Botanic Gardens do not just serve the purpose of maintaining beautiful and interesting horticultural displays, but along with plantations and ‘field genebanks’, maintain plants away from their natural habitat, as an additional insurance policy against their loss.
For the purposes of conservation, living collections may exist so that seeds or vegetative material can be collected which is then used in restoration projects, research, education as well as horticultural development and display. Living collections are particularly important for species:
- that have poor seed quality or do not produce any seed at all
- that have desiccation sensitive seeds that cannot be stored in a seedbank
- that are intended for transplanting in which case large quantities of plants are required
- whose genetic diversity is at risk in the wild plant
- who have been (or will be) impacted in the natural habitat or if plants take a particularly long time to reproduce.
However, where possible, maintaining plants in living collections is preferably one of several methods used to help conserve species and it is definitely not used for all. This is because it requires a lot of time, effort, space and funds to establish and maintain, and genetic problems can occur in the collection reducing plant quality. Unlike tissue culture, living collections do not require plants to be frequently 'turned over', but possibly 'potted up'. The collection can be expected to last as long as the plants live, and therefore recollection or propagation may be required at some point to ensure ongoing successful conservation.
Living collections, if they are to be used, can be established in a number of different ways.
This may include sowing seed, taking cuttings of plants or dividing off suckers, it may involve tissue culture, grafting rare plants onto root stock of plants that are more common, or transplanting from other locations. Using seed to establish a living collection is preferential as this has the greatest potential to broaden genetic diversity within the new population.