Alpine Garden Society

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The AGS and the collection of wild plant material

Alpine gardeners often grow plant species of wild origin. Consequently, it is important that growers ensure that when plant material is introduced into cultivation, or is imported from another country, national or international laws are not contravened. Possession of illegally introduced material contravenes international law. When material is introduced across national boundaries, it is the responsibility of the recipient or purchaser to ensure that the importation was undertaken legally. Inspectors often attend horticultural events, including AGS Shows, to check that CITES-listed plants have been legally imported. Anyone who exhibits or sells plants or seeds of wild collected origin should be careful to ensure that the material has been legally imported and obtained.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora lists species, genera or families which  may not be traded or transported across national boundaries without special permits ( These are plants for which collection from the wild for the purpose of international trade requires regulation if the trade is to be sustainable. Categories tend to be broad, due to difficulties with identification. It is reasonable that an inspector should recognise a cyclamen, but not that he or she should be an expert in the identification of cyclamen species. The species listed in this appendix of interest to the alpine gardener follow:

  • Galanthus  (all species of snowdrop)
  • Sternbergia (all species of Sternbergia)
  • Podophyllum hexandrum
  • Saussaurea costus
  • Shortia galacifolia
  • Dionaea muscipula ('venus fly-trap')
  • Orchidaceae (all species of orchid)
  • Meconopsis regia
  • Lewisia serrata
  • Cyclamen (all species of Cyclamen)
  • Adonis vernalis
  • Hydrastis canadensis
  • Sarracenia (all species of Sarracenia)
  • Nardostachys grandiflora
  • Cactaceae

As it presently stands, this is a very short list, but also a very important one, including as it does any cyclamen, snowdrop, sternbergia or orchid. It is  also possible to obtain permits to export and import  specimens  of CITES-listed material for scientific study, as the Cyclamen Society (CS) have done in recent years, or to import or export material which has been collected under permit or propagated in cultivation, as has been the case for many orchids. However, it is essential that these permissions are obtained, and conspicuously displayed by the vendor. If a species is controlled, and you have no evidence that it was legally obtained, don't buy it!

As well as CITES-listed species, many countries have national lists of species for which it is illegal to collect or distribute any material without permission. For instance, the USA bans the collection and exportation of any ESA (Endangered Species Act)-listed species, which includes very many plants, although few alpines (

Plant exportation and importation.
As a generalisation, it can be assumed that the exportation and importation of any living plant material, including bulbs, tubers etc, but not necessarily seed, is illegal without permits. One fundamental reason for these restrictions is control of disease. Many very serious pests and diseases have been introduced with plant material and associated soil, so it is essential that material is grown in quarantine, and subject to expert inspection. This not only concerns wild collected material, and gifts, but also commercially purchased plants (and often even fruit bought for the journey!). Export licenses are usually obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture, or its equivalent, in the country of origin. For UK residents, import licenses can be obtained from  Dry, cleaned seed of wild origin is not usually a vehicle for pests and diseases, although the importation of seed of some plant families (for instance Poaceae, grasses, especially cereals) and the potato family (Solanaceae) without a license is forbidden in the UK. Ask Defra if you are not sure whether you can import seed.

The CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity)
The CBD was one of the international treaties signed during the Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil in 1992 and now has been ratified by 188 countries.  It set the framework to regulate access to biodiversity, and  equally to ensure the sharing of any ensuing benefit. The CBD recognised each country's sovereign rights to their own genetic resources. It required that  prior informed consent is obtained from the country of origin for any uses that collected plant material may be put to in the future. As a consequence, over 100 countries are planning to introduce legislation to control access to their genetic resources and to ensure fair and equitable benefit sharing. Some have done so already (listed below). This means that access to plants is increasingly regulated by national law- most often through a collecting permit system. Essentially, this agreement concerns material of economic importance, such as plants which can be developed as foods, medicines etc, and was not primarily directed at plants of decorative interest only, or the horticultural trade with its low margins and volume, often driven by small-scale enterprises. Nevertheless, today's alpine could be tomorrow's cure for disease, and it is vital that we are aware of both the need to conserve biodiversity in the wild, and to respect the sensitivity of the host nation to the potential of its germplasm wealth.

Unlike CITES, the CBD is not governed by International Law. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of anyone who takes germplasm material (including seed) from the wild to ensure that they are acting within the law of the host country. There is an increasing list of countries which have banned the export of any 'germplasm' (anything that can be propagated, seeds, cuttings, plant tissue) from their shores without a permit. In several recent cases, collectors have been imprisoned for contravening these regulations. At present countries with an alpine flora which have banned the export of all germplasm without a permit include:

  • China (including Tibet)
  • Nepal
  • Turkey
  • Iran
  • South Africa

and the list is expanding rapidly.

Also, in many countries, including the UK, it is illegal to dig up any plant from the wild, although this can be legal in the UK if the landowner's permission has been obtained. It is always illegal to collect any form of plant material (including seed) from any form of Nature Reserve or other protected area in any country, and in many countries this is also illegal in National Parks or their equivalent. There are usually signs at the Park entrance that make this clear.

Members of the AGS cultivate a surprisingly large proportion of plant biodiversity, more than 5% of all plant species, and many of their charges are rare and localised in the wild. The plant genetic resource that they already have in their custody is potentially of great value. If the introduction of new wild material into our gardens ceased tomorrow, the plants we grow would suffer genetic attrition and the natural biodiversity we hold would slowly disappear. Equally, if we are to maintain any credibility amongst national conservation agencies we need to be seen to be scrupulous in our observance of national and international law.  Increasingly, we will need to obtain permission to undertake responsible and properly documented seed collecting with a targeted scientific purpose, as the CS has already shown to be possible. This may provide future opportunities through which the AGS can influence the in situ protection of threatened species in their native regions, for instance by encouraging the local propagation of threatened species.

Useful references:
McGough, H.N., Groves, M., Mustard, M. & Brodie, C. (2004). CITES and plants: a user's guide. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 254 + CD-ROM pp.

McGough, H.N., Groves, M., Mustard, M., Sajeva, M. & Brodie, C. (2004). CITES and succulents. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 188 + CD-ROM pp.

Williams, C., Davis, K. & Cheyne, P. (2003). The CBD for botanists. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Darwin Initiative. 94 + CD-ROM pp

With grateful thanks to Noel McGough of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for technical advice.

John Richards
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