Majesty in the landscape . . . and it was all in the mind’s eye

Majestic. Standing proudly in the landscape, silhouetted against a bright Spring sky. Many preparing to burst forth with that first flush of greenery that heralds the oncoming summer. Others, still standing, but unlikely to remain that way for much longer. The sap no longer rises as it once did. They will fall where they stand or—more likely—felled as a potential hazard to the public.

Others lie on their sides, like beached ships, slowly rusting away, a pathetic shadow of their former glory.

These are remains of an Oak Plantation planted in the 1720s at Hanbury Hall, a magnificent early 18th century house now owned by the National Trust, just seven miles from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire. A few hundred meters away from these oak trees stands the hall, overlooking a parkland outside the surrounding ha-ha, that the original builder of Hanbury, Thomas Vernon would never have seen. Designed by George London, what we experience today at Hanbury, three hundred years on, as is the case at similar ‘stately homes’ across the country, was just merely a vision in his mind’s eye.

The Hanbury Ha-ha and park

So many who commissioned great houses, gardens, and parks died before their dreams were realised, and long before their visions of a transformed landscape could be appreciated to the full. Only third or fourth generation custodians perhaps would have really begun to appreciate what was originally intended when the house, gardens, and park were laid out. In the beginning each would have been a massive building site and earthworks, and a nascent park with saplings dotted around and about.

Take the exploits of Capability Brown for example, who was responsible in the mid-18th century for the transformation of so many natural landscapes nationwide. Croome Court, southeast of Worcester (and about 15 miles due south from Hanbury), was his very first commission, for the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the ‘river’ that was excavated by hand alone took 12 years to complete. Some of the trees that Brown planted can still be seen at Croome today.

Croome Court

Steph and I have now visited quite a number of National Trust properties throughout England (and Wales) and this idea of vision and imagination is strongly reinforced by examples such Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, and Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, besides Hanbury and Croome.

Stowe

Berrington Hall

Calke Abbey

Dudmaston

Dyrham Park

A more recent (150 years ago) example is Cragside, near Rothbury in Northumberland, built in the the late 19th century by William, 1st Baron Armstrong and his wife. The mock-Tudor mansion overlooks a wooded valley and one of the largest rock gardens in Europe, carved out of the rugged Northumbrian moorland. At Cragside, the Armstrongs planted more than seven million trees. Today, the house nestles comfortably in this landscape, seemingly for all time.

The tradition of landscape renewal continues under the National Trust. At Hanbury, for example, there are young saplings all around the park, protected (presumably against grazing by deer, maybe sheep) by picket fences. Impressively, the Trust is also recreating the Long Walk leading downhill from the Hall in a northeasterly direction.

The Long Walk at Hanbury Hall, with George London’s Semicircle (of trees) on the left

However, these full effect of these recent plantings will not be realised for many decades to come. I applaud the continuation, by the National Trust, of this wonderful tradition of leaving something behind in the landscape, just as those who built and nurtured these magnificent properties did, centuries ago.

Outside the EU . . . even before Brexit

Imagine a little corner of Birmingham, just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Edgbaston, B15 to be precise. The campus of The University of Birmingham; actually Winterbourne Gardens that were for many decades managed as the botanic garden of the Department of Botany / Plant Biology.

As a graduate student there in the early 1970s I was assigned laboratory space at Winterbourne, and grew experimental plants in the greenhouses and field. Then for a decade from 1981, I taught in the same department, and for a short while had an office at Winterbourne. And for several years continued to teach graduate students there about the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the very reason why I had ended up in Birmingham originally in September 1970.

Potatoes at Birmingham
It was at Birmingham that I first became involved with potatoes, a crop I researched for the next 20 years, completing my PhD (as did many others) under the supervision of Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on the genetic resources and taxonomy of the various cultivated potatoes and related wild species from the Americas. Jack began his potato career in 1939, joining Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, led by Edward Balls. Jack recounted his memories of that expedition in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes, published in 2003.

29 March 1939: Bolivia, dept. La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco. L to R: boy, Edward Balls, Jack Hawkes, driver.

The origins of the Commonwealth Potato Collection
Returning to Cambridge, just as the Second World War broke out, Jack completed his PhD under the renowned potato breeder Sir Redcliffe Salaman, who had established the Potato Virus Research Institute, where the Empire Potato Collection was set up, and after its transfer to the John Innes Centre in Hertfordshire, it became the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) under the management of institute director Kenneth S Dodds (who published several keys papers on the genetics of potatoes).

