Sep 272016

Evidence from Egyptian pharaonic pharmacology papyri, shows that medicines made from white willow and other salicylate-rich plants, were used as early as the second millennium BC. Aspirin use is now an everyday worldwide occurrence. Some 50,000 plant species are used medicinally and global trade exceeds £45bn/year. Trees play a major role in this industry, with medicines extracted from the wood, bark, roots, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. More information on the healing (and deadly!) properties of plants can be found in the recent RBGE publication “Plants: healers and killers” (available to buy from )

Sustainable extraction of medicine from wild trees can help to conserve forests, but we need to be careful not to over-exploit these valuable resources. Medicinal demand and excessive harvesting threatens the survival of some species. The Cebu cinnamon (used in the Phillipines to ease stomach ache) is now critically endangered. International trade of the Red Stinkwood tree (used to treat malaria, fever and prostate cancer) and harmful extraction methods are causing species decline across Central/Southern Africa and Madagascar. Yew trees are used to produce Taxol for use in cancer treatment. Over-use of the Himalayan yew for medicine and fuel in Afghanistan, India and Nepal, threatens this tree’s future survival.

Recent tests on chemicals found in the needles of eastern red cedar (ERC) showed they are effective in treating several strains of MRSA, and in treating skin cancer cells in mice. In 2005, in the US alone, some 94,000 people developed life-threatening MRSA and nearly 19,000 died in hospital stays related to these infections. Many lives could be saved in the future if medicines derived from ERC are developed and made commercially available.


Ash deaths in USA linked to increased human mortality rates

Tree and forest environments also have a very positive impact on health. A study in the US, indicates that an additional 15,080 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,113 from lower respiratory disease occurred in counties where many ash trees were lost following emerald ash borer infestation (after accounting for other influencing factors). A 2009 study in Tokyo, showed that ‘Forest Bathing Trips’ (3 days/2 nights in forests) significantly increased natural killer cells (white blood cells used to fight off cancer and virus-infected cells) and that the levels stayed elevated for up to a month after the trips. Other Japanese studies found forest visitors have decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels, lower blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in more ‘relaxed’ biological systems.

Jun 172016

Ancient Ash in Clackmannanshire, with Judy Dowling (Regional Verifier for the Ancient Tree Inventory)

It is estimated that about 70% of Europe’s oldest trees are to be found in the UK. The Woodland Trust and Tree Register of the British Isles, have been compiling a database of ancient, veteran and notable trees within the British Isles and over 150,000 records have now been made, and most have been verified as accurate. Recorded to date are 12452 ‘ancient’ trees (very old/large for the species and/or possessing many ancient features, such as hollow stems or branches) 93437 ‘veteran’ trees (not yet ancient, but possessing some of the features associated with ancient trees) and 40896 ‘notable’ trees (can sometimes be veteran, and may be significant in a local/historical context). So far, 1133 ancient ash, 6480 veteran ash and 2372 notable ash have been recorded, of which 65 ancient ash, 282 veteran ash and 176 notable ash are in Scotland.

Ancient and veteran trees provide invaluable habitats for invertebrates, birds and mammals. 1700 species (6% of UK total) of invertebrates depend on decaying wood for completing their life cycles. 400 0f the 447 macrofungi on the British Red Data List, derive from ancient woodland and lowland pasture woods. Many birds and bats nest in cavities in ancient and veteran trees, and rely on them for food sources too.

The main threats to ancient and veteran trees are from felling, changes in land use and competition from surrounding trees. Increasingly, new pests and diseases (such as ash dieback) and problems related to climate change, pose a real threat to our oldest trees. There have been some recent developments in increasing protection for this valuable resource, which is encouraging.

This ancient ash provided an invaluable habitat for the author to take lunch in

This ancient ash provided an invaluable habitat for the author to take lunch in

“10,000 oaks of 100 years are not a substitute for one 500 year old oak” – Oliver Rackham (conservation author and historian)

“Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism” –  Sir David Attenborough





Mar 162016
Photo: Ancient Pollarded Ash near Killin (and the Author)

Photo: Ancient Pollarded Ash near Killin (and the Author)

Archaeological studies have shown that, ‘Biochar’, or at least a similar product, was used by ancient Amazonians to add to the soil to help with their food growing. Today, an advanced form of Biochar is made from the slow charring of waste woody biomass, using a restricted oxygen supply (a process known as pyrolysis). A stable form of carbon is produced and one tonne of carbon locked into biochar, is equivalent to removing three tonnes of atmospheric carbon. Adding it to the soil around trees and food crops, enhances soil nutrition and improves soil structure and drainage – and hence plant growth rates, without the need for further artificial fertilisers.

