We only have two viable bushes at Ashridge!
When juniper bushes were blighted by a fungus, horticulturists feared it could be the end for British gin. Now drinkers of the spirit can breathe a sigh of relief as experts say that it’s future is safe thanks to a seed-collection project that provides an “insurance policy” for the plant. A spirit cannot be classed as gin if it is not flavoured with juniper.
Juniper berries which produce the seeds of the tree take two years to slowly mature and are essential to giving the alcoholic drink its distinctive flavour, but the native UK species is in decline. At the same time sales of gin have boomed, and are predicted to outstrip Scottish whisky sales by 2020.
Now the UK National Tree Seed Project, set up by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, has collected seeds and put them into storage to stop them from vanishing from the countryside.
The storage system at the Millennium Seed Bank will obviously not cure the disease, but it is hoped that it will help conservation, and will protect the juniper from extinction.
The project has “banked” 5.8 million seeds from six thousand five hundred UK trees since May 2013. It aims to collect seeds from all native woody plants, and juniper is the first species to be fully gathered and saved.
Richard Deverell, director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said: “This project is a huge undertaking, but once complete it will provide a fundamental collection of our iconic British trees, helping Kew to lead the way in tackling the many threats facing the UK’s stunning woodlands.”
Seeds have been collected from juniper trees and shrubs across Britain, including Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Cumbria, Conway and the Scottish Highlands
They are taken to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, Sussex, where they are cleaned, dried and examined to make sure they are viable, before being stored in underground vaults at minus 20C.
Juniper, which is important not just for gin but for supporting a range of wildlife, is also facing problems with fragmented populations and difficulties regenerating successfully, as old trees and shrubs produce fewer seeds and young plants are eaten by deer and rabbits. Juniper has steadily declined over the last few decades and many counties in southern England have lost over 60% of their juniper populations.
In Scotland, the UK’s stronghold for Juniper, it has been lost from nearly a quarter of the areas it was previously found in.
The fungus-like disease Phytophthora austrocedri has caused particular problems in Scotland since it was first discovered in the plants in 2011.
There is no single cause for juniper decline in the lowlands, but loss of seedling habitat through under-grazing with the development of dense grassland and scrub, is the most widespread problem. Some colonies have also been affected by a shortage of viable seed, or have been overrun with rabbits eating seedlings and damaging adult bushes.
Many juniper populations are shrinking as bushes die of old age with nearly a quarter of sites in southern England supporting just one bush. Here at Ashridge we have just three bushes, one of which is a poor specimen, so Volunteers are now helping with the conservation of the last remaining bushes. The Trust have taken seeds and cuttings for propagation but have not as yet decided on a plan for the restoration of the juniper.
Many of the remaining lowland bushes are over a century old and, not surprisingly they are not producing much viable seed, with 85% of sites containing no seedlings up to five years old.
For the next generation of juniper, good numbers of both male and female juniper bushes are needed at each site, with plenty of viable seed and the right conditions for germination and growth of seedlings, free from predation.
Here’s to that. Cheers!