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The Role of Russian Botanic Gardens in the Study and Development of Economic Plants

Volume 3 Number 7 - February 2001

Yu. N. Gorbunov

There are over 80 botanic gardens and other plant introduction centres within the present Russian Federation. In the middle of twentieth century Russian botanic gardens intensively expanded their collections of cultivated and wild plant species.

Basic research and expeditions to areas of the former Soviet Union resulted in rich collections in botanic gardens. The priority was the collection of genetic material of economic plants. In the Moscow Main Botanic Garden alone the collections of plants from wild and cultivated sources by 1993 numbered more than 21,000 taxa (more than 11,000 species, forms and varieties and about 10,000 horticultural forms and cultivars). It also holds the largest collection of ornamental plants with about 8,000 taxa. The collection of medicinal plants used in traditional and alternative medicine includes more than 500 species.

There are large collections of ornamental, food, medicinal, forage, industrial, and aromatic plants in Russian botanic gardens. For example, the genetic material of ornamental plants in botanic gardens of the former Soviet Union includes 5,600 species and 11,400 varieties, which belong to 132 families and to about 1,000 genera. Most widely represented families in this cultivated flora of ornamental plants are Asteraceae and Iridaceae. The greatest specific diversity is found in the genus Iris - 106 species out of c.300 found in nature, Dianthus - 102 species out of 300, Tulipa - 84 out of 100, Lilium - 56 out of 80 and Paeonia - 38 out of 40. By the number of cultivars, the most representative genera are Gladiolus, Tulipa, Iris, Rosa and Callistephus with more then 1,000 cultivars for each genus. The rich collection of economic plants in botanic gardens are a good basis for applied research, which has always been an important part of the activity of Russian botanic gardens. Of course, results of this research do not influence the national economy greatly as for example with the introduction of Hevea brasiliensis into the countries of south-east Asia or Coffea arabica into southern America, however many of them have considerable practical value.

The study of economic plants in botanic gardens is coordinated by the Council of the Botanical Gardens of Russia, in particular by the working commissions on ornamental, medicinal, forage plants and other economic plants. The Council is also in charge of the programme run by the Russian Academy of Sciences under the title Scientific principles of introduction of cultivated and wild economic plants. Generally botanic gardens carry out only the preliminary study of economic plants, such as initial propagation experiments. Then plants are passed to applied-research institutions such as the Russian Institute of Medicinal Plants or the Russian Institute of Forage Crops. Botanic gardens seldom carry out developments to a stage of industrial use.

Agricultural Crops

Recently scientists have become concerned about the progressive depletion in the genetic fund of important agricultural crops. Such concern is quite valid, as the separate genetically homogeneous super-cultivars occupy vast sown areas and they displace less productive, but genetically heterogeneous local cultivars and forms. It can result in a loss of a number of important food crops.

Stable hybrids of perennial and grain forage wheat were created for the first time in the Moscow Main Botanic Garden, as a result of complex interbreeding of Triticum with Agropyron species. These were described as a new synthetic species Triticum agropyrotriticum Cicin with two subspecies (perennial subsp. perenne Cicin and forage cereals subsp. submittans Cicin). These hybrids differ considerably from all existing wheat species by their biological and morphological characteristics and possess original properties, of which the most valuable is the ability to grow and yield a harvest for several years. Work on the creation of valuable varieties of winter and spring wheat and original research on breeding of Triticum, Secale, Hordeum and Elymus were also conducted. Several winter and spring cultivars of Triticum and Agropyron hybrids in different years were sown and occupied large areas - hundreds of thousands of hectares in many regions of Russia, Byelorussia and the Baltic countries, and in a number of regions in the East and Western Siberia. Today four cultivars from the Moscow Main Botanic Garden are used on an industrial scale.

Medicinal Plants

Practically all Russian botanic gardens hold collections of and undertake research on medicinal plants. The main focus of the research is the following:

  • the search for new medicinal plants based on preliminary chemical investigations or from species used in alternative medicine;
  • the introduction of medicinal plant species into cultivation, where natural resources are limited;
  • the study of the natural resources of medicinal plants and development of methods for their rational use.

For example, botanists from the Central Siberian Botanic Garden have carried out long-term complex investigations of the useful plants of southern Siberian. As a result more than 300 species were identified as promising medicinal plants. Based on biochemical study the promising species and forms were shown, which contain the main groups of biologically-active substances. The variation of chemical substances were studied and standards for medicinal plants were developed. The first standard cultivar in the country was of Hypericum perforatum 'Zolotodolinsky' was developed and introduced in cultivation. At present more than 100,000 hectares are under this crop. Also cultivars of Helychrysum arenaria and Thymus serpyllum were introduced into production.

Aromatic Plants

Some botanic gardens have undertaken research for new aromatic and spice plants. The Moscow Main Botanic Garden has the largest collection of aromatic plants in Russia (more than 300 species, cultivars and forms) and has shown that they can be cultivated in the Middle zone of Russia. The main focus of research was the comparative study of perennial aromatic plants by parameters such as the rate of development, winter resistance, disease and pest resistance, productivity and essential oil content. Promising results were obtained for cultivars and forms of Mentha, Lavandula, Ocimum, Nepeta, Melissa, Salvia, Origanum and others. In some central regions of Russia experimental nurseries of aromatic plants were established.