Biochar has a honeycomb-like microscopic structure, which makes it an ideal habitat for beneficial soil microrganisms, like mycorrhizal fungi. It also aids with the retention of water in soil, reducing irrigation requirements.

Biochar was applied to the soil around ash trees, to assess effects on growth. During the trial many of the trees on the experimental site became infected with Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, leading to Ash Dieback. Surprisingly enough, not a single ash tree treated with the Biochar, showed any signs of the disease, whilst many adjacent trees were badly affected. A PhD study into the potential for use of Biochar to prevent Ash Dieback, has now been commissioned – another potential sprig of hope for the UK’s 126 million ash trees! The link given below takes the reader to a video about the original findings.

Video Outlining Potential for Biochar to Reduce Ash Dieback Infection Rates

Feb 132016

There is renewed optimism for the future of ash trees in the UK, following new research which has identified genetic markers for susceptibility to Ash Dieback caused by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. For the first ever time in trees, a technique called, “Associative Transcriptomics”, has identified three genetic sequences linked to susceptibility. By identifying potentially resistant trees in the field, we may begin tree breeding programmes using the resistant trees. Resistant trees could then be planted out in areas affected by Ash Dieback, to replace dead and dying trees.

“Association genetics” can quickly and efficiently identify regions of the genome that control traits and provide markers to accelerate breeding by marker-assisted selection. However, as most crops are polyploid (genes in sets of two or more) it is hard to identify the required markers and put together a genome sequence to order those markers. In contrast, “Associative Transcriptomics” – a recently developed technique – uses transcriptome sequencing to identify and score molecular markers representing both gene sequences and gene expression. It then correlates this with trait variation.

fallen ash regrows mums

For anyone wishing to read the technical research paper, here is a link to the published article:

And here is an interactive link to the Forestry Commission map showing where Ash Dieback has been found since first discovered in the UK in 2012 (26% of 10km squares have infected ash).

The above picture shows the resilient nature of ash – vigorous regrowth from the stump of a tree which fell in high winds.

Dec 232015
Ancient ash near Menstrie, Clackmannanshire

Ancient ash near Menstrie, Clackmannanshire

Ash dieback, caused by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (aka Chalara) infection was first recorded in the UK in 2012. Symptoms include blackened or withered leaves, crown dieback and diamond-shaped bark lesions. The disease has been recorded in growing numbers of sites in England, Scotland and Wales, though Northern Ireland hasn’t reported any cases in the wider environment yet. In just three years, about one quarter of all 10km grid squares in the UK, now include infected ash sites. There are an estimated 126 million ash in the UK, some 10.7 million of these being in Scotland. European experience suggests we may lose up to 99% of our ash trees during the progression of the disease.

Interactive map

Those that survive, may be under further threat in the future, as the invasive jewel beetle, Agrilus planipennis (Emerald Ash Borer, or EAB) is working westward and southward from Moscow through Russia, progressing at about 25 miles/year. In North America, some 7 billion ash trees are potentially under threat from EAB, which puts the UK situation into perspective. EAB attacks result in up to 100% mortality, so the prospects are bleak for ash and many associated species in the UK, Europe and North America.

This problem is a direct result of increasing human, animal and plant movements and, coupled with the effects of global warming, is likely to herald a new era where we see ‘traditional’, or long-established landscapes, rapidly transformed through plant and animal species losses.

Scientists are working on various projects to save our ash trees and their associated plants, animals and fungi. Biosecurity has been stepped up a gear, replacement planting programmes are being devised (using species which offer some habitat continuity for associated ash species) and genetic research has included the successful gene mapping of a British ash, a resistant tree from Denmark and the actual fungus, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.