Bolivian botanist Prof Martin Cardenas (left) and Kenneth Dodds (right). Jack Hawkes named the diploid potato Solanum cardenasii after his good friend Martin Cardenas. It is now regarded simply as a form of the cultivated species S. phureja.

Hawkes’ taxonomic studies led to revisions of the tuber-bearing Solanums, first in 1963 and in a later book published in 1990 almost a decade after he had retired. You can see my battered copy of the 1963 publication below.

Dalton Glendinning

The CPC was transferred to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh in the 1960s under the direction of Professor Norman Simmonds (who examined my MSc thesis). In the early 1970s the CPC was managed by Dalton Glendinning, and between November 1972 and July 1973 my wife Steph was a research assistant with the CPC at Pentlandfield. When the SPBS merged with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in 1981 to form the Scottish Crops Research Institute (SCRI) the CPC moved to Invergowrie, just west of Dundee on Tayside. The CPC is still held at Invergowrie, but now under the auspices of the James Hutton Institute following the merger in 2011 of SCRI with Aberdeen’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

Today, the CPC is one of the most important and active genetic resources collections in the UK. In importance, it stands alongside the United States Potato Genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I worked for more than eight years from January 1973.

Hawkes continued in retirement to visit the CPC (and Sturgeon Bay) to lend his expertise for the identification of wild potato species. His 1990 revision is the taxonomy still used at the CPC.

So what has this got to do with the EU?
For more than a decade after the UK joined the EU (EEC as it was then in 1973) until that late 1980s, that corner of Birmingham was effectively outside the EU with regard to some plant quarantine regulations. In order to continue studying potatoes from living plants, Jack Hawkes was given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to import potatoes—as botanical or true seeds (TPS)—from South America, without them passing through a centralised quarantine facility in the UK. However, the plants had to be raised in a specially-designated greenhouse, with limited personnel access, and subject to unannounced inspections. In granting permission to grow these potatoes in Birmingham, in the heart of a major industrial conurbation, MAFF officials deemed the risk very slight indeed that any nasty diseases (mainly viruses) that potato seeds might harbour would escape into the environment, and contaminate commercial potato fields.

Jack retired in 1982, and I took up the potato research baton, so to speak, having been appointed lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham after leaving CIP in April 1981. One of my research projects, funded quite handsomely—by 1980s standards—by the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development, DFID) in 1984, investigated the potential of growing potatoes from TPS developed through single seed descent in diploid potatoes (that have 24 chromosomes compared with the 48 of the commercial varieties we buy in the supermarket). To cut a long story short, we were not able to establish this project at Winterbourne, even though there was space. That was because of the quarantine restrictions related to the wild species collections were held and were growing on a regular basis. So we reached an agreement with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge to set up the project there, building a very fine glasshouse for our work.

Then Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened! In 1987, the PBI was sold to Unilever plc, although the basic research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and plant pathology were not privatised, but transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Consequently our TPS project had to vacate the Cambridge site. But to where could it go, as ODA had agreed a second three-year phase? The only solution was to bring it back to Birmingham, but that meant divesting ourselves of the Hawkes collection. And that is what we did. However, we didn’t just put the seed packets in the incinerator. I contacted the folks at the CPC and asked them if they would accept the Hawkes collection. Which is exactly what happened, and this valuable germplasm found a worthy home in Scotland.

In any case, I had not been able to secure any research funds to work with the Hawkes collection, although I did supervise some MSc dissertations looking at resistance to potato cyst nematode in Bolivian wild species. And Jack and I published an important paper together on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes based on our biosystematics research.

A dynamic germplasm collection
It really is gratifying to see a collection like the CPC being actively worked on by geneticists and breeders. Especially as I do have sort of a connection with the collection. It currently comprises about 1500 accessions of 80 wild and cultivated species.

Sources of resistance to potato cyst nematode in wild potatoes, particularly Solanum vernei from Argentina, have been transferred into commercial varieties and made a major impact in potato agriculture in this country.

