The humble spud

Humble? Boiled, mashed, fried, roast, chipped or prepared in many other ways, the potato is surely the King of Vegetables. And for 20 years in the 1970s and 80s, potatoes were the focus of my own research.

The potato (Solanum tuberosum) has something scientifically for everyone: the taxonomist or someone interested in crop diversity, geneticist or molecular biologist, breeder, agronomist, plant pathologist or entomologist, seed production specialist, biotechnologist, or social scientist. So many challenges – so many opportunities, especially since many potatoes are polyploids; that is, they have multiple sets of chromosomes, from 2x=24 to 6x=72.

MTJ collecting cultivated potatoes in 1974Much of my own work – both in the Andes of Peru in the early 70s and once I was back in Birmingham during the 80s – focused on potato genetic resources, understanding the evolutionary dynamics of speciation, and the distribution and breeding value of wild potatoes.

If you’re interested in species diversity, then the potato is the crop for you. In South America there are many indigenous varieties integral to local farming systems at high altitude. Grown alongside other crops such as oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and other Andean tubers of limited distribution, quinoa, and introduced crops such as barley and faba bean (that must have been brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and afterwards). In a recent series on BBC TV (The Inca – Masters of the Cloud), archaeologist and South American expert Dr Jago Cooper repeatedly talked about the wonders of Incan agriculture as one of the foundations of that society yet, disappointingly chose not to illustrate anything of indigenous agriculture today. Farmers still grow potatoes and other crops on the exactly the same terraces that the Incas constructed hundreds of years ago (see my post about Cuyo Cuyo, for example). The continued cultivation of native potato varieties today is a living link with the Incas.

Native varieties of potato from Peru

Native cultivated potatoes are found throughout the Andes from Colombia and Venezuela in the north, south through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and into northern Argentina. One of the main centres of diversity lies in the region of Lake Titicaca that straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia.

Another important centre of diversity is in the island of Chiloé , southeast of Puerto Montt, a well-known potato growing region of Chile.

The wild tuber-bearing Solanums have a much wider distribution, from the USA south through Mexico and Central America, and widely in South America. And from the coast of Peru to over 4000 m in the high Andes. They certainly have a wide ecological range. But how many wild species are there? Well, it depends who you follow, taxonomy-wise.

SM Bukasob

SM Bukasov

Some of the earliest studies (in the 1930s) were made by Russian potato experts SM Bukasov and SV Juzepczuk, contemporaries of the great geneticist and plant breeder, Nikolai I Vavilov.

In 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes (on the left below), visited the Soviet Union to meet with Bukasov (and Vavilov) as he would soon be joining a year-long expedition to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes. His PhD thesis (under the supervision of Sir Redcliffe Salaman) was one of the first taxonomies of wild potatoes. By 1963, Hawkes had published a second edition of A Revision of the Tuber-Bearing Solanums. By 1990 [1] the number of wild species that he recognized had increased to 228 and seven cultivated ones. Hawkes (and his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting) focused much of their effort on the wild potatoes of the southern cone countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) [2] and Bolivia [3]. Working at the National Agrarian University and the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina, Lima, Peru, potato breeder and taxonomist Carlos Ochoa (on the right below) spent several decades exploring the Andes of his native country, and discovered many new species. But he also produced monographs on the potatoes of Bolivia [4] and Peru [5].

Both Hawkes and Ochoa – rivals to some extent – primarily used plant morphology to differentiate the species they described or recognized, but also using the tools of biosystematics (crossing experiments) and a detailed knowledge of species distributions and ecology.

MTJ and JGH collecting wild potatoes

March 1975, somewhere above Canta in Lima Province. Probably a small population of Solanum multidissectum = S. candolleanum (that now includes S. bukasovii)

I made only one short collecting trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1975 just before I returned to Birmingham to defend my PhD thesis. Travelling in the Andes between Cerro de Paso, Huanuco and Lima, at one point he asked me to stop our vehicle. “There are wild potatoes near here,” he told me. “To be specific, I think we’ll find Solanum bukasovii”. And within minutes, he had. That’s because Jack had a real feel for the ecology of wild potatoes; he could almost smell them out. I’m sure Carlos Ochoa was just the same, if not more so.


