An over view of a large area of glasshouses
A full view of the research and propagation glasshouses at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
(Photo: Sadie Barber)

As part of my apprenticeship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, I have been working for a 13-week period with each of the different horticultural teams, learning as much as I can on the go. Recently, I have been working in the Research Collection Glasshouses that hold a large diversity of rare and endangered plants throughout the different plant collections. During my time I have learned many new skills and have been able to work with some of the most amazing plants in the world! While coming to understand the day-to-day work involved with managing plant collections under glass, especially with the unique changes involved with the Edinburgh Biomes Project, I have spent the most of that time with one particular and very special fern, Woodsia ilvensis

A very special fern

Woodsia is a part of one of the biggest projects that I have been involved with – Scottish Plant Recovery. With the help of the Nature Restoration Fund, the project’s plan is to restore 10 threatened Scottish native plant species that have been in decline in the wild. Conserving species and searching for habitats across various sites in Scotland, and translocation is a huge undertaking that will establish plants in places they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own. Woodsia has been in major decline, due to shifting climactic conditions and overcollection during pteridomania in the Victorian period, currently leaving only a small number of clumps living in the wild in the UK. It’s crucial we give this fern a helping hand so it can re-establish itself and hopefully produce new generations that will thrive in their natural habitats.

a small hand lenses looks at a woodia frond unfurling
There’s nothing quite like seeing a little hairy Woodsia fiddlehead pop up! 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova) 

Challenges for reintroduction

Establishing a new in-situ site, however, can be difficult due to the plant’s response to the new environment. This has proven to be the case with Woodsia, as previous attempts to successfully reintroduce it in the wild have so far proven to be challenging. Despite rapid germination of spores and successful development of young sporophytes in ex-situ conditions, the complexities surrounding their interactions with their natural habitats has meant there has been limited success in previous translocation attempts. For more details see previous RBGE Botanic Stories here.

A new strategy for Woodsia

RBGE Scottish Plant Recovery has a new strategy for Woodsia, and that is by introducing hybrid individuals grown from mixed spore collections from various provenances i.e. all Scottish locations and all Norwegian locations sown together, and all UK collections being sown together. This is a direct attempt to widen the genetic diversity of individuals being planted out and thus ideally increasing likelihood of successful establishment in in-situ conditions by increasing plant’s resilience and range of eco-tolerances. Genetic diversification is a long-term solution that will hopefully have a great impact on restoring the populations of Woodsia in the wild for generations to come. You can read more about a recent trip the team has taken to search for suitable oblong Woodsia habitat here.

a small pot of fern sporophytes
Spores from ferns from Scotland and Norway are sown together in pots in a sterilised growing medium, and sealed to create a controlled environment, maintaining an optimum temperature and required light levels at all times. When the juvenile sporophytes reach a suitable height, they will be ready for the next stage.  
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
a hand holds a small pot of woodsia sporophytes
A batch of hybrids from a mix of Scottish and Norwegian spores ready to be separated and potted individually into pots. One of the most challenging stages in the process is to gently tease out little clumps of Woodsias without breaking the roots and damaging the stems. 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova) 
a hand holds a small, single woodsia sporophytes
Tiny sporophytes must be handled delicately, so they don’t get squished. Gentle care, utmost respect, and tweezers come in very handy! 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
a hand holds a small pot of woodsia sporophyte.
Sporophytes must be potted up at the correct depth – if they’re too deep, the crown will suffocate, if they’re too high, the roots will dry out and they won’t provide enough anchorage. 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
a tray of potted woodsia sporophytes
Newly potted up sporophytes in their individual pots, watered in and ready to be moved to the Research Glasshouses. All pots are counted, labelled, and recorded on our database. 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
several trays of multiple a hand holds a small pot of woodsia sporophytes under a propagation light
Once the plants are moved to the Research Glasshouses, consistent moisture, humidity, and light levels must be always maintained. This is achieved via careful observation and watering, and growing plants in propagation boxes under supplemental LED lighting which is programmed to provide enough light during darker months. 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
two people over look propagation bench of growing woodias
Senior Horticulturist Andy Ensoll and Horticulture Apprentice Patricia Berakova building more LED lights for another batch of Woodsias.  
(Photo: Kate Miller)
numerous small pots of woodsia sporophytes
A few weeks later, Woodsias are thriving and getting bigger and bigger every day.
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
a hand holds a single pot of a maturing woodia
Healthy specimen growing. Can you find a tiny new fiddlehead ready to unfurl? 
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)
the underside of a woodsia fern frond
Very exciting moment when the first sori, that will soon produce spores, have been spotted on the underside of a frond!  
(Photo: Patricia Berakova)

A rewarding experience

Once the young plants are strong enough to fend for themselves, the team will plant them in several different carefully selected experimental locations, to determine which conditions they prefer the most, and continue to observe them. Hopefully, we’ll see an increase in their numbers very soon! 

Being involved with important projects such as this one as a part of my apprenticeship has been incredibly rewarding and, frankly, very addictive. While I will return to the glasshouses again to work with the team caring for the plant collections in the Display Glasshouses, for now, I am off to my next rotation in the Plant Nursery where I will also continue helping with the Scottish Plant Recovery Project, and I am hoping to be involved with conservation of Woodsia ilvensis again! 

My apprenticeship is sponsored by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Written by Patricia Berakova

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This project is supported by the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, managed by NatureScot.