One of Britain’s oldest and biggest display of flowers has been saved from extinction – after botanists used pioneering CLONING technology for the first time.
The National Collection of Rhododendrons was under threat of being wiped out by sudden oak death, a highly destructive fungal disease.
Most of the plants are more than 150 years old and were brought by Victorian plant hunters to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in St Austell, Cornwall.
But in the last four years seven mature rhododendrons have started dying – and three have been lost forever.
Sudden Oak Death was detected there in 2006 and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said they should all be destroyed to prevent further spread.
But the flowers – one of Britain’s most biggest rare plant collections – has now been saved after experts used pioneering cloning techniques.
The ‘micro-propagation’ method sees an unaffected part of the diseased plant cloned to produce a healthy clean rhododendron to replace it.
The new healthy specimens are planted in a part of the gardens that is disease-free and the risk of them becoming re-infected is practically nil.
Ros Smith, project manager, said it is first time cloning technology has been used to help save a collection of flowers and plants.
She said: ”It’s very exciting to be able to use science and horticulture in such a pioneering way to save these remarkable and beautiful plants that have such rich heritage.
”In micro-propagation we take a clean part of the infected plant. The material is then taken into the lab and placed in pots of jelly containing chemicals and nutrients, which produce new shoots.
”We are in fact cloning the plant. With a bit of tweaking this technique could be used in other species affected by the disease.
”It’s not a case of one size fits all. We’re working to see if we can utilise the technique in species such as magnolias, camellias and crocus-hybrids that have been infected.”
The project is a joint scheme by the gardens and Duchy College in Callington, Cornwall.
Officials say as a further measure to preserve the species the gardens are offering visitors the chance of buying some of the new plants.
Peter Stafford, managing director, said: ”It means that rare and precious species are preserved for all to enjoy.
”Those who plant the micro-propagated plants in their own gardens will give the collection its best chance of survival.”