Plants know no nation – avoiding misconceptions

Thanassis Tsiganas’s article «Greeks seek native flora from botanical gardens abroad…» (Kathimerini English Edition, July 17) is misleading since the author seems to have misunderstood a few basic facts. The underlying implication is that «foreigners are stealing our plants.» He writes for example: «For 130 years Adonis cyllenea […] was considered extinct until a few clusters were recently discovered on a rugged mountain. Yet for decades any Dane or Swede has been able to view this lovely flower in the botanic gardens of Copenhagen or Gothenburg […]. This is just one example of the hundreds of rare plants that have been removed from Greek mountains over the past three decades.» The first misconception here is the idea of plants being «removed.» The author has apparently not realized that plant collectors and botanic gardens do not dig plants up from the wild: They propagate them exclusively from seed or cuttings. This does not damage the parent plant, which is left growing unharmed in its natural habitat. Of course, when the plant concerned is very rare or under threat from extinction, the serious collector takes care to gather only a very small amount of seed, leaving most of the seed for the plant to continue multiplying naturally. The second, rather unpleasantly xenophobic, misconception is that somehow Danes or Swedes (or anyone else) have no right to grow and enjoy «our» rare plants – for my use of inverted commas see below. This betrays a lack of understanding of the purposes of botanic gardens. Botanic gardens everywhere in the world grow and study a variety of plants from all parts of the world, including Greece. Private gardeners too grow plants from all over the world: The writer does not seem to have considered that many of the plants most widely grown in Greece originated elsewhere and were at some point in the past collected and propagated: plumbago from S. Africa, bougainvillea from S. America, callistemons from Australia, yuccas from Mexico and Guatemala… Have we then no right to grow these plants? Should they somehow be repatriated? I won’t even bother to answer these questions. The writer also notes: «In all, 115 different rare endemic Greek species […] have been found at various sale points in Britain.» (Among those cited is dittany, Origanum dictamnus from Crete.) Plants from all round the world, including Greece, are on sale in nurseries round the world. There is nothing surprising or wrong with this. Every nursery propagates by cuttings and does not sell «dug-up» plants – apart from anything else this wouldn’t be a viable commercial proposition. It is true that dittany is now a rare and threatened species in Crete but none of the dittany on sale comes from the wild: It has been propagated commercially for a very long time (where does the writer think the packets of dried dittany to be bought in every Greek supermarket come from?) And it is not just in Britain that dittany is on sale: I grow it on my Athens terrace, bought easily and legally from a Greek nursery. «Since 1700, many famous botanists […] from Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Hungary and naturally Britain have been collecting plants from various parts of the Balkans and Greece, giving their own names to hundreds of plant species.» Once more, an unfortunate note of xenophobia. There is not enough space here to examine in detail why, from the 18th century and even earlier, the vast majority of botanists came from countries other than Greece. However, it’s not hard to see that these countries had universities, academic traditions and botanic gardens dating back many centuries (the oldest botanic garden in the world, that of Padua, was founded in 1545), whereas Greece for historical reasons did not. There’s not enough space, either, to go into the complicated rules governing the naming of newly discovered species. Suffice it to say that there are established international rules. Of course there have been Greek botanists of renown; I shall mention only Constantine Goulimis, after whom several plants have been named, for example Crocus goulimyi and Tulipa goulimyi. When it comes to digging up wild plants, I am quite sure that there are a few unscrupulous foreigners who do so and vigilance is needed at points of exit from the country (remember the case of the herpetologist caught leaving Milos with a large number of rare vipers some years ago?). But I am afraid to have to say that the vast majority of people digging up wild plants in Greece today are our fellow-countrymen, Greeks themselves. This is due primarily to ignorance: a complete lack of awareness of the reasons why wild plants should never be dug up. Education is needed. Where consignments of rare plants are intercepted by the authorities, botanic gardens have a role to play. Even if the origin of the plants is known or suspected, they cannot be returned for there is a finite risk that during transportation they may have become contaminated with some microorganism which would threaten the survival of the whole natural colony of these plants. They are thus distributed to a handful of botanic gardens in Europe, including that of Palermo in Sicily, where they are grown and propagated. Genetic material, rather than rooted plants, can then be sent back to their place of origin. Botanic gardens throughout the world have long been exchanging plant material in this manner in a spirit of non-nationalistic cooperation. The seed bank at Kew provides seeds of plants to countries in which they are under threat. Finally, plants do not have nationalities. When we speak of Greek plants or «our» plants we mean those plants that grow in the geographical area now called Greece. Of course they have been growing here for many thousands of years, since long before either Greece or Greeks existed. They are part of our natural heritage but they were not made by us and do not belong to us alone. Protecting the flora of Greece and its rare endemics is a vital matter, but it will not be achieved by misinformation and ethnocentrism. KAROLINA HARBOURI, Editor, The Mediterranean Garden, Athens.

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