David Spooner

The potato taxonomist’s mantle was taken up in the early 1990s by USDA Agricultural Research Service professor David Spooner at the University of Wisconsin. Over two decades, and many field expeditions, he has published an impressive number of papers on potato biology. More importantly, he added molecular analyses to arrive at a comprehensive revision and understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums. In fact, in December 2014, Spooner and his co-authors published one of the most important papers on the biodiversity of wild and cultivated potatoes, recognizing just 107 wild and four cultivated species [6]. For anyone interested in crop evolution and systematics, and potatoes in particular, I thoroughly recommend you take the time to look at their paper (available as a PDF file).


[1] Hawkes, JG. 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.
[2] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting. 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
[3] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting. 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
[4] Ochoa, CM. 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press.
[5] Ochoa, CM. 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. Part 1. The Wild Species. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.
[6] Spooner, DM, M Ghislain, R Simon, SH Jansky & T Gavrilenko. 2014. Systematics, diversity, genetics, and evolution of wild and cultivated potatoes. Bot. Rev. 80:283–383
DOI 10.1007/s12229-014-9146-y.


First impressions: two weeks in 1967

It was the first week of October, or thereabouts. 1967. I was headed to Southampton to begin a three-year undergraduate course in botany and geography at the city’s university.

Like all students in the UK, I’d applied for admission to six courses at different universities: King’s College, London (geography); Aberystwyth (zoology and geography); Southampton (botany and geography); York (biology); Queen Mary College (combined sciences); and Newcastle (botany and geography). I don’t really remember my priority list, but I do know that King’s was my first choice and Southampton was my third. I had interviews at King’s, Southampton, Queen Mary, and York; I never heard from the other two before I made my choice. The interview at York was a disaster. I was asked to describe Krebs Cycle, not something with which I was at all au fait. In fact, at a later date – at Birmingham – I came across something that an obviously bored student had written on a bench in one of the lecture rooms in the School of Biological Sciences: ‘I wouldn’t know Krebs Cycle if it ran me over‘. I couldn’t have agreed more!

Because I’d been off school with flu, I wasn’t able to make interviews at several universities on the dates requested around February or so in 1967, so had to try and reschedule these. My dad and I drove to the various campuses, and in fact ended up visiting York, King’s, and Southampton in the same week! The King’s interview went quite well, and I was offered a place. I can’t remember now who interviewed me, only that he was a Professor of Geography and had taught my elder brother Ed (1964-1967, in the Joint School of Geography between the London School of Economics and King’s).

Joyce Lambert in 1964

The day I visited Southampton was a bright sunny day, and even warm for that time of the year. In those days, the Department of Geography was housed in the Hartley Building (which also housed the library and various administrative departments), and I had a 1 hour interview with Dr Joyce Lambert* from the Department of Botany and Dr Brian Birch from Geography. The interview must have gone well because a few weeks later I received a conditional offer in the post. My place at Southampton was guaranteed if I received the necessary exam grades.

I accepted that offer. In fact, almost as soon as I walked through the front door of the Hartley Building I knew I would accept an offer from Southampton. I just had this immediate feeling of well-being. And my instinct didn’t let me down. I had three wonderful undergraduate years there.

In the late 60s, Southampton was still quite a small university, with only about 4500 undergraduates. After all it had received its own charter only in 1952; prior to that its degrees had been awarded by the University of London. Today there are more than 16,000, and the expansion has been phenomenal over the past 45 years since I graduated. A medical school opened not long after I graduated, and the botany department merged with other life sciences and moved to another campus location about a mile away. The Centre for Biological Sciences is now back on the main campus.At the end of my first year, in 1968 or early 1969, the geography department (now geography and environment) moved to a new building (part of that late 60s expansion that benefitted Southampton), but is now housed in the Shackleton Building, actually the old botany building 44 where I studied for three years.

However, to return to that first week in 1967. I may have difficulties these days remembering what I did last week, but my early memories of Southampton are crystal clear.

