Cultivating Biodiversity at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Many plant species are in danger of extinction. But scientists at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens are working with industry to find real-world solutions.

April 8, 2020

Plants are the backbone of the world’s ecosystems. They provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. Yet agricultural practices encourage standardization on single type of plant, such as a variety of plum that’s resistant to disease, a tomato that ships well, or a fast-growing type of wheat. This bias toward monoculture of a narrow variety of plants  creates fragile ecosystems unable to withstand unexpected threats.

The loss of plant biodiversity is the biggest missed issue of the last decade, according to a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Stockholm University. Experts predict that one in five plant species are at risk of annihilation – and 571 species of plants already have disappeared from the wild in the last 250 years.

For example, the carnivorous Venus flytrap – which Charles Darwin called “the most wonderful plant in the world” – was once abundant, but is now severely threatened due to the drainage and destruction of subtropical wetlands for agriculture, home sites, and shopping centers. Less than 5% of the plants survive, and what remains are being poached out of existence.

The Venus flytraps aren’t abandoned, however. Botanists are working with leading companies to address biodiversity issues due to the impact of climate change (and other factors) on threatened habitats, including developing more sustainable products. Together, they are enabling better climate and social action choices and encouraging behavior shifts that can slow the rate of plant extinction.

One example is a project initially scheduled to be announced at the now-canceled South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. While the press release may be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the work is not. In partnership with RBG Kew, Herbal Essences is working to save 20 plant species, including the Venus fly trap, Blue Ridge huckleberry, and Douglas clover. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is working with partners like the Center for Plant Conservation in Escondido, California, to help conserve seeds from these species. This effort helps to protect and preserve plants that face natural habitat destruction and to safeguard them from extinction.

A Scientific Resource You Didn’t Know

Although you may think of Kew Gardens as a tourist destination, the Royal Botanic Gardens also has an important scientific role. Since the institution’s creation in 1759, it has made significant contributions to the studies of plant diversity, plant systematics, and economic botany, earning Kew Gardens recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

RBG Kew is a global resource for plant and fungal knowledge. Its 350 scientists work to understand and document global plant diversity, as well as to discover and identify new species. One important service is RBG Kew’s long-term seed storage and research, which constitutes the world’s most diverse wild plant species genetic resource.

One way RBG Kew can achieve these goals is because the Kew Gardens represents ecosystems from around the world. The botanical collections include over 50,000 living plants, organized by region. For example, its rock garden has six areas, representing mountainous regions such as the European Alps and Pyrenees, windswept Patagonia, and the southern Alps of Victoria, Australia, and the peaks of New Zealand. (Also, it’s pretty.)

Cultivating Success

The knowledge that RBG Kew scientists gain from their research isn’t ivory-tower theory. The plant scientists are working with government agencies, conservation organizations, and industry.

Smart businesses prefer to use natural ingredients and sustainable choices because they are safe and effective. However, points out Lisa Jennings, P&G vice president, Global Hair and Sustainability. “Developing more earth-friendly options requires partnering with experts who have a deep knowledge of plant science. It’s not as simple as swapping out synthetic ingredients for natural ones; we need to make sure the products deliver to our high safety and performance standards.”

Experts in the field understand chemical interactions, can make suggestions about ingredient traceability (which have bizarrely complex supply chains and wide variations in quality), and can suggest safe, active ingredients. By working with RBG Kew, P&G has access to experts who can guide the company to offset the environmental impacts of its brands, such as carbon sequestration and tree replanting.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is concentrating plants’ potential impact on a sustainable future. “That is why it’s so critical to find solutions to protect against plant extinction,” said Professor Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at the RBG Kew. “We’re at a turning point and need to act now.”