martes, septiembre 21, 2010

New Hope for Efforts to Save Vavilov’s Priceless Plant Legacy

In the early 20th century, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov created a preserve outside St. Petersburg that today contains one of the world’s largest collections of rare seeds and crops. Now, scientists and conservationists are waging an international campaign to save the reserve’s fields from being bulldozed for housing development.

by fred pearce

In 1929, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov traveled to Central Asia on one of the many seed-collecting expeditions that took him to five continents over more than two decades. In what is now present-day Kazakhstan, Vavilov — the father of modern seed banks — found forests of wild fruits and numerous cultivated varieties. Around the city of Alma Ata, he was astonished by the profusion of apple trees, writing in his journal that he believed he had “stumbled upon the center of origin for the apple, where wild apples were difficult to even distinguish from those which were being cultivated.”

Correctly surmising that this region of Kazakhstan was “the chief home of European fruit trees,” Vavilov collected the seeds of the many varieties of apple and other trees, eventually hauling them back to his scientific base in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

Botanist at Pavlovsk Station
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
A botanist measures a mountain ash tree at the Pavlovsk Station in 2010.
The trees that sprouted from those seeds, and more than 5,000 other varieties of fruits and berries, now grow in a sprawling, 1,200-acre collection of fields about 20 miles south of St. Petersburg, not far from the opulent, 18th-century czarist palace of Pavlovsk. This living repository of trees and bushes — with Europe’s most extensive collection of fruits and berries — has been at the center of a dispute in recent months as a federal Russian housing agency has tried to confiscate part of the Pavlovsk Research Station to clear the land for upscale dachas for Russia’s burgeoning new elite.

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