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The Introduction Nursery for Food, Crop and Medicinal Plants at the Komarov Botanical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences: Its Role in the Conservation of Biodiversity

Volume 2 Number 8 - July 1997

K.G Tkachenko, I.A Pautova and M.M Korobova

The Nursery for the introduction of food, crop and medicinal plants was created in 1823. The size and composition of the Nursery collection has fluctuated, depending on the economic and political situation of the country and reflecting periods of interest in different groups of medicinal plants, as well as new initiatives in the search for useful plants with medicinal, essential-oil, crop and food applications. Our nursery was the recipient of all collections of economic plants from different regions. These species are sources of biologically active substances (e.g. alkaloids, glycosides), tannin, dyes, essential oils, lipids, latex and fibres as indicated by the name of the nursery. The species composition and number of plants also change every year due to the climate. In years with a long spring or changing frosts and warm weather or with a cold and wet summer and early winter, nearly 25% of species can die.

The Nursery now contains food, crop and medicinal plants of 651 species from 278 genera, belonging to 72 families of dicotyledons and monocotyledons. Medicinal plants (48%) is the largest category with non-traditional crop plants and localised food plants (24%) the second main category. The species originate from Russia, other European countries, and other areas such as Japan, the Americas and India.

The main areas of work at the Nursery are are :

  • Observing the growth and development of plants using different methods (phenology, ontogenesis, etc.)
  • Studying the reproductive biology of plants
  • Investigating wild species represented in the collection for possible use in medicine or as crops; as well as building up a collection of plant species which can be used for regenerating degraded soils
  • Conserving the germplasm of rare and vanishing species that are important in the national economy
  • Collecting seeds, and exchanging them with national and foreign botanical institutions, and dealing with the introduction of food, crop and medicinal plants
  • Providing lectures and excursions for the staff of medicinal and pharmaceutical schools and colleges in the city of St Petersburg; giving scientific lectures at a popular level

Observing the growth and development of plants is fundamental. It is of considerable theoretical and scientific interest, because it enables us to show the patterns of growth and development of plants; to establish phylogenetic relations between species and to determine their evolutionary development.

At present the main groups of genera and species which are being investigated by workers of the Institute belong to following families: Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Crassulaceae, Fabaceae, Lamiaceae and Saxifragaceae. An atlas of the main features of the ontogenesis of the above-mentioned families, studied in the introduction nursery and experimental scientific station of the Botanical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (BIN RAS) will be published shortly.

The second area of work (studying the reproductive biology of plants) is very significant from both the scientific and practical aspects. Collecting data on the features of species anthecology (to show the dynamics of flowering, dicliny, inflorescence structure, pollination, seed formation, etc.) helps in the understanding of patterns of flowering and fruit production. Moreover, data obtained on growth and vegetative reproduction is very important for the conservation of plant biodiversity not only in botanical institutions, but for species reintroduction programmes and habitat restoration.

The medicinal plant collection is mainly of practical interest. We now place great emphasis on searching for plant species which may be used in the treatment of cancers, as well as plants with antiviral or antimicrobe activity, hepatoprotectors,and immunomodulators; these are also a source of patents. It includes plants in the Pharmacopeia (official) and those used in traditional medicine of the East (Tibetan and Chinese medicine) homeopathic and local Russian medicine. From 1957, part of the collection of crop and medicinal plants has been situated at the experimental scientific station of the Otradnoje Botanical Institute in the Priozersky area of St Petersburg. In this station's medicinal plant area, there is a collection of the genus Heracleum L., plantations of Mentha piperita, Helianthus tuberosa, Myrrhis odorata, Helichrysum arenarium, Galega orientalis, Rhodiola rosea, Origanum vulgare, Hypericum perforatum, Sanguisorba officinalis, Arnica montana, Leonurus quenquelobatus, Podophyllum peltatum, P. hexandrum and a number of other species.