The tower block of South Stoneham House. I had a room on the west-facing sixth floor (shown here from Woodmill Lane) in my first year, and a south-facing room on the 13th floor in my second year. This block, constructed in the 60s, has been decommissioned because of an asbestos problem.

I was lucky to secure a place in one of the halls of residence, South Stoneham House, and had sent a trunk with clothes and other belongings on ahead of my arrival. The Students Union had organised a special train from London Waterloo to carry new undergraduates – or Freshers – to Southampton, and arrange transport at the other end to everyone’s accommodation. I stopped with my brother Ed for a couple of nights in London. He had just started his first job after graduating from LSE that summer. I bought his bicycle and on the day of my train to Southampton, I hopped on that bike and rode it through the rush hour traffic from his flat in Kilburn across the Thames to Waterloo. I left it at the station and returned to the flat to collect my suitcase. At Waterloo I retrieved my bike from the Left Luggage office, deposited it on the train and then searched for a seat. In those days, railway carriages were generally not open plan as they are today, but had a corridor down one side and compartments with seat for eight passengers. I remained close friends with three of the other seven in that compartment for the rest of my time at Southampton, and have kept in touch with one, Neil Freeman, ever since. We were even assigned rooms on the same floor at South Stoneham House.

Neil studied law, and in fact my close circle of friends was generally outside either botany or geography. Another law student who became a good friend was Malcolm Forster. I did lose contact with him but did come across his name a couple of years ago and briefly made contact then. Recently, however, he came across one of my blog posts and left a comment.

They often say that first impressions last longest. Well, these two in February and October 1967 certainly remained with me. Choosing Southampton over other universities was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Three great years, and good friendships. What more can you ask for?

* Who received the nickname ‘Blossom’ from several generations of botany students.

From a single potato tuber to one tonne in a year? Yes, it can be done.

After I’d completed my PhD in October 1975, I stayed on in the UK for a couple of months to sort out ideas and initial drafts for several journal papers, before returning to Lima, Peru just before the end of December, where I was to begin a post-doctoral fellowship with the International Potato Center (CIP). I’d already been working with CIP since January 1973 but I was uncertain in January 1976 where I was going to be located, or what my responsibilities would be. I had spent the previous three years working in CIP’s germplasm program, collecting native varieties of potatoes throughout the Peruvian Andes, and studied the evolution and ethnobotany of cultivated potato species (which formed the basis of the thesis I submitted to the University of Birmingham).

Moving to Costa Rica
CIP Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to move to Costa Rica in Central America to establish a research program on adaptation of potatoes to warm, humid environments, and also to participate in and support other regional activities from CIP’s regional office in Toluca, Mexico. Following a reconnaissance and feasibility mission with CIP colleagues Drs Roger Rowe (head of breeding and genetics) and Ed French (head of plant pathology) to Costa Rica in early January, my wife Steph and I moved to Turrialba in April to be based at CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza).

Those first few months were a wake-up call. Not only did I have to establish my own program, hire support staff (Leda Avila as secretary, Jorge Aguilar as research assistant, and Moisés Pereira as technician), and develop the facilities I might need, I also had to navigate rather carefully through the ‘politics’ of a host institution that felt – certainly at that time and for several years subsequently – very insecure. With its limited budget, CATIE management saw my assignment in Turrialba merely as a ‘cheap pair of hands’ to contribute to its research program on inter-cropping systems. I had a hard time convincing CATIE colleagues that, in the first instance, my research should focus on testing and identifying germplasm that showed broad adaptation and could be included in the broader systems research. I also had those other commitments outside Costa Rica that had to be managed as well.

Well, the long and short of it, was that we encountered a serious problem with bacterial wilt, caused by Ralstonia solanacearum, and from then, the focus of my research turned from warm environment adaptation to resistance studies and agronomic management.

Potatoes in Costa Rica during the 1970s
Bacterial wilt was also a serious problem for farmers in certain areas of the lower elevation production zones in Costa Rica. Potatoes have never been a major crop in Costa Rica (rice and beans are much more important staples), but on the slopes of the Irazú volcano near Cartago to the east and northeast of San José (the capital of Costa Rica), potato production is the main economic activity. In the mid- to late-1970s there were only about 10,000 ha of potatoes grown, and about 95% of the production was centered on this Cartago region. Within the Ministry of Agriculture there were only a couple of staff dedicated to potatoes, one agronomist and one pathologist. The small size of the Costa Rican potato program (and others in Central America) was the justification for developing the Regional Cooperative Potato Program (PRECODEPA) in 1978.

