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Spring bulbs – The untold story of garden snowdrops and tulips


The sight of a snowdrop poking its pendulous head above an icy, white blanket is one of the most celebrated harbingers of spring – in the northern hemisphere at least – while a dazzling display of technicolour tulips provides a colourful coda to this annual symphony of hope.

Next time you admire a clump of snowdrops or a bunch of tulips, take a moment to reflect on the sobering fact that their wild ancestors have historically had a rough ride and, even now, face an uncertain future. Fauna & Flora has a history of highlighting the threats to these and other well-known plants, and partnering with local communities and conservationists to ensure that adequate protection measures are put in place.

Past success – Snowdrops from Türkiye

Türkiye is one of the richest areas in the world for bulbs, including familiar garden favourites such as snowdrops, tulips, cyclamens and crocuses. Back in 1987, Fauna & Flora Preservation Society (as we were then known) made a study of the Turkish bulb trade, which had grown to the point where it was unsustainable. At the time, Türkiye was exporting 70 million bulbs a year, the vast majority of which were sourced from wild populations.

A giant species of wild snowdrop, first identified in Türkiye. Credit: Andy Byfield/Fauna & Flora

Our report recommended setting up village-based nurseries where native plants could be propagated, and ultimately led to the establishment of the Indigenous Propagation Project, a joint initiative with Fauna & Flora’s local partner. This put a stop to the over-exploitation of threatened wild bulbs, provided villagers with a sustainable alternative to wild harvesting, and helped secure a premium price for the high-quality, nursery-grown bulbs on the international market. The scheme went on to produce its first sustainably harvested crop in 1996 and was widely hailed as a resounding success.

Turkish villagers with a crop of nursery-grown bulbs. Credit: Mike Read/Fauna & Flora

The launch of Fauna & Flora’s Good Bulb Guide captured the public imagination and generated an enormous amount of publicity in the national press and on television. The perennial favourite Gardeners’ World featured a conversation between its then presenter Pippa Greenwood and FFI’s Abigail Entwistle, who is now our Senior Conservation Director. An entire episode of Blue Peter was dedicated to the issue.

Abigail Entwistle (right) discussing the Good Bulb Guide with Pippa Greenwood. Credit: Fauna & Flora

Present danger – Tulips from Kyrgyzstan

Some three decades later, Fauna & Flora and our partners are helping to shine the spotlight on neglected bulbs in Central Asia as part of a wider project funded by the Darwin Initiative to restore 500 hectares of degraded pasture. Most wild tulips hail from the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan boasts 25 recognised species and also tops the charts in terms of the percentage of endemic tulips, with seven species found nowhere else in the world. Despite their worldwide popularity, many wild tulips are threatened with extinction.

In late 2022, an astonishing 53 tulip species from this region were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the world’s most authoritative source on the extinction risk to animals, plants and fungi. Over half of these were classified as threatened. On the face of it, this is depressing news, but – looking on the bright side – these threatened plants are now in the conservation spotlight. These are the first Central Asian tulips to be red-listed and among the relatively few bulb species in the region to have been assessed.

Wild tulips in Western Tienshan Mountain Range, Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Ormon Sultangaziev/Fauna & Flora

The listings were the culmination of an incredible team effort involving collaboration on a regional scale, with vital contributions from a broad spectrum of partners. This work was led by Brett Wilson, a PhD student based at the University of Cambridge and formally partnered with Fauna & Flora, but contributors included Fauna & Flora staff from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, IUCN, Bioresurs, Kyrgyzstan’s National Academy of Sciences and experts from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

Among the tulips collected by Brett and his collaborators, the survey teams unearthed an interesting find that has since been formally described as a new species, named Tulipa toktogulica after the mountainous area where it was discovered. Although it initially looked similar to other species, DNA testing in the laboratory in Cambridge confirmed that it was “something completely different”. This is the first time a new tulip has been described using genetic testing, a method that could open the door to even more discoveries from Central Asia’s botanical treasure house.

The recently discovered Tulipa toktogulica growing wild. Credit: Brett Wilson

As the list of Kyrgyzstan’s tulip species continues to grow, so too does the list of threatened species. Tulipa toktogulica was immediately categorised as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The ongoing work of Fauna & Flora and partners to engage pastoralists in landscape restoration will be crucial in securing the future of this latest addition to the global pantheon of plants and safeguarding all the other threatened tulips in this unsung haven of biodiversity.

Future positive – Message of love

As thoughts turn to spring, and to all the tired metaphors that queue up to greet its arrival, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how much we take these seasonal spectacles for granted. A world without snowdrops and tulips would be a much poorer place.

A great deal of work has been done behind the scenes – and continues to this day – to ensure that the wild ancestors of these annual showstoppers have a future. This year, you can play your part too. The next time you visit your local garden centre, check the origins of your purchases, read the label and ask a few difficult questions about where that plant came from.

A bouquet of shop-bought tulips. Credit: Sergey Bezgodov/Shutterstock

For the incurable romantics among you, February 14th is the ideal opportunity. When the florist invites you to add your special message to the eye-wateringly expensive bunch of tulips you’ve just bought, try writing ‘From Kyrgyzstan with love’. At the very least, that will start an interesting conversation. Better still, you could consider a Valentine’s Day gift with a difference: ‘Darling, I’m declaring my undying devotion by donating to flower conservation on your behalf.’ Just a thought.

They’ll thank you in the long run. And so will we.

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