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The National Botanic Conservatories of France: Original Instruments for the Conservation of Biodiversity".

F. Le Hir & R. Pierrel

Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, Conservatoire Botanique National de Nancy

Home | Contents | Abstract | The "Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux" in France | Operating Methodology for a Conservatoire Botanique National | Specificity of Nancy and Brest | A few thoughts on botanical gardens and conservatories in France | Conclusion | References


Since 1988, the French Ministry of the Environment has been setting up a network of "Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux", organisations which are specially devoted to the protection of wild plants in France. Within a few years, the whole national territory should be covered. This original concept, unique wold-wide, has enabled the creation of new entities and the specialisation of existing botanic gardens. The CBN's conservation programmes are validated by a scientific council, and they implement specified tasks in the following fields :

The originality of the CBNs of Brest and Nancy lies in their further specialisation. Nancy's CBN is a botanic garden with collections of tropical species. Brest conducts rescue operations for plant species on the brink of extinction, mainly in ocean islands, focusing on ex situ conservation. As great attention is given to biodiversity, the role of French National Botanic Conservatories is worth noting.

Keywords: Conservatoire botanique, France, in situ & ex situ conservation, integrated strategy, education, network, Nancy, Brest

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The "Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux" in France

The concept of "Conservatoire Botanique" did not have a national scope at its inception. The idea came to the fore around 1975, a period when Jean-Yves Lesouëf, the current curator of the Conservatoire Botanique National of Brest decided to create an innovative garden nurturing only plant species threatened in their natural environment. This followed the example of what was done in some modern zoos to save endangered animal species.

Other conservatories were also created at the time that Brest's Conservatoire was launched. They include Nancy, which is also a botanic garden, Porquerolles which is part of the National Park of Port-Cros and St. Leu on Réunion island.

From the start these initiatives received support from the French Ministry of the Environment, but the national label making the Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux (CBN) official was only created in 1988.

A brief was drawn up, and scientific advisors were appointed to define and approve the scientific programmes for each conservatory in charge of the threatened flora of its respective region.

Following that, other CBNs came into being. These include Balleul (which is also a centre for phytosociology) for northern France; Gap-Charance for the Alps; Chaviniac-Lafayette for the Massif Central, and that of Paris for its region. Others are now in the implementation phase (Pyrenees mountains) or under study (Guadeloupe, Martinique). In the long term, the entire French territory, (including the DOM-TOM overseas territories) will be covered by the network of Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux.

The prime originality of the CBNs lies in their choice of an integrated strategy for flora conservation, in attributing a specific assigned area (one or several regions) and in the fact that only French (and regional) flora are concerned.

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Operating Methodology for a Conservatoire Botanique National

"Protecting requires knowledge"

Before defining priorities for action, the plant taxa becoming rare must be clearly defined. Thus the initial task involves taking precise inventory of local floras and establishing databases on these species (stations, ecology, phytosociology, etc.). Analysis of these elements enables the listing of priority taxa which require special conservation action. These lists usually correspond to officially protected species, either on a regional, national or a European level (Bern Convention, Habitats Directive, etc.)

In situ conservation

The CBNs particularly focus on conservation of species in their habitat, since this is the most appropriate way of developing long-term preservation of threatened plant taxa. Management steps (sometimes quite simple) help re-establish a balance favourable to these species. Further protective action (creating natural reserves, biotope legislation, etc.) guarantees the environment's survival. In some cases, it may be necessary to reinforce depleted populations or to create new stations in adequate environments. All these operations are carried out within the framework of a very precise professional code of ethics once the scientific advisors have given their assent.

These conservation actions are often implemented in collaboration with managers of public spaces (regional conservatories for natural spaces, National Office of Forests, etc.)

Ex situ conservation

Creating gene banks and cultivating the most endangered species both complement and reinforce in situ conservation. These provide true backstop stock drawn from species which are greatly regressing or which are highly threatened in their natural environment. Very precise rules must be followed to guarantee genetic viability of the species: representative samples are gathered over the entire population; the taxa are cultivated en masse, avoiding any hybridisation between close species or different populations of the same species. Various methods are recommended to conserve seeds: cold storage (+5°C), freezing (-20°C) or using the freeze-drying technique. Germination tests are run at regular intervals to check the germinating power of the seeds.

Education and Information

The last (but not the least) task of the Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux is that of informing and educating the public. The Conservatories play a role in informing elected officials, public authorities, and decision-makers. They show them the interest of preserving the biological heritage and alert them when development projects endanger the stations of threatened species. The CBNs also provide the perfect setting to accommodate the public (especially school groups). Teaching teams set up educational programmes on the environment and conservation, in each CBN.