Two varieties of Mexican origin, Atzimba and Rosita, made up almost 100% of the production. Atzimba had been developed originally for its resistance to late blight, caused by Phytophthora infestans.

A field of potatoes, var. Atzimba, above Cartago near San Juan de Chicua.

Potato fields of white-flowered var. Atzimba. Because of the steep slopes on the flanks of the Irazu volcano, farmers still use ox-drawn ploughs. These volcanic soils are very deep and fertile.

Mike Jackson using a motorized back-pack sprayer to fumigate potato seedlings in a virus resistance trial. Sprayers of this type produce a turbulent fine mist that effectively applies the pesticide. We were perhaps a little lax in terms of health and safety in the 70s!

In Costa Rica, however, it was extremely susceptible, because the climatic conditions permitted the cultivation of potatoes all year round somewhere in this rather restricted area on the flanks of the volcano. There was always fungal inoculum floating around, and farmers were often obliged to spray their crops at least once a week or more often. Believing that higher doses of fungicides would be more effective than the recommended dosage, the quantity of fungicide used was unacceptable. But it was difficult to persuade farmers to spray more effectively, to use machine powered back-pack sprayers rather than hand-pumped equipment that merely soaked the upper surfaces of the potato leaves. This is not very effective. The machine sprayers create a finer mist and also turbulence among the potato canopy and reach the undersides of the leaves where the fungus actually sporulates.

No healthy seed potatoes
As a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are prone to the build up of several virus diseases that can, unless kept in check, result in a reduction of yield (or degeneration)  year on year. That’s why in many countries there are seed production systems to provide potato farmers with healthy planting stock each year. Three common viruses were prevalent in Costa Rica: potato virus X (PVX), potato virus Y (PVY), and potato leafroll virus (PLRV) – singly, or more commonly, in combination, and as such were a serious threat to the long-term viability of national potato production. More so, it has to be said, than other pests and diseases that affected the crop that could be controlled – if applied effectively and safely – by a range of chemical treatments.

Costa Rica did not have a seed production program in the 1970s (and I haven’t been able to determine whether the foundations we at CIP laid in terms of seed production were maintained) even though many farmers did try to source their seed tubers from farms located at the highest elevations. Many farmers kept  the smallest tubers from a commercial production or ware crop as ‘seed potatoes’ with the inevitable degeneration this practice brought with it. The main problem was that seed stocks were not being constantly being replenished with healthy tubers in a foundation seed initiative. The challenge was therefore to develop a seed production program that could effectively supply the seed potato needs of the country – several thousand tonnes annually.

Although healthy, virus-free stocks of Atzimba and Rosita were readily available, as well as bacterial wilt resistant varieties like MS-35-22 from tissue cultures initially but most often as a small number of virus-free tubers, how was it going to be possible to quickly multiply these seed stocks to a quantity that would begin to have some impact on potato yields in the short term?

Jim Bryan showing Jorge Aguilar, on the right, and a techician from the Costa Rican national potato program how to make single node cuttings.

The challenge
In 1979, CIP seed production specialist Jim Bryan joined me in Costa Rica on a one-year sabbatical to focus on the seed production needs of the Central American region. And together – with colleagues from the Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería – we developed a rapid multiplication program, not only to provide the foundation seed for Costa Rica, but also to put into practice many of the ideas that Jim had been developing at CIP headquarters in Peru, but which had not been tested in an actual production context. And at the same time we set ourselves a challenge: to produce one tonne of potatoes from a single tuber in a year (since the growing conditions in Costa Rica permitted more or less all-year-round production).

We converted our screen-houses in Turrialba full-time to this rapid multiplication project. We were sent a small quantity of basic seed tubers that had passed through tissue culture in Lima to eradicate viruses, or received actual tissue culture stocks that we grew on in a makeshift chamber at the plant pathology laboratory in the University of Costa Rica in San José, managed by my good friends and colleagues Drs Luis Carlos González Umaña (a bacteriologist with whom I collaborated over several years on bacterial wilt research) and virologist Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who became the first director of the biodiversity institute, INBio).

