One of the world’s rarest grass species, the ‘Brome of the Ardennes’ (Bromus bromoideus) was until recently considered extinct. However, fresh, green shoots emerging from recently discovered seeds at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, are causing quite a stir among European botanists in Belgium’s 175th anniversary of independence.
This species holds a particular interest to Belgians, since its world distribution was almost exclusively restricted to the calcareous meadows of the provinces of Liege and Luxembourg, with strongholds around Rochefort, Beauraing and the town of Comblain-au-Pont where it was first discovered in 1821. It soon became botanists’ most celebrated native plant and its engraving adorned the cover of many an edition of the ‘Belgian Flora’. In the latter part of the 18th Century, the species became rare and has been absent in the wild for the last 70 years. The reasons for its demise are attributed to changes in farming practices and the preoccupation of professional botanists with new floral riches arriving from Africa and the Americas. Fortunately, seeds were cultivated at the University Botanical Garden of Liege (now closed) from which seeds were distributed to a few other institutes. Over recent decades, however, many of these gardens have suffered the same fate as Liege and their plants long since gone.
I first became aware of the Brome’s infamous status while preparing for a European Native Seed Conservation Network (ENSCONET) meeting in Crete earlier this year. I was searching for examples of extinct Belgian species to illustrate a presentation. At first it seemed that nothing was left of the Brome, but on investigating further we discovered a handful preserved deep in the vaults of our seed bank. It was clear that I was probably looking at the last few remaining seeds of this species in existence.
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