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This page was published on 03/11/2005
Published: 03/11/2005

   Pure sciences

Published: 3 November 2005  
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EU project ‘Ensconet' ensconces a once-lost Belgian grass

A rare grass species has been brought back from the grave by the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, member of an EU-wide native seed conservation network called Ensconet. The ‘Brome of Ardennes' grass was thought extinct in the wild since the 1930s.

It is important to keep records of wild grasses such as this like this Bromus hordeaceus found in Spain's Balearic Islands. © Virtual Herbarium, Balearic Islands University
It is important to keep records of wild grasses such as this Bromus hordeaceus found in Spain's Balearic Islands.
© Virtual Herbarium, Balearic Islands University
Up to 60 000 plants – more than one-fifth of the world's botanical species – are threatened or face extinction in the wild. But one rare grass species, Bromus bromoideus (the ‘Brome of the Ardennes'), has made a Lazarus-like comeback, thanks to the curiosity of a scientist in Belgium.

David Aplin of the National Botanic Garden (NBG) of Belgium first learned about the famed Brome of the Ardennes while preparing for an Ensconet – European Native Seed Conservation Network – meeting in Crete earlier this year. “I was searching for examples of extinct Belgian species to illustrate a presentation,” he said in a statement, and Bromus bromoideus was a prime candidate. Or so Aplin thought.

After some sleuthing, he uncovered seeds stored deep in the vaults. “It was clear that I was probably looking at the last few remaining seeds of this species in existence,” he said.

This uncommon little grass lived almost exclusively in the calcareous meadows of the provinces of Liege and Luxembourg, especially around Rochefort, Beauraing and the town of Comblain-au-Pont, where it was first discovered in 1821. Despite being a celebrated Belgian native for almost a century, changes in farming and interest in more exotic foreign imports saw Bromus bromoideus' star fade to the point of virtual extinction.

Aplin and colleagues checked with other botanists in Belgium, France and even as far away as the USA for further collections. They tracked down a small private stash of the seeds in Flanders, Belgium. But these were kept in sub-optimal conditions in an attic. In fact, one of the purposes of the Ensconet project is to improve modern seed-banking facilities so that cases like the Brome of the Ardennes one are not repeated.

Kiss of life
But the Belgians were not about to give up on the old seeds. Aplin took advantage of his role in the EU ‘Research Infrastructures' network to contact the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (UK) – one of the world's leading seed science research institutes. A small batch of seeds were then sent to Kew in the odd chance they could give Brome the kiss of life.

In September, the news was back from Kew. The seeds had successfully germinated. Thierry Vanderborght, seed bank manager at the NBG was both relieved and buoyed by the result. “It was a relief to know that the garden's seed bank was fulfilling its purpose and it illustrates the key role that botanic gardens have in conserving some of the world's most vulnerable plant species,” he said.

“This is one of the first successes of the recently formed conservation network across Europe funded by the EU,” Vanderborght stressed. Ensconet was formed in November 2004 and is headed by Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens. In addition to Kew and Belgium, 17 other institutes from a dozen countries in Europe have joined forces to protect the continent's most endangered species.

“Working together, [we] can reduce duplication and improve data collection and management,” noted Simon Linington, head of curation at Kew's MSB, and Ensconet coordinator. “This will be to the advantage of the many plants, such as Bromus bromoideus, facing extinction.”

The Brome of the Ardennes is not completely out of trouble yet, the botanists stressed. “We now believe the total number of viable seeds remaining to be fewer than 10 000, making this species [still] one of the most threatened in the world.” Only 35% of those are viable, it is thought. Seedlings are now being grown at a secret location, where it is hoped they will produce fresh seed stocks for conserving in temperature-controlled banks across Europe.

EU project, Ensconet

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See also

Ensconet (registered user only)

Kiss of life saves extinct grass (Innovations Report, 18 October 2005)

More on plant Bromus/genres (Wikipedia)

Research Infrastructures (in FP6)

Virtual Herbarium (Balearic Islands University)

Research Contacts page
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