Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, talked about the Garden’s science projects at last night’s meeting of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.
The garden opened in May 2000, near Carmarthen. It gained a molecular biology laboratory last year. Its flagship science project is called Barcode Wales. Dr Vere told the meeting that the aim of the project was to DNA barcode all the native flowering plants in Wales (1,143 species). The project is due to be completed by the summer and will make Wales the first nation to achieve this biodiversity goal.
The DNA for most species is extracted from herbarium specimens, supplemented by field collection. Two genes (rbcL and MatK) act as a unique species barcode. Once the data has been published, it will be made available for numerous applications, including forensics and the identification of plants used in food and herbal mixtures. A current project is identifying what flowers bees visit, by identifying the pollen collected. As part of the funding for this project, the public can select a Welsh plant and sponsor its barcoding.
The Welsh Rare Plants Project at the Garden provides the scientific research needed to conserve the most threatened native plant species in Wales. Current projects involve wild cotoneaster, endemic whitebeams, spreading bellflower and wild thistle.
A National Nature Reserve (Waun Las) is situated adjacent to the gardens. Grassland management and restoration is a key goal. A species-rich area of grassland, for example, was successfully transplanted from a school playing field that was being redeveloped into the reserve. This National Nature Reserve is of particular importance, according to Dr Vere, because it is also a working organic farm. The reserve is therefore a model of how agriculture and biodiversity can co-exist. The farm has Welsh black cattle and two breeds of sheep. Meat from the animals is used in the Garden’s restaurant and is sold to the public.
The Garden also grows its own food in a series of trial allotments. These also contribute to the Garden’s extensive education programme (schools and adult lifelong learning). One horticultural project involves looking at the medicinal properties of tea plants, in particular identifying the bioactive component that suppresses Clostridium difficile (a bacterium that causes infections within hospitals).
The centre-piece of the Garden is the largest single-span glasshouse in the world, holding an important collection of Mediterranean flora. Over 12,500 plant accessions can be found in the Garden. A new arboretum will focus on temperate woodland trees (e.g., from South America); while a library, archives and herbarium have recently been established. The Garden is also forging many international links. Dr. Vere noted valuable exchanges with South Korea, where the new national botanic gardens has been modeled in part on the Garden (and will include three domed greenhouses like the one in Wales).
The National Botanic Garden of Wales has therefore come a long way in a decade. In its fourth year there was a financial crisis that came close to shutting the place down, but since then the Garden has gone from strength to strength. A third of its funding comes from the Welsh Assembly, a third from visitor income and a third from other sources such as fundraising and corporate hire. Dr Vere stressed the important contribution made by students and volunteers at the garden.
For further information on the National Botanic Garden of Wales: