Beets, ‘beans’, and Canaries

Lying off the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa by less than 600 miles, the Canary Islands archipelago comprises seven large islands, and a small group of islets off the north coast of Lanzarote, the island that lies furthest east and north. Volcanic in origin, and arid for the most part, their flora comprises many interesting endemic species found only on the Atlantic islands of MacaronesiaI’ve visited the Canaries twice, both in the 1980s, to collect plant germplasm (and also take a family holiday). Both expeditions were funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR, now Bioversity International, based in Rome, Italy). So, as someone who studied potatoes and rice (and some legumes) most of my career, how did I become involved with collecting germplasm in the Canaries?

Brian Ford-Lloyd

Searching for beets
After leaving the International Potato Center in March 1981, I arrived at The University of Birmingham to begin my decade-long teaching career as Lecturer in Plant Biology from 1 April. Almost immediately, my colleague and fellow lecturer, Brian Ford-Lloyd (who retired a few years back as Emeritus Professor of Plant Conservation Genetics) invited me to join him on a collecting trip to the Canaries to look for wild relatives of beets (Beta spp.) that would contribute to an IPBGR global initiative on beet germplasm.

Now while I had my own experiences of germplasm collecting of cultivated (and some wild) potatoes in the Andes of South America between 1973 and 1976, I had no experience of beets whatsoever. Brian was keen to have me along on the trip because I did have one very important skill: I spoke (quite) fluent Spanish, and he expected that our Canarian counterparts would speak little English (which turned out to be more or less correct). So, not only would I be an experienced pair of germplasm hands, I could also be interpreter-in-chief.

Fortunately the dates for the trip coincided with my personal timetable then. Having arrived back in the UK at the end of March, my wife Steph (and daughter Hannah) stayed with her parents in Essex while I settled into my new job at the university, and while we house hunted. By the time Brian and I headed off to the Canaries in June, we’d bought our house, but moving in was not scheduled until the first or second weeks of July. So this was a great opportunity for me to join Brian.

Trevor Williams

Brian completed his PhD in 1973 under the supervision of Trevor Williams, submitting a thesis on the biosystematics of the genus Beta. As part of that research he made a collecting trip throughout Turkey in the early 1970s; and subsequently he maintained his research interest and activity in beets. Collecting in the Canaries was part of an IBPGR global initiative on beets.

Our particular interest there was a group of three beet species of Beta Sect. Patellares (I’m not sure if, or how, the taxonomy of Beta has changed in the intervening years) native to the archipelago, little represented at that time in different germplasm collections. Beets were reported from a range of localities throughout the islands, most often around the coasts or in ruderal habitats, but rarely inland (except in Fuerteventura) where the terrain is too high. In any case, this beet germplasm was considered under threat of genetic erosion, and had to be collected before habitats were lost through expansion of tourist resorts and holiday homes. Brian tells me he has been back to some of the sites where we collected and they have indeed been lost in this way.

Arnoldo Santos-Guerra

Travelling to the Canaries from Elmdon Airport (now Birmingham Airport) via London and Madrid, our first stop was Gran Canaria, staying for a couple of nights at the Jardín Botánico Canario Viera y Clavijo, where British botanist Dr David Bramwell was the director (and his wife Zoë, an acclaimed botanical artist). Those first days were essentially to find our feet, take some advice from David on where best to collect, before heading off to the island of Fuerteventura, the next island east from Gran Canaria, where we would meet our local expert and collaborator, Dr Arnoldo Santos-Guerra of the Centro Regional de Investigación y Tecnología Agrarias, Tenerife. For the collections in Tenerife, La Palma, and La Gomera we were joined by Arnoldo’s colleague, Lic. Manuel Fernández-Galván.

L-R: Brian, Arnoldo, Manuel, and me

In all, we collected 93 samples of beets from 52 locations on five islands: Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Tenerife, La Palma, and La Gomera.  Afterwards we published a trip report¹ in the FAO/IBPGR Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter.

On Tenerife, La Palma, and particularly La Gomera, there are precipitous inclines from the main roads down to the ocean’s edge. Deeply dissected landscapes ensure that wild beet populations are isolated from one another, even over relatively short distances as the cliff coastlines project into the ocean, with coves and beaches in between, where beets were often found. Therefore our ability to collect beet samples was quite often dependent entirely upon accessibility to the beach. The photos below were taken in Fuerteventura, Tenerife, and La Gomera. In some of them you can see the level of urbanization, almost 40 years ago, in many localities that were suitable environments for wild beets. The housing and tourist developments must be many times greater today.

But the actual process of collecting was not difficult at all, and seeds were often sampled from most if not all plants in some populations. Wild beets have a prostrate habit, and the ‘seeds’ were often found, in abundance, underneath the living plants. It was then just a question of scooping up handfuls of the seeds into a collecting bag, and annotating the collecting information appropriately.

Beta webbiana (left) and B. procumbens (right) from the Canary Islands

I say ‘seeds’, but the morphology of beets is a little more complex than that. Actually what we collected were small fruits with a hard pericarp, with several joined together to form multigerm seedballs. Modern sugar beet varieties are monogerm, a trait discovered in a wild beet species, in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, in fact) during the 1930s . Because of their impermeability to moisture, and also due to the arid environments in which these beets species grew, we were confident that we were collecting viable seeds. In fact, as Brian explained to me, beet seeds are quite difficult to germinate.

Morphology of a beet inflorescence, seedballs, and a sugar beet (from: Wikipedia)

On our return to Birmingham, the seeds were added to the Birmingham Beta Collection that Brian curated, and other collections that are part of the World Beta Network. One recipient was Lothar Frese in Germany, now at the Julius Kühn-Institut in Quedlinburg. This germplasm has been used in a variety of studies looking at disease resistance such as Cercospora leaf spot resistance in B. procumbens in particular, and there has been much work since in terms of genetic mapping for resistance. After Brian retired, his beet collection was passed to the Genetic Resources Unit at the Warwick Crop Centre for safe storage.

A beet -‘bean’ linkage
In addition to beets, we collected 11 samples of other crops, among which was just one sample of a shrub or tree fodder legume, tagasaste, from La Palma, classified botanically as Chamaecytisus palmensis, and cultivated by many farmers. In our trip report, referred to above, we commented that the species did seem to be quite variable and, given its wider potential as a fodder legume, we suggested that it would warrant further study.

Javier Francisco-Ortega

And that was the last I thought about tagasaste until six years later when a young Spanish student from Tenerife, Javier Francisco-Ortega, enrolled on the genetic resources MSc course at Birmingham. Thirty years ago this month! I supervised Javier’s MSc dissertation on chromosome variation in Lathyrus pratensis, one of around 150 species in a genus that also contains the commonly-grown garden sweetpea, L. odoratus, and the edible grasspea L. sativus that was one of my research interests during the 1980s.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Javier was an outstanding student, and began a PhD project with me in October 1988 on the ecogeography of the tagasaste complex, now classified taxonomically as C. proliferus. Only the forms from La Palma are popularly known as tagasaste (the ‘C. palmensis‘ we’d seen in La Palma in 1981), whereas those from the rest of the archipelago are commonly called escobón.

Morphological variants of tagasaste and escobón, Chamaecytisus proliferus

Tagasaste is the only form which is broadly cultivated in the Canary Islands and, since the late 19th century, also in New Zealand and Australia (particularly as fodder for sheep and goats). It has also become naturalized in Australia (South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania), Java, the Hawaiian Islands, California, Portugal, North Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

When I resigned from the university in June 1991 to join the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, supervision of Javier’s PhD passed to Brian.

In Spring and Summer 1989, and with funding from IBPGR, Javier began a systematic survey of 184 tagasaste and escobón populations throughout the archipelago (all islands except Fuerteventura and Lanzarote which are too dry), taking herbarium samples from each for morphological study, and revisited later to collect seeds. I joined Javier in July to assist with the collection of seeds from the Tenerife populations. Our trip report² was published in Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter in 1990. Arnoldo Santos-Guerra and Manuel Fernández-Galván were also contributors to this work.

Escobón populations are found commonly growing in gullies among pine forests, and appear to thrive here where there is the ever-present expectation (and danger) of forest fires. Indeed periodic burning appears to support the maintenance of escobón populations. These photos show the habitats of escobón populations in Tenerife, and Javier and myself making collections.

While more common in La Palma, farmers in Tenerife grow a few bushes of tagasaste in their terraces (seen on the right edge of the field in the picture below) on the north-facing slopes of the Teide volcano sloping down to the Atlantic.

We deposited duplicate seed samples in the Spanish national genebank in Madrid, and also in Tenerife. Javier took seeds back to Birmingham for further study, especially for analysis of molecular variation. Besides his PhD thesis, submitted successfully in 1992, his research led to several other scientific papers on morphological variation, phytogeography, ecogeographical characterization, genetic diversity, and the history of origin and distribution.

After he completed his PhD at Birmingham, Javier took postdoctoral fellowships at Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin before returning to Tenerife for a couple of years. In 1999 he was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University in Miami. He became Full Professor in 2012. He also has a joint appointment at the Fairchild Tropical Garden just south of Miami, as head of the Fairchild Plant Molecular Systematics Laboratory, with a special interest in cycads and palms, as well as an abiding interest in island floras. He has maintained his links with Arnoldo Santos-Guerra and David Bramwell.

In this video, Javier talks about his interests and the impact of his botanical research.

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¹ Ford-Lloyd, B.V., M.T. Jackson & A. Santos Guerra, 1982. Beet germplasm in the Canary Islands. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 50, 24-27.

² Francisco-Ortega, F.J., M.T. Jackson, A. Santos-Guerra & M. Fernández-Galván, 1990. Genetic resources of the fodder legumes tagasaste and escobón (Chamaecytisus proliferus (L. fil.) Link sensu lato) in the Canary Islands. Plant Genetic Resources Newsletter 81/82, 27-32.

J Trevor Williams, genetic resources champion, passes away at 76

Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that an old friend and someone who was very influential at important stages of my career, had passed away peacefully at his home on 30 March, at the age of 76.

21 June 1938 – 30 March 2015

Professor J T Williams (JT to his friends, or simply Trevor) played an important role during the late 70s and throughout the 80s in establishing an international network of genebanks that today underpin world food security.

The Birmingham years
I first met Trevor in September 1970 when I joined the 1-year MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham. There’s no need to write about the course here as I have done so elsewhere on my blog. Short and stocky, a whirlwind of energy – and an inveterate chain smoker – Trevor joined the Department of Botany in 1968 or 1969, having been recruited by head of department Jack Hawkes to become the Course Tutor for that genetic resources course (which opened its doors in September 1969 and continued to train students over more than three decades).

20 Ed & Mike

L to R: Prof. Jack Hawkes, Dr Mike Jackson, and Dr Trevor Williams. Graduation Day, 12 December 1975, University of Birmingham

One of Trevor’s main teaching responsibilities was a course on taxonomic methods that inspired me so much that very quickly I decided that I wanted to write my dissertation under his supervision. Fortunately, Trevor was quite happy to take on this role, and by November 1970 we had agreed on a topic: on the origin and diversity of lentils (Lens culinaris). I’d indicated an interest in working on grain legumes, a hangover, I guess, from my Southampton undergraduate days where Joe Smartt, a leading grain legume specialist, had encouraged me to apply to the Birmingham course. But why how did we settle on lentils? Trevor and I worked our way through the various genera of the Fabaceae in Flora Europaea until we came to Lens and read this concise statement under the cultivated lentil, L. culinaris: Origin not known. Well, that piqued our curiosity and we set about acquiring seed samples of as many different varieties from a wide geographical range as possible.

In 1971-72 my wife Steph also worked with Trevor for her dissertation on growth and reproductive strategies in a range of grain legumes – lentil and chickpea among them. While Trevor supervised several MSc students during his years at Birmingham, I believe he had only one PhD student – another close friend, Emeritus Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd, and together they carried out a pioneering study of the genus Beta (beets!) When I moved to the University of Birmingham in 1981, I was assigned Trevor’s old office in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany).

Cambridge and Bangor
Trevor took his first degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (Selwyn College, I believe), followed by a PhD at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University) under the eminent ecologist and plant population biologist, Professor John Harper. Trevor then moved to Switzerland (I don’t remember where), and took a higher doctoral degree on the study of plant communities, or phytosociology. I’m also not sure if this was supervised by Josias Braun-Blanquet, the most influential phytosociologist of the time.