Six tree breeding methodologies are being explored by Queen Mary, University of London, including GM, hybridisation and back-crossing. All 35 global ash species will be researched, including some from China which show resistance to the disease. Conventional breeding would take many decades, and GM would undoubtedly be quicker. There is however, a public perception that GM is problematic and research carried out by Oxford University (N=1400) suggests highest public acceptability is for breeding native tolerant ash, using accelerated breeding to breed native tolerant ash, and cross-breeding of native ash with non-native ash.

RBGE has provided the Forestry Commission and Queen Mary’s with genetic material from the Living Collection, for use in their research work on ash dieback.

For further information about ash dieback, visit where the ‘useful links’ section provides information on the likely Scottish/UK ecological impacts, timber treatment and  movement legislation, and chemical treatment test results.

Sep 252013
Installation shot of Patchwork Meadow exhibition, Gateway Gallery, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Installation shot of Patchwork Meadow exhibition, Gateway Gallery, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Wild plants are not only part of our landscape, they are integral to our culture and history. Plantlife’s unique project celebrates our fascination with wild plants in the form of a patchwork exhibition, bringing together contributions from people across the country. Individuals and groups have been invited to contribute squares 15x15cm, and the variety of subjects and techniques is astounding. There is plenty of patchwork and embroidery, but also knitting, cross-stitch, painting, crochet, weaving and probably more techniques that I have missed out. The subject are just as varied, taking inspiration from art and literature; myth, history and folklore; clans and war, and also very personal memories, people and places.

Seona Anderson from Plantlife explains the aims of the project:

“From the Bayeux Tapestry, through to William Morris, from Celia Birtwell to Grayson Perry, Britain has a tradition of celebrating diversity in textile design that we want to tap into. We want to celebrate this love of wild plants by asking the nation to help us create a patchwork of artwork and stories from across the range of Britain’s natural and cultural diversity.”


One of the patches that keeps catching my eye as I walk past each day is this warrior with his spear shaft made of ash (below). The wood has been used for centuries because it is strong and flexible, but of course the future of our ash trees is now in question due to the spread of ash dieback. It is perhaps because this has been another area of my focus over the past year that my eye naturally falls upon this great warrior.

Ancient British Warrior, by Sandra Kendall (The Embroiderers' Guild North Lonsdale)

Ancient British Warrior, by Sandra Kendall (The Embroiderers’ Guild North Lonsdale)

Dr Seona Anderson, Plantlife's European Projects Coordinator, giving an overview of the project at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Friday 20 Sep 2013

Dr Seona Anderson, Plantlife’s European Projects Coordinator, giving an overview of the project at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Friday 20 Sep 2013

We were delighted to welcome Plantlife and some of the talented people who have contributed to the project last Friday at the John Hope Gateway. It was fantastic to hear about how the project is developing, as it is part of a larger Wildlife Europe Project (find out more on their website here).

The exhibition closes at the end John Hope Gateway at the end of tomorrow (Thursday 26 September) however you can still contribute squares, and the exhibition will be touring to further venues – find out more at the website.

Exhibition launched!

 Exhibitions, Other News  Comments Off on Exhibition launched!
Jun 172013

Last Thursday we had an excellent launch of the ‘Moving forward from ash dieback project’ at the Edinburgh Botanics. Over 40 people attended, with representatives from Scottish Government, all the artists involved with the project and representatives from the Scottish Tree Health Advisory Group (STHAG).

Edinburgh Botanics Director of Science Pete Hollingsworth (centre) shows off the new ash dieback exhibit to the chair of the Scottish Tree Health Advisory Group, David Henderson-Howart (left) and Phil Balls (right), Scottish Government (RESAS).

RBGE Director of Science Pete Hollingsworth (centre) shows off the new ash dieback exhibit to the chair of the Scottish Tree Health Advisory Group, David Henderson-Howart (left) and Phil Balls (right), Scottish Government (RESAS).

During the event we heard from Hugh Clayden (Forestry Commission) about the current status of ash dieback in Scotland. He highlighted the fact that although research in the UK is at an early stage, it is now felt that eradication is no longer thought possible. Natural resistance of ash is expected to be in the region of 1-5% and although spores only live for a few days but can be dispersed tens of kilometres. Tim Hall (Woodland Trust Scotland) then gave us a personal reflection on ash dieback and highlighted how this disease will impact us all; as parents, children, scientists and general lovers of the Scottoish landscape. To close the meeting, Ken Cockburn gave an evocative reading of ‘The Ash Grove’, his poem commissioned by the Edinburgh Botanics for this project.


