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Glasshouse Supervisor ventures to Vietnam to search for plant species new to science

Cambridge University Botanic Garden's Alex Summers, joins collaborative conservation and endangered plant collection expedition in the NW mountains of Vietnam.
Alex Summers trying out his expedition day packAlex Summers trying out his expedition day pack
A UK Botanic Garden team made up of expert staff from Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG), Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (RBGK), Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and Glasgow Botanic Gardens will embark on a collaborative, horticultural expedition to the northern mountains of Vietnam to identify, survey and collect threatened plant species and bring back plant material for conservation, education and research purposes.

The three week long expedition to the Hoang Lien Mountain Range, northwest Vietnam, will take place between 16 October – 6 November 2016.

Their aim is to target five mountains in the Hoang Lien Mountain Range, northwest Vietnam, to carry out botanical research and make plant collections from a variety of the country’s major vegetation types including semi-evergreen and montane forests.

This is the University Botanic Garden’s first collaborative, collecting expedition for over a decade and a first for Alex. He says: “I’m incredibly excited to have the opportunity to wander through a subtropical forest and have the chance to maybe find plant species that are new to science. To think there’s tonnes of stuff out there people haven’t discovered before makes it a really exciting prospect. I’m also looking forward to seeing the most amazingly diverse forests and plants such as tropical gingers, Magnolia and Rhododendron. We are so familiar with seeing these plants in our own back gardens but to see them growing in their natural habitats will be quite something! People don’t realise that so many of these plants are endangered. Botanic Gardens are the custodians of endangered species, so it’s an honour to know I will be playing a part in preserving something that in reality could no longer be with us in the future if expeditions like this one don’t take place.”

One of the main aims of this expedition will be to collect living material mainly in the form of seed. A great number of plant species native to the area are currently severely threatened by deforestation and development and now only exist as very small, fragile populations. Alex plans to bring back up to 400 seed lots, some familiar plants such as Rhododendron and Magnolia but also some species new to science as well as a range of conifers, ferns and subtropical herbaceous species. His primary interest will be to focus on collecting seed of plants which are under-represented in the University Botanic Garden’s collections and which will, he hopes, be used for future research and education purposes.

Alex continues: “Another crucial part of our expedition is to gain an understanding of what is present in such a remote and diverse area. Working with colleagues from Kew, Edinburgh and Glasgow means we can pool our specialist knowledge and resources and maximise the benefits from it. We can also learn from our Vietnamese partners at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi, Vietnam, as well as support them because we are all coming to this with differing sets of skills.”

The team’s other key aim is to work together to improve the understanding of the distribution of various plant species, and in particular Magnolia, located in the area. In recent years, a number of new species have been found and most are currently severely threatened and not in cultivation.

As part of his preparations, Alex is busy familiarising himself with plant material he’s likely to come into contact with in Vietnam, keeping fit by cycling and getting his kit consisting of rope, harnesses, collecting bags and recording documentation ready.

When the team return, they will place collected plant material in quarantine before using it for research and education purposes. Plant seeds will not require quarantine and will be sown and grown on site.

The expedition is organised in partnership with Nguyen Van Du, (the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology), based at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi, Vietnam and funded by a range of UK botanical and horticultural institutions.

For updates on Alex's venture, follow the Garden's social media feeds on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (click through from the homepage or search @CUBotanicGarden). The expedition team will also be writing weekly blog-style updates for the Garden's website.

To see Alex talk about his expedition click on the link to the left
Publication Date
13/10/2016