But how to rapidly multiply limited seed stocks? Obviously we had to maintain the health of this basic seed, so only grew the tubers in pots inside the screen-house, in a ‘compost’ of sugarcane bagasse mixed with coarse river sand for better drainage. Having first sterilized this mixture, it was an excellent medium for growing potatoes in pots.

Once we had these plants established we could then start to take a whole range of cuttings: stem cuttings, single node cuttings (usually from young seedlings), sprout cuttings, and leaf-bud cuttings. Rooted cuttings could be grown on in the screen-house to produce more ‘mother plants’ or transplanted directly to the field. The same with single node cuttings and sprout cuttings. Leaf bud cuttings were made from senescing stems (or potato vines) and the axillary buds swelled to form a small tuber.

Each cutting was derived from an axillary bud, and these were stimulated to grow once the apical meristem had been removed from each stem. Cuttings were ‘planted’ in coarse river sand, kept constantly watered, and after a couple of weeks or thereabouts, most had produced healthy roots. Sometimes we used a rooting hormone, but mostly this was not necessary.

Stem cuttings

Single node cuttings

Sprout cuttings

Leaf bud cuttings

Going to the field

With the mixture of rooted cuttings planted directly in the field, plus the numerous tubers from cuttings in the screen-house, it was possible to produce hundreds of ‘daughter’ plants from each ‘mother’ plant that we grew only in the screen-house. And taken over a year, we did show that it was possible to produce one tonne of potatoes from a single tuber. Establishing a basic seed program based on the rapid multiplication of important varieties ensured that there was a constant replenishment of healthy seed available to farmers.

Spreading the word
Through PRECODEPA, we held several training courses in Turrialba on rapid multiplication techniques, and also produced a small brochure (in English and Spanish).

Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes_Page_01

Click on this image to open the brochure as a PDF file.

Storing seed tubers
Once we had harvested tubers from the screen-house – and for our other research projects – we had to have somewhere to store our seed stocks. At that time, my two colleagues from CIP headquarters in Lima, Dr Bob Booth and Mr Roy Shaw, had designed and promoted in many parts of the world low coast diffused light storage units. And based on their design, we built a prototype for warm humid conditions in Turrialba. It consisted of a double skin of corrugated fiberglass sheets, a wide overlapping roof to provide shade in the strong tropical sun, and an air conditioner to keep the temperature around 20C or so.

We placed bags of sand inside the store and kept them constantly wet, and therefore increased the humidity inside. We also monitored both the temperature and relative humidity as can be seen in one of the photos in the gallery below. Under these diffused light conditions, potato sprouts grow slowly and sturdy. certainly for our needs it was a viable and efficient option for potato storage.

Did we succeed?
I have no idea to what extent the seed production program prospered. One of the issues was commitment from the Ministry itself, but also the continuity of personnel in the potato program.

I left Costa Rica in November 1980 and returned to Lima, expecting to move to another CIP regional office early in 1981. The regional office in Los Baños, Philippines was mooted as a likely venue. As it turned out I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and joined the School of Biological Sciences – Department of Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Ten years later I did end up in Los Baños when I joined IRRI. But that’s another story.

1989: the plant genetic resources course at Birmingham celebrates 20 years

In September 1969, the first ever one-year course on plant genetic resources conservation and use (leading to the graduate Master of Science degree) was launched at the University of Birmingham, in the Department of Botany. It was the brainchild of Professor Jack Hawkes, an internationally-renowned potato taxonomist, and one of the leading lights in the 1960s of the emerging genetic resources conservation movement.

Twenty years on, and Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote a short article for some newsletter or other – unfortunately I didn’t keep a record of which one. I think everyone was surprised that the course was still going strong and attracting many students. After all, Sir Otto Frankel had told Jack Hawkes in 1968 or thereabouts that the course would meet its demand within 20 years.

