This summer, thousands of people are streaming through the gates of Kew Gardens for the widely advertised Chihuly exhibition of huge colourful sculptures inspired by natural patterns. But when Synchronicity Earth’s staff visited last week, they were led past the glass Sapphire Star by Kew’s research team, who showed them the science and conservation behind the scenes at the renowned botanical gardens.
We asked our team about the most memorable moments from the day and collected five facts we didn’t know about plants and botanical conservation.
Gruesome carnivores or just… toilets?
Tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes) belong in the same exciting category as the Venus Flytrap: carnivorous plants. Many of the pitcher-shaped traps contain a syrupy fluid which attracts insect prey, who fall in and cannot climb back out the slippery sides of the pitcher. However, some pitcher plants have evolved a much less gruesome ecological service; they serve as botanical toilets!
Small animals such as rodents are lured to the lip of the pitcher and the plant digests the urine and faeces which drop into the bowl. It is believed that this is the primary purpose of some larger species, although sometimes rodent bodies can be found inside, completely digested except for the bones. One pitcher has adapted to serve as a roost for the Hardwicke’s woolly bat, providing shelter for the bat and receiving additional nitrogen from the bat faeces.
2,000 new plant discoveries each year
Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, Senior Research Leader at Kew, nonchalantly dropped into the conversation that more than 2,000 new species of vascular plants have been described every year over the past decade. She showed the SE staff around the Herbarium (a vast library of preserved plants complete with red spiral staircases that could have come from a film set) and proudly pointed out specimens which had been collected by Charles Darwin himself.
“The herbarium keeps growing because we haven’t finished discovering the plant diversity of the world, and we want it to represent the world of plant diversity.”
Eimear Nic Lughadha
The herbarium samples are an invaluable resource into botanical history and provide resources for biologists and conservationists around the world.
Discoveries by a female Victorian explorer
Hidden in the southernmost corner of Kew is a red brick building which would easily be missed by visitors heading for the glasshouses or treetop walkway, but contains a treasure trove of wildlife art.
The Marianne North Gallery is filled, from floor to ceiling, with 832 vivid paintings by the female Victorian explorer it is named after, from all around the world. In an age before colour photography, her gallery provided people with a glimpse of plants inaccessible to most people. They were also so detailed that some paintings led to new botanical discoveries, including the largest known carnivorous pitcher plant (one of five plants that were named after her, Nepenthes northiana).
Kew’s gold reserve
David Attenborough has called the Millenium Seed Bank Partnership “perhaps the most important conservation initiative ever”. This partnership includes 121 organisations in 96 countries and has banked 16% of the world’s bankable plant species (48,000 species) to date. This genetic gold reserve provides a safety net, not just for the plant species at risk of extinction, but for whole ecosystems to which plan