Safeguarded at Svalbard
Just a couple of weeks ago, seed samples of the CPC were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) for long-term conservation. CPC manager Gaynor McKenzie (in red) and CPC staff Jane Robertson made the long trek north to carry the precious potato seeds to the vault.

Potato reproduces vegetatively through tubers, but also sexually and produces berries like small tomatoes – although they always remain green and are very bitter, non-edible.

We rarely see berries after flowering on potatoes in this country. But they are commonly formed on wild potatoes and the varieties cultivated by farmers throughout the Andes. Just to give an indication of just how prolific they are let me recount a small piece of research that one of my former colleagues carried out at CIP in the 1970s. Noting that many cultivated varieties produced an abundance of berries, he was interested to know if tuber yields could be increased if flowers were removed from potato plants before they formed berries. Using the Peruvian variety Renacimiento (which means rebirth) he showed that yields did indeed increase in plots where the flowers were removed. In contrast, potatoes that developed berries produced the equivalent of 20 tons of berries per hectare! Some fertility. And we can take advantage of that fertility to breed new varieties by transferring genes between different strains, but also storing them at low temperature for long-term conservation in genebanks like Svalbard. It’s not possible to store tubers at low temperature.

Here are a few more photos from the deposit of the CPC in the SGSV.

I am grateful to the James Hutton Institute for permission to use these photos in my blog, and many of the other potato photographs displayed in this post.

 

When is an earworm not an earworm?

Not an earworm exactly, according to the strict definition, although music was involved.

Now, why I woke up in the early hours today thinking about a BBC television series that was first aired in 1962 and ran until 1971, I have no idea. But there it was, going round and round in my mind; and once I’d remembered the theme music, the worm had become quite active.

If you are in your late 60s (as I am) then you will have fond memories—probably—of the long running series, Dr Finlay’s Casebook set in the late 1920s about a doctors’ practice (pre-NHS) in the fictional Scottish town of Tannochbrae. Based on a novella Country Doctor by Scottish physician and author AJ Cronin, Dr Finlay’s Casebook ran to 191 episodes*, and starred, left to right, Scottish actors Andrew Cruickshank as senior partner Dr Cameron and Bill Simpson as Dr Finlay, with Barbara Mullen as the indomitable housekeeper Janet MacPherson (who was actually born in Massachusetts of Irish parents).

So why did I wake up thinking about this series? As I blogged recently, I’ve set myself the challenge of reading throughout 2017 all the novels by Charles Dickens. Since the beginning of the year I have completed David Copperfield, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities, and have just embarked upon Little Dorrit. Having particularly enjoyed Bleak House, my wife and decided to watch the acclaimed 2005 BBC adaptation on DVD; we watched Episode 14 (of 15) last night. Maybe it was this that got my mind going into overdrive: the idea of a remake or new adaptation of a [polular series (as the BBC has already done over two series of the popular 1975 series Poldark).

But why Dr Finlay’s Casebook? With the Tannochbrae theme whirring around my brain, I conjured up all manner of present-day adaptations. Who would play the lead roles, and what contemporary themes would run through the various episodes? Well, looming Scottish Independence seems a logical story line, Brexit even, as well as the challenges of the NHS today (almost pre-NHS in its delivery in some parts of the nation).

Lead actors**? Well, my nomination for Dr Cameron is ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or maybe ex-LibDem leader Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell, while SNP Leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would make an admirable housekeeper Janet. I already have someone in mind for Dr Snoddie (Finlay’s detractor and admirer of Janet, who was played by Eric Woodburn in the original series): Malcolm Rifkind!

But who to play Dr Finlay, an idealist striving for the best for his patients? Tony Blair? Alistair Darling? Definitely not Michael Gove! Any nominations?

Do all remakes work? Certainly not. Poldark 2015 has been highly acclaimed. But a remake of Dr Finlay that was so popular all those decades ago? Maybe not. Until I watched the clip below from an episode broadcast in 1964 I had forgotten just how well made and acted Dr Finlay’s Casebook was. There is a relaxed feeling to each scene, and a natural rapport between the actors, which just add to its apparent authenticity. And of course, more than a few wee drams!

Hopefully this blog post has now eliminated my Sunday morning earworm.

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* A sequel, Dr Finlay, set in the 1940s was broadcast by the commercial channel Scottish Television over four series and 27 episodes between 1993 and 1996. I was unaware of this until today when I started researching background information for this story.

** All images from Wikipedia

Rice Today . . . and tomorrow

Rice. Oryza sativa. A crop that feeds more people worldwide on a daily basis than any other.

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It’s the staple food of at least half the world’s population. In many countries, it is eaten several times a day. A meal without rice is no meal at all in many Asian countries. Rice is life!

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For almost 20 years from 1991-2010 it was also my life.

While you might know that rice is grown in flooded fields (in so-called rice paddies) in Asia, this crop can be found almost everywhere. It’s an important crop in California and Louisiana in the USA, grown widely in many Latin American countries, and in Europe it is found in the Camargue delta in the south of France, and in the Po Valley south of Milan in northern Italy, in sight of the snow-capped Alps!

Rice is a particularly important crop in West Africa where it evolved from an indigenous species, Oryza glaberrima. In the Riverina of New South Wales, Australia, rice is an irrigated crop, under threat due to water shortages, but where some of the highest global yields have been achieved. In the temperate regions of Japan and northern China rice agriculture is widely grown.

But it is South and Southeast Asia that has the largest areas of cultivation. Farmers throughout the region, particularly in the highlands of Indonesia and the Philippines, have adapted the environment to rice agriculture, terracing whole hillsides to provide pockets of land that can be flooded to grow rice.

The rice we eat in Europe has probably come from Thailand, one of the world’s major rice exporting nations. In Asia, many families subsist by growing their crops on small parcels of land – in flooded conditions, on steep slopes, wherever rice can be grown. Many farmers still grow the same varieties that have been nurtured for generations; yields are often low. Modern rice varieties, in contrast, can yield up to several tons per hectare, vital for feeding ever-burgeoning populations throughout Asia.

Here is a selection of rice agriculture photographs taken by my former colleague Dr Seepana Appa Rao (center in the photo below) who was based in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) for five years from 1995. They illustrate different types of rice agriculture, and farmers proudly displaying their varieties.

Appar Rao collecting upland rice in the Lao PDR

Together with Lao colleagues Appa (as we called him) collected, for the first time, more than 13,000 samples of indigenous rice varieties, many with interesting names that often describe their appearance or use in cooking.

rice-today-logoRice is such a fascinating crop you might want to understand a little more. And there’s no better source than Rice Today, a magazine launched by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2002, and published quarterly ever since. It’s a solid mix of rice news and research, stories about rice agriculture from around the world, rice recipes even, and the odd children’s story about rice.

It was the brainchild of Gene Hettel, former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services (CPS) and Duncan Macintosh, who was initially IRRI’s spokesperson and head of the Visitors’ Office; he became Director for Development. Duncan moved back to Australia a few years back. Recently he was back in the Philippines on a visit, and caught up with Gene.

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Gene Hettel and Duncan Macintosh

The cover story on the very first Rice Today issue was all about the development of rice agriculture in Cambodia after the downfall of the brutal Pol Pot regime. It celebrated the role of Australian agronomist Dr Harry Nesbitt who was team leader for IRRI in Cambodia.

Now in it’s 16th volume, with a change of logo even, the cover of latest issue shows a painting of a traditional method of rice planting by Filipino artist Erick Dator. Throughout each issue, the graphics and images are stunning. Take for example the aerial photographs accompanying an article published in  the Jan-Mar 2008 issue, written by Gene about the of the Ifugao rice terraces in the Philippines.

For its 10th anniversary (Vol 11) in January 2012, former Director General Bob Zeigler talked about the value of Rice Today. Just click on the image below to read it.

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reyes_aboutRice Today is published by IRRI on behalf of Rice (GRiSP), the CGIAR research program on rice; it is also available online. Lanie Reyes (right) joined IRRI in 2008 as a science writer and editor. She is now editor-in-chief. She is supported by Savitri Mohapatra and Neil Palmer from sister centers Africa Rice Center in Côte d’Ivoire and CIAT in Colombia, respectively.

Gene was a close colleague of mine; we even won the odd communications award together as well! He came to IRRI in 1995 (having been a visiting editor in 1982-83) from a sister center, CIMMYT, based north of Mexico City that works on maize and wheat improvement, just like IRRI works on rice. He had been a communications expert at CIMMYT. Here is a younger Gene in a wheat field in Mexico with Nobel Peace Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug, who spent much of his career at CIMMYT.

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