Part of this project is an exhibit, which is now touring around Scotland. This aims is to raise the awareness about the ash dieback fungus and the likely efforts required to help manage the disease. Find out where your nearest venue is and if you haven’t already, watch our animation about ash dieback!

Written by Corinne Baxter and Sophie Williams

Venerable trees

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Jun 122013
Wych Elms, Renfrewshire. Plate from Sylva Britannica; or, portraits of forest trees written and illustrated by Jacob George Strutt (1790-1864) published in folio format, 1822. Copy held by the library at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Photographed by Lynsey Wilson.

Wych Elms, Renfrewshire. Plate from
Sylva Britannica; or, portraits of forest trees written and illustrated by Jacob George Strutt (1790-1864) published in folio format, 1822.
Copy held by the Library at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Photographed by Lynsey Wilson.

I’m always glad of an excuse to take a nosey at some of the content of our Library and Archive collection at the Botanics. Our librarians have such a wealth of knowledge, and I’m very grateful to be able to tap into that.

I recently installed a small display in the John Hope Gateway about ash trees (on show until 14 July), showing items from our Library, Archive and Herbarium, to coincide with our Moving Forward from Ash Dieback project. One of the things I finally got to see ‘in the flesh’ for the first time was Jacob George Strutt’s Sylva Britannica; or, portraits of forest trees, published in folio format in 1822. The large engraving plates are beautiful, so I thought I’d share images of a couple here (though the photographs in no way do them justice).

The health and resilience of trees has been at the forefront of our minds working on the Ash Dieback Project, but other species come to mind when considering how pests and diseases have impacted on trees. For me the one that I think of is the wych elm, ravaged by dutch elm disease in the late twentieth century. This is partly due to my love of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End in which a wych elm with pig’s teeth in it plays a central role, but also because the Wych Elm Project exhibition was the first exhibition in the John Hope Gateway and one that is remembered by many.

If you’d like to know more about wych elm, and thoughts on what we have learnt when considering new tree health issues such as ash dieback, Max Coleman will be talking on the subject at this weekend’s Book Festival at the Botanics (Saturday, 11am – click here for more details). Continue reading »

The Ash Grove

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May 202013

As part of the Moving Forward from Ash Dieback project we decided to search for a poem that would help people consider the value ash has in our environment and our culture. Poetry has the potential to enrich our lives and change the way we look at the world. It can connect with us on a different level from the usual ‘interpretive text’ you may find in an exhibition. So, with the help of the Scottish Poetry Library, we sent out requests to poets across Scotland to ask them to consider ash trees, their disappearance and how we might celebrate ash woodlands. We were delighted with the response: the very high quality and the variety of work. Below is the final work chosen, written by Ken Cockburn.

The Ash Grove

a springtime ash, whose leaves emerge from black
an unlocked ash, so profligate with keys
a mourning ash, its branches heaped on pyres
a lettered ash, in the alphabet of trees
a hedgerow ash, which twists among the briars
a spreading ash, in summer’s heat a bield
a sporting ash, to take the shinty field

a warlike ash, for arrows and for spears
a lightning ash, and flame that flash provides
a hanging ash, a shade of dule and tears
a timeless ash, the horse which Odin rides
a steam-bent ash, which hoops the barrel staves
a buoyant ash, a charm against the waves
a blighted ash, whose crown is dying back

Ken Cockburn
April 2013

Thanks to Ken Cockburn, all the poets who submitted work and to the Scottish Poetry Library.

Moving forward from ash dieback

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May 172013

Disease is a normal part of nature. But in recent years there has been a considerable increase in the number of new pests and diseases affecting Scottish trees. It was the recent arrival of a fungus known as Chalara, or ash dieback, that caught the public attention. Over 10 million ash trees in Scotland, and the wildlife that depends on them, are vulnerable to this disease. Listen to our podcasts and watch the beautiful animation to find out how ash dieback will impact Scotland.


Follow Robert the redstart through the wind swept ash woods in this stunning short animation.

Continue reading »