In September 1989, to mark the 20th anniversary of the course’s foundation and the first intake of students, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) sponsored a refresher course of about three weeks for a small number of students at Birmingham and at IBPGR headquarters in Rome, Italy. During the Birmingham component, the participants also visited the Welsh Plant Breeding Station² in Aberystwyth, the Vegetable Genebank³ at the National Vegetable Research Station, Wellesbourne, and the Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

L to R: Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), ?? (Indonesia), Trevor Williams, Gordana Radovic (Yugoslavia), Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), Singh (India), Carlos Arbizu (Peru), Carlos Carpio (Philippines), EN Seme (Kenya), Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Songkran Chitrakong (Thailand), Joseph Okello ? (Uganda)

To mark the occasion, a rather rare medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) was planted during a special ceremony attended by several university dignitaries as well as Professor Hawkes as the first course director, and Professor Jim Callow who became head of the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Department of Botany) and Mason Professor of Botany, and the second course director  in 1982 after Hawkes’ retirement. IBPGR Director Professor Trevor Williams (formerly the MSc course tutor at Birmingham before his move to Rome in the late 1970s) was another of the honored guests.

And that same evening, the Dean of Science at that time, Professor George Morrison hosted a dinner to celebrate the MSc Course attended by course staff and past students.

L to R: Ray Smallman, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes, Jim Callow, George Morrison

L to R: Jack Hawkes, Jim Callow, George Morrison, Mike Jackson, Ray Smallman, Trevor Williams

L to R: Mike Lawrence (staff), Singh (India), Joseph Okello (Uganda), Richard Lester (staff), Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland)

L to R: Brian Ford-Lloyd (course tutor), Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), John Newbury (staff), Gordana Radovic (Yugoslavia), Dave Marshall (staff), Carlos Carpio (Philippines), Songkran Chitrakon (Thailand)

L to R: Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Dave Astley (Vegetable Genebank, Wellesbourne), Carlos Arbizu (Peru), ??, EN Seme (Kenya), Mike Kearsey (staff)

In 1996 there was another get-together of PGR students who had passed through Birmingham over the previous 27 years, including someone from the very first intake in 1969, Mr Trevor Sykes from Canada. I was a member of the second intake in September 1970. But this get-together had not been arranged. We had come together at the FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig, Germany. Most were members – leaders even – of national delegations to the conference. Thus was the impact – and continuing impact – of this important training course conducted over more than 30 years at the University of Birmingham.

Birmingham PGR students from Birmingham at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left.

Front row, L to R: Quat Ng (IITA [Malaysia]); Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana); Rashid Anwar ? (Pakistan); Ayfer Tan (Turkey); Eliseu Bettencourt (Portugal); Trevor Sykes (Canada-UK); Andrea Clausen (Argentina); Athena Della (Cyprus); Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea); Lyndsey Withers (IPGRI [UK – taught in vitro conservation]); Elizabeth Matos (Angola [UK]); Nestor Altoveros (Philippines).

Second row, L to R: Jane Toll (IPGRI [UK]); Franck Attere (IPGRI [Benin]); KPS Chandel (India); Jean Hanson (ILRI [UK]); Herta Kolberg (Namibia); George Ayad (IPGRI [Egypt]); Eltahir Mohamed (Sudan); Samuel Bennett-Lartey (Ghana); Ladislav Dotlacil (Czech Republic); Albert Cox (Gambia); Joseph Okello (Uganda); Mike Jackson (IRRI [UK]); Didier Balma (Burkina Faso); Unknown; Stephen Smith (Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. [UK]); Jean-Marie Fondoun (Cameroon); Lázló Holly (Hungary); Mahamadou Ibrahim ? (Niger); Wilson Marandu (Tanzania); Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI – Director General [UK]); EN Seme (Kenya); Luis Gusmão (Portugal).

Missing: Raul Castillo (Ecuador) and Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland) – who were working on a draft document when I had organized this photo opportunity.


¹ IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in October 1991. In 2006, IPGRI merged with the International Network for Bananas and Plantains (INIBAP) to form Bioversity International.
² Now part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.
³ Now the Genetic Resources Unit at the Warwick Crop Centre, University of Warwick.

“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

So said – or words to that effect – an army officer named Ludlow during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of persecution throughout Ireland between 1649 and 1653.

