International Carnivorous Plants Society Conference | Kew Gardens 2016

Earlier on in August, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the International Carnivorous Plants Society (ICPS) Conference at Kew Gardens. It was a fantastic few days, full of cool plants, interesting presentations, and great people - including some very special guests! After two loooooong flights, I arrived in surprisingly sunny London, and before the conference began I had two days to settle in and check out Kew Gardens...

 

KEW GARDENS: A WHIRLWIND TOUR 

Whether you like wandering through quiet English countryside, a steamy tropical glasshouse, a gallery full of botanical art, or being a big kid in the play areas - Kew Gardens has it all! Before we get into the actual conference, here's a little photo tour of some of my favourite places:

The Water-Lily House has to be my favourite glasshouse, it may be small but don't let that fool you! Behind these beautiful doors, you can see an incredible display of water lilies, including the giant Amazon waterlily, Victoria amazonica. You can also play with one of the coolest plants in the world, the "sensitive plant" Mimosa pudica

Of course, all of the glasshouses have beautiful plants, like the tropical displays in the Princess of Wales Conservatory - the colours and textures were incredible!

This glasshouse was particularly exciting because of all the interesting reptiles roaming about and fish swimming in the aquariums! There was even some weird creature pretending to be Totoro, hiding under a giant leaf umbrella... (that's me)

Anyway, after satisfying my glasshouses craving, I spent a lot of time in the art galleries, including the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art with a display of paintings by Margaret Mee, and the Marianne North Gallery which has a few paintings of carnivorous plants! I really enjoyed wandering around these places and I felt so inspired to one day take a course in botanical art (it would be nice if I could do a non-stick-figure style of art!)

I didn't spend all of my time inside glasshouses and galleries though, there were plenty of amazing things to see and do in the great outdoors of Kew too! Including, but not limited to, a fun little log trail, a badger sett with wooden badgers, listening to bees humming at The Hive, and wandering through the incredible arboretum which spans over the majority of Kew Gardens. As you can see, I had a really great time exploring all of these places, whether it was by myself or along with some of the other conference attendees 😊

I also had the chance to check out a few "behind-the-scenes" aspects of Kew Gardens, including the Jodrell Labs (where all the incredible research at Kew is conducted), the Library and Archives (where we were lucky enough to see some of the earliest printed carnivorous plant books and some of Charles Darwin's letters), the Herbarium (with displays of dried specimens of carnivorous plants, including a big Nepenthes pitcher in a glass case), and the Fungarium (I know what you're thinking, a herbarium of fun! It's actually one of the world's largest collections of dried, identified, and labeled fungi, sitting in hundreds of drawers in the basement... so like I said, fun!)

We also had the amazing opportunity to check out the propagation glasshouses, where Kew's horticulture team propagate all the plants you see out in the display glasshouses. It was amazing to walk through and to learn how they care for all of their carnivorous plants, orchids, water-lilies, and all sorts of other interesting plants!

 

ICPS CONFERENCE

Of course, I wasn't there at Kew just to see all the cool plants and have fun! I was there to learn about carnivorous plants from around the world, and to present some of my own early research findings... 

Along with a display of amazing carnivorous plant photographs from around the world and another scientific poster, I presented a poster with initial results from my studies on the carnivorous Byblis plants from Western Australia. Over the course of my PhD, I've developed a real love for presenting my work - I still get super nervous about public speaking, and scared that I won't know the answer to a tough question, but I really enjoy talking to people about these amazing plants and I always end up with so many ideas buzzing around in my head. It's invigorating! 

Aside from the poster display, this year's ICPS conference had three full days of fantastic lectures, with topics ranging from genetics to ecology to conservation. I found that some of the most engaging talks were the ones about trap biomechanics, especially because we got to see some (rather comical) video footage of ants slipping into Nepenthes pitchers, and a slow-mo of Utricularia traps sucking in their prey. We also watched a short documentary all about the rare Nepenthes clipeata, by Stewart McPherson, founder of Redfern Natural History Productions. You can watch it below:

This documentary, along with a talk about the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES), sparked an intense discussion around conservation. Unfortunately, many carnivorous plants are under serious threat from poaching, given that they are highly prized for their ornamental value, and there is often a big demand for the rarer species. It's a very tough issue to solve, but in the end, the message I took home was that lots of people have an interest in and love for carnivorous plants, and we all play a role (whether directly or indirectly) in the wellbeing of natural populations. To look after our beloved plants, something really needs to be done...

One of the first steps in conserving rare species is to formally assess them within the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List system, so that policies can then be made. Unfortunately for carnivorous plants, many species hadn't actually been formally assessed within the IUCN Red List system... until now! Several members of the Carnivorous Plant Specialist Group (CPSG) got together at Kew's Jodrell Labs before the conference began, to try and figure out the conservation status of all carnivorous plants in Australasia. I had the unique opportunity to have a look in on this very important workshop. From what I could see, it must have been an intense few days: discussing species threats, creating distribution maps, and filling in extensive online forms. But the CPSG did it! Around 250 species from Australasia altogether (and a few more European species) have now been assessed for the Red List. A fantastic effort by the CPSG, and a fantastic step up for carnivorous plant conservation! If you want to help support carnivorous plant conservation, you can click here for some more information from the IUCN 😊

 

SPECIAL GUESTS & A SPECIAL PLACE

Aside from all of this excitement, there were two very special guests for one day of the conference: comedian Bill Bailey and naturalist/broadcaster Sir David Attenborough! This was truly an honour, and something very special for everybody in the carnivorous plant community.

Sir David Attenborough has played an important role in the carnivorous plant community, by showcasing carnivorous plants in his documentaries and raising awareness about the need for conservation. He is a patron of the Carnivorous Plant Specialist Group, and surely an inspiration to everybody who was at the conference. He's even had a Nepenthes species named after him! Personally, Sir David has inspired me to always be curious about the natural world, to work hard in the research that I do, and to follow my passion for science communication. I hope that I can do him proud (even though he has no idea who I am!)

We were lucky enough to watch on as Sir David was presented with a gift from the carnivorous plant community: a beautiful painting of Nepenthes attenboroughii by the botanical artist Lucy Smith. I know my photos are unfortunately blurry, but I think you can still see how delighted he was! The room had such a vibrant energy because of him, and his small speech was full of gratitude and even a few jokes! I am so so grateful that I got to be part of this experience, and I don't think it's something I will ever forget. 

Finally, to finish off my ICPS conference adventures, I had the opportunity to go to a very special place, the home of another great idol of mine: Charles Darwin! As we walked through Down House, we got to listen to the virtual voice of (can you guess it?) Sir David Attenborough, as he explained all sorts of interesting facts - for example, did you know that Charles Darwin married his own cousin? We also explored Darwin's beautiful blue glasshouse, where he conducted some of the very first experiments on carnivorous plants! I loved it, it's pretty much exactly what I would want to have, if I could have my own glasshouse one day...

Of course, there were plenty of colourful flowers all throughout the glasshouse and the beautiful gardens, and there's even a few plots for all of Darwin's outdoor plant experiments with weeds and with veggies. Seeing this place was an absolute highlight for me, I would definitely recommend a visit to it, for anybody who is interested in the life and work of Charles Darwin.

And that's it! I hope you enjoyed reading a little bit about my experience of this year's International Carnivorous Plants Society Conference. Before I go, I want to say a big thank you to all of the hardworking people who organised and contributed to the conference, to all of the new friends I made over those few days, and to my PhD supervisors for supporting my attendance at interesting conferences like this. Looking forward to the next one!

(All thoughts and opinions are my own)