The move to Rome
In about 1977 Trevor was recruited to become the Executive Secretary of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources that was founded under the auspices of the FAO in 1974. He remained with IBPGR until 1990. Following his retirement from IBPGR, it became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), then Bioversity International in 2006.Under his tenure, IBPGR sponsored a large number of collecting missions around the world – this was the germplasm collecting decade – as well sponsoring training opportunities for genetic resources specialists, not least to the MSc course at Birmingham. Although IBPGR/IPGRI remained under the auspices of FAO until the early 1990s, it had become part of the network of international agricultural research centers under the CGIAR. And Trevor served as Chair of the Center Directors for at least one year at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 the Birmingham course celebrated its 20th anniversary; IBPGR sponsored a special reunion and refresher course at Birmingham and in Rome for a number of past students. We also recognized the unique contribution of IBPGR and Trevor joined us for those celebrations – which I have written about elsewhere in my blog.

Adi Damania (now at UC-Davis) sent me the photo below, of IBPGR staff on 2 December 1985, and taken at FAO Headquarters in Rome.

JTWFAODec2_1985

Sitting from L to R: Dorothy Quaye, Murthy Anishetty, unknown, J. Trevor Willams, Jean Hanson, unknown, Jane Toll. Standing L to R: Unknown, Adi Damania, unknown, unknown, Jeremy Watts, Merril, unknown, George Sayour, Pepe Esquinas-Alcazar, unknown, Chris Chapman, John Peeters, Jan Konopka, unknown temp, unknown, John Holden, Dick van Sloten.

After IBPGR
In the 1990s Trevor spent some years helping to organize the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) as a legal entity with its headquarters in Beijing, China. And it was there in about 1995 or 1996 or so that our paths crossed once again. I was visiting the Institute of Botany in Beijing with one of my staff from IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, Dr Bao-Rong Lu. One evening, after a particularly long day, we were relaxing in the hotel bar that overlooked the foyer and main entrance. As we were chatting, I noticed someone crossed the foyer and into the dining room who I thought I recognized. It was Trevor, and I joined him to enjoy more than a few beers until late into the night. I didn’t have any further contact with Trevor until one evening in January or February 2012. It was about 7.30 pm or so when the phone rang. It was Trevor ringing to congratulate me on my appointment as an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. We must have chatted for over 30 minutes, and it was great to catch up. That was the last time I spoke with him, and even then he told me his health was not so good.

But let’s not be too sad at Trevor’s passing. Instead let’s celebrate the man and his enormous contribution to the conservation of plant genetic resources worldwide. His important role will be remembered and recognized for decades to come. I feel privileged that I knew and worked with him. His incisive intellect and commitment to the conservation of genetic resources and community made him one of my role models. Thank you, Trevor, for your friendship, words of wisdom, and above all, your encouragement – not only to me, but to your many students who have since contributed to the cause of genetic conservation.

Remembering Trevor – updates
Trevor’s funeral was held on Wednesday 22 April at 13:30, at St Chad’s Church, Handforth, Cheshire. His sister Wendy asked that in lieu of sending flowers, donations could be made to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. Jill Taylor, Development Officer at the Kew Foundation has set up an ‘account fund’ in Trevor’s name – that way she can collate the donations and be able to provide the family with a total amount raised. She will of course make sure that the whole amount is used for the work of the Millennium Seed Bank. All donations can be sent for Jill’s attention:

Jill Taylor Kew Foundation 47 Kew Green Richmond TW9 3AB
Tel: 020 8332 3248
Cheques should be made payable to ‘Millennium Seed Bank’
Donations can also be made online using this live link – https://thankqportal.kew.org/portal/public/donate/donate.aspx
 If you donate online, please also email Jill at commemorative@kew.org so that she can assign it to Trevor’s ‘fund’. That email inbox is monitored by a small group so will be attended even if Jill is away.

Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended Trevor’s funeral, along with Roger Croston, also a Birmingham MSc course alumnus and a collector for IBPGR for about two years from 1980 or so.

Trevor’s sister, the Reverend Wendy Williams (celebrating 55 years since she was ordained) gave a beautiful eulogy, highlighting Trevor’s strong Christian faith – something neither Brian, Roger or I were aware of – and the charitable work he was involved with in Washington, DC after he left IBPGR, but also in Rome during his IBPGR years. Click on the image below to read the Service of Thanksgiving.

JTW

Obituaries
Here’s the link to the obituary that was published on 1 May in the UK’s Daily Telegraph broadsheet newspaper.

An obituary was published online on 1 July in the international journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Click here to read.