Forage Crops

Highly productive forage crops and plants for improving natural hayfields and pastures are very important for stock-raising and farming. In Russia only 25 main forage species are widely used and botanical research is aimed at the selection of special forage species and cultivars. In a number of Russian botanic gardens research is being undertaken on Heracleum, Lathyrus, Vicia, Polygonum, Astragalus, Oxytropis, Hedysarum and others. The search for new forage crops in the north of Russia is one of the main tasks of the Botanic Garden of the Komi Institute of Biology in Syktyvkar. This garden has been successful in introducing Heracleum sosnovskii, Polygonum weirichii, Rhaphanus sativus, Symphytum spp. and many others. In the Novosibirsk region some crops selected by the Central Siberian Botanic garden for a high-protein content have been are being tested on farms. These include about 50 species of Bromus, Medicago, Melilotus, Astragalus and others.

Fruit Collections

Many of botanic gardens have fruit collections. For instance, the collection of fruit and berry plants in the Main Botanic Garden in Moscow totals more than 2,000 species, cultivars and forms. Some genera are very well represented: Malus - by 16 species and 150 cultivars, Pyrus - by 11 species and 40 cultivars, Ribes - by 13 species and 160 cultivars, Fragaria - by 20 species and more than 300 cultivars and hybrids. Many gardens are making comparative studies of cultivars and selections of traditional fruits and berries to increase the range of fruits which can be grown in a geographical area. However it is more important for botanic gardens to introduce new species of fruit of nutritional and medicinal value. Botanic gardens in Russia have played a significant role in the introduction of such species as Schizandra chinensis, Actinidia kolomikta, Hippophae rhamnoides, Cerasus tomentosa, Elaeagnus multiflora and species and hybrids of Sorbus, Rosa, Lonicera, and Vaccinium. The Botanic Garden of Moscow State University has introduced more than 20 cultivars of Hippophae rhamnoides, which is a valuable crop with a high carotene content in fruits. The Main Botanic Garden in Moscow has inventors' certificates for 5 cultivars of Lonicera edulis.

Collections of wild fruit trees and berry bushes are of special value. These species represent an important source of new cultivated plants and a most valuable genetic resource to create winter and drought resistant cultivars, an increased tolerance to pests and diseases, and to overcome the periodicity in fruit bearing and to select cultivars with different times of fruit maturation. For example, forms of Fragaria virginiana have been selected by the Moscow Main Botanic Garden and used by the Russian Institute of Fruit Growing to create a series of highly-productive strawberry cultivars.

Ornamental Plants

The role of botanic gardens in increasing the range and introducing new ornamental plants in Russia is especially great. Research and assessment of collected plants allow the selection of the most promising for the particular region and species and cultivars that can enrich local cultural flora and optimize the human environment including making it more aesthetic.

Botanic gardens are very active in selection work. The researchers have introduced new cultivars of Tulipa, Narcissus, Rosa, Gladiolus, Iris, Chrysanthemum and other ornamental plants.

The group of not widely spread perennials is of special interest. To this category we refer wild ornamental plants, which have passed primary introduction studies in botanic gardens and were assessed positively in cultivation. Recently by means of selection~ singular horticultural forms and cultivars of high ornamental quality were created. Some of them became very popular in parks and gardens. The use of these plants allowed successful solution of the problems of designing plots with difficult environment (insufficient light, excess moisture, stony soil etc.). Moreover it allowed prolonging considerably flowering period of compositions and reducing labour input for the maintenance of plantings.

Urban Landscaping

Most Russian botanic gardens are concerned with the appearance of the cities, in which they are located. Many of them conduct inspections of the assortment and conditions of trees and bushes used in plantings and give recommendations for their improvement.

In the Polar-Alpine Botanic Garden on the basis of many years' experience in plant introduction in the Far North a wide range of ornamental plants have been developed for polar cities. The Main Botanic Garden analyzed the assortment of plants used in the city plantings in Moscow and found out that about 100 plant species are used for this purpose which means that city plantings are rather poor. To improve the situation the Botanic Garden has developed a selection of ornamental plants for different types of city plantings, namely for parks, forest parks, squares, boulevards, and street plantings, which is based on the available collections and includes 600 species and forms of trees, bushes and lianas with high ornamental qualities and resistance to unfavourable environmental factors. Several botanic gardens have carried out selection work on Populus, Salix, Acer species and others in order to obtain new hybrids for city plantings. For example, in Ekaterinburg Botanic Garden they have collected 40 species of Salix.

Green plantings can help reduce the amount of toxic substances in the air. The Botanic Gardens in Perm, Ekaterinburg and some others have selected plants with resistance to industrial pollution. As a result of research, Ekaterinburg Botanic Garden has developed a new selection of ornamental plants for city plantings in Urat industrial centre and proposed gas resistant plantings around the Magnitogorsk metallurgical industrial complex.

Botanic gardens undertake significant research on the creation and maintenance of lawns. Zonal tests of lawn grasses in 17 geographical regions were conducted and the results were used for the preparation of proposals on state zoning of lawn grasses.

During the last 10 years botanic gardens in Russia have been poorly funded due to the general financial problems in the country and our collections have decreased over the past few years. In spite of this, botanic gardens manage to maintain their basic collections and there is a large collection of economic plants in Russian botanic gardens which may become a source of income to maintain of botanic gardens in the future.