Interview - Professor Mike Alder, chairman, Plant Heritage

Professor Mike Alder, chairman, Plant Heritage. Photo: HW
Professor Mike Alder, chairman, Plant Heritage. Photo: HW

Last year the National Council for the Conservation of Plants & Gardens celebrated its 30th year and to make its moniker more user-friendly it rebranded itself as Plant Heritage. The new broom also swept in new chairman Mike Alder, former principal and chief executive of Writtle College.

The plant conservation charity is also changing the way in which it approaches conservation. "We are very aware of the scarce resources available to cultivated-plant conservation," says Alder, "and are investigating ways of targeting those resources more accurately. We need to ensure we are conserving plants that are rare or are in danger of becoming so."

This doesn't sound a far cry from the original purpose of the charity, which was set up in 1978 with the aim of conserving endangered garden plants in the British Isles, both species and cultivars.

It followed concern that plant varieties were being lost for a number of reasons. Nurseries had begun to cut back on the stock that they were offering as a result of changing patterns of plant marketing and increased costs of production. In private gardens the price of labour was making them harder to maintain.

The main way the charity set out to protect cultivated plants was to establish the National Plant Collection scheme, through which professionals and amateurs alike could collect a plant group - either connected by being in the same genus or by being introduced by a prolific nursery or plant hunter.

Now Plant Heritage can boast 646 collections, held by private individuals, arboreta, local authorities, nurseries and historic, botanic and public gardens, including 26 new groups that were added at the beginning of this year.

But what Alder and the rest of the team at Plant Heritage plan to do this year is to start drawing up a "red list" of threatened garden plants.

"We will be appointing someone soon to develop this at-risk register," explains Alder. "And we are currently developing our plant conservation policy. We will be setting priorities that may mean we decide certain plant groups do not need preserving after all."

This might sound tough but, as Alder points out, "our main objectives are to ensure we have quality collections of the highest order".

This is all the more important as the value of cultivated plants to the human race keeps being discovered.

At the moment a National Plant Collection of Hypericum at Kew's Wakehurst Place in West Sussex is being used in research by The London School of Pharmacy. The institute is testing the plant material for antidepressant qualities among other properties.

Plant Heritage is focusing further on safeguarding the valuable existing collections under its care: "When a collection holder is no longer able to look after their plants for whatever reason, Plant Heritage must find ways to ensure that they are not lost to conservation."

Alder says: "This isn't really a problem with collections owned by institutions as the records are kept, but it can be when they are held by private individuals who find themselves unable to maintain the plants or pass away. In such situations we will offer support and keep in contact with them or their family."

Clearly, the number of collections is always changing, but this is not necessarily a problem: "It is a fluid situation - we could lose 14 collections but then gain 20 in the same year. However, losing collections is not always sad. The quality of the new collections taking their place could be higher because there is now more vigorous testing."

Alder mentions "scarce resources" but doesn't seem unduly concerned that the charity might suffer in the current recessionary climate: "Every charity is facing the income issue - our investments are not returning money and there are not as many donations as before - but it is not a significant problem for us. We have got good sponsorship this year and enough in the reserves for several years into the future."

The area that does concern him, though, is the membership of Plant Heritage, which is ageing and not increasing at the present time. "We hope to get the membership growing again and this is why we are continually aiming to raise the charity's profile," says Alder.

One place the charity will get noticed this year is at the RHS show at Hampton Court, where Plant Heritage runs its own marquee. This summer it will feature 17 National Plant Collections and a stand organised by Pershore students.

Broadcaster Matthew Biggs and writer Maggie Campbell-Culver will be creating a special display to commemorate Cornish plant hunter William Lobb, who collected for Veitch Nursery and was responsible for the mass introduction of the monkey puzzle and the Wellingtonia.

It seems it will be a busy year for the new chairman, who took early retirement from Writtle College after working there for 20 years. He is currently reviewing the activities of 11 further-education bodies in Essex, including Writtle, as well as sitting on many other committees.

But right now the focus is on the value of Plant Heritage's work: "We are maintaining biodiversity and a gene pool that has a high amenity and commercial value, and protecting that wealth for future generations. Our main aim right now is to make what is rare common," Alder concludes.

Pre-1970 Worked on the family farm. Experimental assistant for MAFF,
1969-74 BSc (Hons) in plant science, MSc, University of Newcastle
1970 Lecturer at East Riding College of Agriculture
1974 Dip T Ad in adult education, University of Hull
1975 Senior lecturer and course tutor, East Riding College of
1978 Director of studies, Bishop Burton College (Humberside)
1983 Vice-principal, Shuttleworth Agricultural College
1986-2006 Principal and chief executive, Writtle College
1992 Professorship, Anglia Polytechnic University
1997 Professorship, University of Essex
2006 Consultancy director activities
2007 Executive director, Federation of Essex Colleges

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