And what was he referring to? The Burren – located in the west of Ireland, in County Clare, and one of the most impressive – and ostensibly bleak – landscapes anywhere. I have visited Ireland three times, and each time I made a beeline for the Burren.¹

The Burren is a landscape of limestone pavement, or karst, one of the largest expanses of such in Europe, covering an area of more than 200 km². The Burren National Park – the smallest in Ireland – covers an area of only 1500 ha. Although ‘devoid of trees, water and soil’, it is nevertheless an incredibly biodiverse environment, with an impressive array of wildlife.

Dryas octopetala

Botanically, the Burren is fascinating, with Arctic-alpine plants growing alongside those more typical of the Mediterranean, as well as both lime-loving (calcicole) and acid-loving (calcifuge) species. One of the signature species of the Burren is the mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) which is found throughout the Alps and far into the north of Europe. But here on the Burren it grows almost at sea level. There is also an impressive list of orchids that have been recorded here.

The Burren attracts many tourists wishing to have a special ‘botanical experience’ to discover all manner of plants among the grikes and clints of the limestone pavement. And it was in July 1968 that I first visited the Burren, participating in an end of first year undergraduate field course from the University of Southampton. Based in the small town of Lisdoonvarna (famous for its annual matchmaking festival), the course was led by tutors Mr Leslie Watson (a plant taxonomist) and Dr Alan Myers (a plant physiologist/ biochemist). We were a small group of only about 19 students who had survived the end of year exams when several of our colleagues who had failed were required to withdraw from the university. There were no re-sits in those days! The group included four students (including me) studying for a combined degree in botany and geography, and one zoology student who would continue with botany as a subsidiary subject into his second year. The others were all ‘single honours’ students in botany.

Back row (standing), L to R: Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul Freestone, Gloria Davies; John Grainger; Peter Winfield. Middle row, L to R: Alan Mayers, Leslie Watson, Jenny ?, Nick Lawrence (crouching), Alan Mackie, Margaret Barron, Diana Caryl, John Jackson, Stuart Christophers. Front row (sitting): Jill Andison, Janet Beasley, Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby.

Spending two weeks on the west coast of Ireland could have been a disaster, weather-wise. But how fortunate we were. Almost two weeks of perfect sunny and warm days. Apart from several days exploring the Burren – in clear weather and in fog! – we had day trips to the mountains of Connemara, along the beaches close to Lisdoonvarna (where I did a short project on brown algae), and a ‘free day’ to search for ‘Kerry diamonds‘ – actually quartz crystals – on the Dingle Peninsula, about 100 miles south of Lisdoonvarna.

Close to Lisdoonvarna are the spectacular Cliffs of Moher², rising over more than 120 m from the Atlantic Ocean – next stop North America! Part of our interest was to look for fossils in the shale layers that make up the cliffs.

But all work and no play makes Jack(son) a dull boy. We had plenty of opportunity of letting our hair down. Every day when we returned from the field we were pleased to see a line of pints of Guinness that had been already been poured in readiness for our arrival, around 5 pm. In the evening – besides enjoying a few more glasses of Guinness – we enjoyed dancing to a resident fiddler, Joseph Glynn, and a young barmaid who played the tin whistle. Since I had spent the previous year learning folk dancing, I organized several impromptu ceilidhs.

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

All too soon, our two weeks were over, and we headed back to Dublin via Limerick to catch the boat train from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and on to our homes from there. We arrived in Holyhead in the early morning, and I had to travel to Stoke-on-Trent where my parents would pick me up. Leslie Watson also came from Leek, and we were headed in the same direction together as he was taking the opportunity of visiting his parents there. I remember that we cheered ourselves up around 6 am or so on Crewe station, taking a wee dram from a ‘smuggled’ bottle of raw poteen, a traditional spirit distilled from potatoes or grain, whose production was outlawed and remained illegal until the 1990s.

¹ Landscapes photos of the Burren used from Wikipedia under its Creative Commons licences –, where all attributions are filed.
² Photos of the Cliffs of Moher used from Wikipedia under the respective Creative Commons licences –, where all attributions are filed.