In recent years the collection has been augmented from natural populations by plants containing groups of biologically-active compounds: flavonoids (Hedysarum, Lespedeza, etc.), essential oils (Heracleum, Origanum, Lavandula, etc.) and others. Monographs of some genera are in progress. These include: Aconitum (25 species), Allium (57), Amaranthus (30), Echinacea (3), Heracleum (30), Lavandula (3), Ononis (5), Origanum (5), Paeonia (10), Podophyllum (3), Polygonum (9), Rheum (9), Rhodiola (10), Salvia (9), and Sedum (12). Biologically-active substances are compared in cultivated and wild collected plants and interesting forms and chemoforms are selected in some species (for example, Heracleum without phurocumarines).

Lists of plants which may be used for restoring soils have been developed for different regions of Russia mainly based on legumes and grasses which can be grown from seed. Estimation of growing and restoring of natural habitats is made under controlled conditions.

Heracleum sosnowskij Manden. (Umbelliferae) - the species is of a great interest as a crop and essential oil plant. Species of this genus (34 species in the flora of the former USSR were collected at the scientificÄexperimental station of BIN RAS, Priozersky district of the St Petersburg, near Otradnoje). This species contains many different sugars and produces good silage. It was widely used as a crop in the 1970s in the USSR. All organs of the plant contain an essential oil, with the fruits containing up to 7%. This oil is of a great interest for perfumery as a source of natural octilacetate (up to 50 %), with a wide antimicrobial effect. Young leaves are used in cooking in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Far East. Heracleum (hogweeds) are easily propagated by seed which is sown after collection in the autumn. The soil must be rich in nitrogen and other nutrients. Some examples grow up to 4-4.5m with inflorescences up to 1m in diameter. The yield of seed is very heavy.

Daphne mezereum L. - a rare plant of the St Petersburg region. It grows in forests in rich humus soils. It is a very ornamental flowering shrub in spring. The plant is poisonous. It is of great interest as a source of a cancer treating drug. The fruits have been use in childbirth, but cause dilution of the blood. It is propagated mostly by seeds, rarely by grafting and grows very slowly.

Arnica montana L. - a rare plant from the Ukrainian Carpathians. It is known as a medicinal plant and the popularity of this plant has resulted in a decline of its natural area. At present there are problems in conserving plant in the wild and in botanical gardens. However, as our experience shows, Arnica may be cultivated in the St Petersburg region. It can be propagated vegetatively and grown from seed and . During blooming the plant is very ornamental, especially in mass. Widely use in homeopathy, allopathy and folk medicine.

These species may be cultivated for commercial purposes, but investment is needed to restore their natural habitats.

Non-Traditional and Local Food Plants under Investigation at the Nursery

Non-traditional food plants - species from the following genera: Arctogrostis, Astragalus, Arundo, Ammi, Heracleum, Baptisia, Asclepias, Vicia, Angelica, Trifolium, Hedysarum, Chamaenerion, Urtica, Cimicifuga, Lupinus, Rhaponticum, Chenopodium, Alcea, Malva, Daucus, Symphytum, Pastinaca, Rheum, Glycyrrhiza, Silphium, Trigonella, Oxytropis, etc.

Local food plants - species of the following genera: Levisticum, Origanum, Foeniculum, Trifolium, Heracleum, Stellaria, Plantago, Taraxacum, Inula, Borago, Polygonum, Brassica, Geum, Chamaenerion, Nepeta, Urtica, Sanguisorba, Arctium, Allium, Primula, Aegopodium, Achillea, Cichorium, Rumex, etc.

The priorities for germplasm conservation collections are rare and vanishing species, the plants of north-west Russia and building up thematic and genus complexes collections. These include species from the following genera: Lilium, Fritillaria, Iris, Iridodictium, Adonis, Orchis s.l., Paeonia, Allium, Rhododendron, Rhodiola, Polygonatum, Actaea, Corydalis, etc. Nature reserves must be organised if the species are to be conserved in their habitats. A number of valuable or rare species are conserved by tissue culture in some institutes.

The studies on this valuable plant collection play an important role in the conservation of the biodiversity of useful plants. It enables us to use our large collection of material for re-establishing natural populations in their former habitats, as well as making plans for growing valuable economic species on a commercial basis. Botanical gardens (our Garden among them) are large banks of plant germplasm. This allows us to hope that, with the help of conservation, many species will not vanish; and the former beauty of the world will be restored.