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Historic British Botanical Garden Promotes Biodiversity

  • Jennifer Glasse

The United Nations has named 2010 the year of biodiversity. Britain's Kew Gardens, one of the oldest and most respected botanical gardens in the world is at the forefront of preserving biodiversity.

Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, on the outskirts of London, has been around for 250 years and is home to some of the world's largest collections of plant specimens. Here experts study how to germinate plants, their history, their relationships with other plants, insects and animals and their place in the world.

Mark Chase heads Kew's Jodrell Laboratory, where much of the work is done. He says understanding plants is useful in tackling 21st century problems like climate change.

"Plants can purify the water, modify the temperatures and modify our habitats and make these more hospitable for people so if we can restore areas that have been damaged by our past activities, then this will help ameliorate the effects of climate change on us," he said.

Chase says plants' effects are easy to see.

"Just walk out on a summer's day and stand near a tree, versus standing out of the way someplace where there are no trees, and you can feel the cooling effects of the transpirational loss of water through the leaves that is taking place as a result of the presence of the trees," said Chase.

In Africa, Kew's botanists are working with local populations to identify and in some cases preserve plant species that are threatened.

"Plant habitats are really facing severe pressures on them with change in land use, with increasing populations, etcetera. The need to feed the people, to be able to provide fuel, results in a loss of habitat and therefore the loss of biodiversity," said Monique Simmonds, who heads the Sustainable Uses of Plants Group at Kew.

Simmonds says change in habitats is threatening plants that could lead to medical breakthroughs. In Ghana, experts from Kew are helping identify plants that could be used to treat malaria. Simmonds says there is no magic bean yet, but there is hope.

"It is maybe about time that we had a lead from Africa and we are hoping that this research will result in this. I am afraid it does take years to actually identify a plant with that potential, but the fact that we are identifying plants that have not yet been studied indicates that there is new information out there that justifies further research," she added.

Simmonds says her team works closely with the local community to ensure its scientists learn from their indigenous plants and will benefit if the plants turn out to have commercial value.