a man named David Douglas sailed THREE times to the US from England for the Royal Horticultural Society, starting in 1823 (not even two decades after Lewis and Clark's expedition) when he was 24 years old, on cataloging missions.

Two of these trips took him by ship around the southern tip of South America and up into the Pacific Northwest, where he spent years documenting the plant and animal life of the area, sending back plant pressings and seed samples (and animal skins, and a lot of other whatnot).

The Douglas Fir is named after him. He named a zillion plants in the PNW, and his pressings, plates, diaries, skins, and much of his gear survives even to this day. I know -- I've seen a lot of them in a museum exhibit that was one of the best museum experiences I have ever had.

Now, the Royal Horticultural Society is not involved with the Royal Botanic Gardens. I'm just posting this here because 1) people need to know more about this fascinating man and his short, productive, amazing life and achievements, and 2) the Brits are really obsessed with plants and cataloging and understanding and preserving them.
posted by hippybear at 1:48 AM on December 18, 2014

I was visiting a spice garden on Penang a few years ago. A lot of the rare and interesting tropical plants there were actually originally planted when the place was a sort of semi-british free port type of place and oddly came from Kew (well, via Kew).

The tour guide had never been out of Malaysia, so had this image of Kew as a magical wonderland of all the most interesting plants in the world (which is sort of correct). When I told him that I live in sight of Kew gardens he reacted like I told him I came from Narnia.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:04 AM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

There's a series called "A Year at Kew" hosted by Alan Titchmarsh. Many episodes are posted on the youtubes.
posted by feste at 8:35 AM on December 18, 2014

As a Botany student in the 80's, it blew me away to learn that there's a place in England where they grow and study an amazing range of plants, and that a major part of our current understanding of the plant kingdom comes directly from that one place.

It's sad to see that Kew is facing another in a series of annual budget cuts and must lay off 20% of its scientific staff. As usual, I see this as Neoliberalism in action, where governments chip away at scientific institutions because of claimed financial necessity, but conveniently use this leverage to reduce the effectiveness of scientists and institutions opposed to the dilution of environmental regulations.
posted by sneebler at 9:12 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Whoa, I'd never heard of the copaíba / "Diesel Tree" as mentioned in the intro to #2 there. Evidently the sap from the tree can be directly put into the tank of a petroleum-powered vehicle as usable biodiesel. It only grows in rainforest conditions, and hence isn't of use for any global energy issues, but back before WWII the U.S. imported 100 tons per year.
posted by XMLicious at 1:39 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks, the Diesel Tree is very interesting. Wikipedia says, "Despite its vigorous production of oil, the tree does not grow well outside of the tropics, and does not show promise as a reliable source of biodiesel in temperate climates." But I'll bet studying the biochemistry of how it makes the oil would be well worth the effort.
posted by sneebler at 2:44 PM on December 20, 2014

Maybe once we work out zero-energy desalination we can make the equatorial deserts into a bunch of new all-copaíba rainforests. It'll be like Dune, except that it'll rain biodiesel.
posted by XMLicious at 5:28 PM on December 20, 2014

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