Sandy’s Garden ... Ash Dieback Disease Update

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We, the present generation of mankind, have access to hitherto undreamed-of quantities of information.

We have the ability to transmit this information worldwide at the touch of a few keys and to store virtually unlimited amounts of it in readily-accessible files. We are also blessed with a ridiculously-short attention span, becoming bored with a news story within a matter of days of it breaking. Who knows what is happening now to the nuclear power stations in Japan after the 2011 tsunami? Who cares? And who knows what is happening right now in the case of the fungal infection commonly called ‘ash dieback disease’, which is threatening the very existence of one of the United Kingdom’s most common trees, the ash? Nor is the ash tree threatened only in our islands; it is under serious threat of being wiped out worldwide.

I am reminded of this topic by a recent letter in the Scotsman, a letter in which the writer … Roy Turnbull, from Nethy Bridge in Inverness-shire … asserts, “The UK government’s strategy on the fungal disease called ash dieback appears to be based on two premises, neither of which is known to be correct.” Mr. Turnbull goes on to explain that the first premise is that we can rely on disease-resistant strains of the ash tree to maintain the species; and that the second premise is that nothing can be done to save non-resistant strains. He then writes, “It may be possible to save the genetic heritage of Britain’s ash trees by collecting ash keys (seeds) from representative native provenance trees and storing them in a seed-bank.”

And indeed, it will be surprising if this course of action is not already under way, for a global strategy for plant conservation is already in place, a strategy which seeks to halt the continuing loss of plant diversity. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, recognising at the turn of the century that a significant number of UK plants are threatened with extinction … often, but not always … as a result of human activity established the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world, focussed on global plant life faced with the threat of extinction and plants of most use for the future. To quote the Kew Gardens website, “Working with our network of partners across 50 countries we have successfully banked 10% of the world’s wild plant species. We target plants and regions most at risk from climate change and the ever-increasing impact of human activities.”

This conservation programme has been aimed primarily at native wild flowers so far, the Royal Botanic Gardens explaining that, up to the end of 2012, “Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has been successful in collecting seed from around 90% of the UK’s native ‘higher plants’. This is the first time that any country has underpinned the conservation of its wild flora in this way.” But, lest it be thought that Scotland lags behind in this matter, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is in the forefront of plant conservation, specialising in the protection for posterity of plants from the entire world. It is one of four botanical gardens … the others are the Missouri Botanical Garden, the New York Botanical Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew … which have announced plans to develop the first modern, online catalogue of the world’s plants by 2020 with the aim of halting the continuing loss of plant biodiversity around the globe. It really is unthinkable that seeds from our native ash trees will not be included in programmes such as these, with uninfected seed stored in seed-banks to await the development of a means of combating ash dieback disease in case the doomsday scenario … the total extinction of ash trees worldwide … becomes reality.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society