September 23, 2019 | Sarada Krishnan, Director of Horticulture & Center for Global Initiatives

The Crop Science Society of America has designated September 22-29 as Crop Wild Relative Week. Crop Wild Relatives (CWRs) are the wild cousins of our cultivated crops that we eat every day. Over time, plant domestication has led to the development and use of improved varieties in modern agriculture. In the process, we have lost many of our old varieties, landraces and also wild plants related to our crops known as crop wild relatives. It is important to conserve these wild plants since they may harbor the solutions to many of the global challenges that agriculture faces such as pests, diseases, climate change, etc.  

Denver Botanic Gardens has been involved in several projects related to CWRs. In 2016/2017, I worked as a coffee expert in the development of the Global Conservation Strategy for Coffee Genetic Resources in collaboration with the Crop Trust and World Coffee Research. Even though only two species of coffee are cultivated, Coffea arabica (Arabica coffee) and C. canephora (Robusta coffee), there are a total of 125 species of coffee. There may be traits in many of these species that can be used to develop pest and disease resistances, improved coffee cup quality as well as drought tolerance in cultivated coffee. Traits for these are known for some species, but there still needs to be research done for most species. A recent study by a colleague of mine, Dr. Aaron Davis of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England documented the extinction risk of these coffee wild relatives. The study found that 60 percent of all coffee species are threatened with extinction. The global coffee conservation strategy provides a roadmap for the conservation and use of all coffee species.

In collaboration with the American Public Gardens Association and the Alliance for Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies, a group of scientists worked over the past three years to develop a roadmap for the public engagement, conservation and use of North American crop wild relatives and wild utilized plants. The roadmap, published in the Crop Science journal, outlines five key action steps. Achieving these five priority actions will require coordination and collaboration between many stakeholders.

Over the next few years, we will be showcasing crop wild relatives in our garden displays in order to educate and engage the public. Currently, the Sacred Earth garden showcases the wild utilized plants and crops used by indigenous peoples of the four corners region. The fall Orangery display showcases the different species of cucurbits, an amazing diversity which many of you may not even be aware of. Please stop by the Orangery when you visit the Gardens and marvel at the squash and corn diversity on display.  

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