In the 17th century, a single tulip bulb could, reportedly, set you back the price of a house. ‘Tulip mania’ – the supposed period in Dutch history when tulips stirred up a frenzy – may now be long over, but with more than 3,000 varieties to choose from, modern-day buyers are clearly still searching for something special.

Commercial growers around the world are facing an uncertain future, however. Be they tulip farmers or cotton producers, the increasing spread of plant pests and diseases – exacerbated by climate unpredictability – poses new and increasing risks to crop production.

Today’s crops are usually very uniform, both to look at and also at the genetic level. This lack of diversity permits new or unfamiliar diseases to spread like wildfire because they are less likely to encounter genetic barriers to their proliferation. Such low diversity brings a weakened ability to adapt to new conditions – a worrying premise in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

So how can we secure our food, horticultural, clothing and medicinal crops against future environmental challenges?

The answer lies in wild plant populations. Not bred for uniformity, wild populations naturally contain greater diversity than their cultivated cousins. Crucially, this means that individual plants will be more likely to exhibit the genetic characteristics that can prevent a disease from taking hold.

Back to the roots

The best place to find such useful genes is a plant’s geographical centre of origin. For maize, this is Central America, for wheat, it is the Middle East, and for tulips, it is the mountainous landscape of Central Asia.

Here, wild tulips carpet mountain slopes, providing a nutrient-rich boost for pollinating insects. Importantly, these tulips reflect the overall health of the landscape – when they are present, it is a sign of a well-functioning ecosystem.

A wild tulip growing on the mountain slopes of Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Brett Wilson
A wild tulip growing on the mountain slopes of Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Brett Wilson

In populated areas, overgrazing and excessive trampling by livestock prevent tulip regeneration. This decline may be a symbolic warning light for surrounding grassland ecosystems: when tulips disappear, it can mean that grasslands – which livestock herders depend on for their livelihoods – are under serious strain. Many graziers understand these threats, and are open to exploring solutions to protecting tulips and the long-term health of the surrounding life-giving grasslands.

Thanks to new funding from the Darwin Initiative, and in partnership with Cambridge University Botanic Garden, the Association of Forest Land Users of Kyrgyzstan and Bioreseurs, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is working to protect Central Asia’s tulips. Key to reducing threats will be the introduction of sustainable grazing regimes – developed with, and implemented by, local livestock herders. This improved management may include reduced grazing at key times of year, limits on livestock numbers, greater rotation of livestock between pastures and zonation of land, based on grazing intensity. Effective grazing management has been realised here before – under Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan’s grasslands were afforded greater protection, but this was abandoned post-independence. Our work will support local plans relevant to today’s situation in Kyrgyzstan, ensuring long-term sustainable use of these valuable natural resources.

University of Cambridge PhD student, Brett Wilson, recently spent two months searching for and collecting data on Kyrgyzstan’s wild tulips. His grazing exclusion plots, genetic studies and social surveys will provide much-needed knowledge surrounding tulip ecology and cultural value.

“Central Asia’s complex history has meant that little scientific information is available for many species in this region of the world,” said Brett. “The tulip diversity harboured within Central Asia’s mountains is greater than anywhere else on the planet. My work, in collaboration with in-country scientists, aims to develop data to guide future tulip conservation efforts so that resources can be targeted where they will be most effective.”

Tulipa dasystemon carpets the slopes of Kyrgyzstan's mountains. Credit: Brett Wilso
Tulipa dasystemon carpets the slopes of Kyrgyzstan’s mountains. Credit: Brett Wilson

Know your onions

Perhaps surprisingly, the central and southwestern regions of Asia are also the likely genetic birthplace of alliums, or wild onions. In areas of extreme poverty in Tajikistan, where average income can equal less than two US dollars per day, households can receive a meaningful boost by collecting and selling wild onion bulbs, adding an average of 100 dollars to annual income. Because of this overharvesting, however, species are facing the very real prospect of being collected to extinction. In some areas, this is already happening.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and national partners, Kulob Botanic Garden, Ganji Tabiat and Zam Zam, are trialling cultivation of two wild onion species, working with two communities in Tajikistan’s Khatlon province. These pilots have already reduced wild harvesting by up to 50% and have increased income by an average of 40% compared to wild collection. New funding from the Darwin Initiative will enable RBGE to extend the range of species in cultivation, hopefully sparking even greater success.

In support of this, FFI will work with local communities to implement Participatory Market System Development – a practical, low-risk yet profitable method to identify and develop sustainable markets. By supporting local onion growers to increase their income from home-grown bulbs, the project will promote a viable alternative to harvesting wild populations.

Through working both with communities and botanical experts across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, we hope to see win-wins for nature and people, protecting wild bulbs and the landscapes they grow in, while supporting local livelihoods and securing the prospects for genetic diversity that can help future-proof crops for many years to come.