The Originality of CBNs

Along with the major focus on in situ conservation in their actions, the originality of CBNs lies in the partnerships and linkages they develop. In fact, they form an interface between university researchers, managers of natural spaces, associations for nature preservation and local authorities. They play an important, consensus-generating role in mobilising energy and gathering the means required to preserve plant biodiversity. They are also technical tools serving the community.

The CBNs' originality also lies in their diversity. Thus, although they work together, they remain independent operators. Moreover, the mission of "Conservatoire Botanique" is not incompatible with developing other activities. The Conservatoires at Gap and at Porquerolles also preserve local cultivars, that of Bailleul is also a renowned centre for phyto-sociology. Nancy has a long-standing tradition as botanic gardens and Brest conducts action for conservation on an international scale.

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Specificity of Nancy and Brest

As we represent the CBNs of Nancy and Brest, allow us to say a few words about our respective conservatories.

Since 1990, Nancy's Conservatoire and Botanic Gardens have ensured the specific mission related to their ministry approval as the CBN of Nancy. Working in relation with a wide-ranging network of partners (public institutions, space managers, associations, universities, etc.) Nancy's CBN invests over a territory of over 57 000 hectares. The floristic heritage of its assigned territory (Lorraine, Alsace and Champagne-Ardenne regions) represents approximately 3 000 species of flowering plants. Beyond our routine activities, we are devoting more particular efforts in favour of wild flora in the following environments which make up a major part of the natural landscapes in north-eastern France: calcareous plateaux, forests, peat bogs, lakes and ponds, and water meadows.

To date, approximately 50 high-priority species (in great danger of extinction) are protected through conservation programmes which link the preservation of their biotopes (in situ conservation) and ex situ conservation action. These can later develop into recovery plans to improve the status of relict populations in the wild.

Our approved CBN status requires that we develop actions in favour of the local floristic heritage. This assignment complements those carried out within the more general framework of our botanical gardens.

In fact, the Conservatoire and botanic gardens of Nancy also play an active part in the network of French Botanic Gardens (JBF). We manage two sites. The first is the Botanic Garden of Montet (in Nancy's urban district) and the second is the Altitude Garden of Haut Chitelet in the heart of the Vosges mountains.

Thus the Conservatoire and Botanic Gardens of Nancy belong to the two networks in France which are progressively seeking to draw closer, the actions undertaken by some (Botanic Gardens) being very closely linked to the missions of others (CBNs).

Now, let us turn to Brest's Conservatoire Botanique. It is not a conventional botanic garden, strictly speaking. It was created in 1975 with the single mission of saving threatened species world-wide. From its inception, it has worked on two levels: on a local scale to monitor endangered flora of the Massif Armoricain and on an international scale for the preservation of threatened species on ocean islands.

Brest's Conservatoire Botanique was also awarded the "Conservatoire Botanique National" label in 1990 by the Ministry of the Environment, covering the bio-geographical entity made up by the Massif Armoricain. Its interventions take place in three administrative regions (Bretagne, Pays de Loire and Normandie). It conducts mainly in situ conservation action with several partners (environmental protection, station management, reinforcements when needed). For instance, taking appropriate measures enabled an increase in the Narcissus endemic to the Glénan islands in southern Brittany (Narcissus triandrus ssp.capax) from less than 5 000 specimens in 1980 to over 100 000 specimens in 1998.

The Conservatoire de Brest also co-ordinates a general inventory of the flora in the Massif Armoricain thanks to a network of 250 volunteers, which should lead to the publication of an atlas. This work provides a quantitative evolution of local flora: 250 species have been given high-priority status and are thus subject to special monitoring.

Lastly, ex situ conservation provides back up to in situ conservation efforts as well as better understanding of some problems related to reproductive biology.

On the international scale, the Brest CNB mainly works to conserve threatened floras on ocean islands. These environments usually harbour highly endemic species which, unfortunately, are greatly disturbed by various human activities (introduction of plant and animal pests that progressively eliminate local species, deforestation, environmental destruction, etc.)

More especially, ex situ conservation operations are carried out in collaboration with local partners, giving priority to species which are nearing total extinction. These can actually be called rescue operations. Currently, over a thousand extremely rare species are cultivated in the Brest CNB's greenhouses. Several species have been reintroduced, such as Ruizia cordata, endemic to Réunion island which was virtually extinct in the wild, or Normannia triphylla, an extinct species endemic to Madeira. For others, propagation programmes have been run, such as for Cylindrocline lorencei, an extinct species endemic to Mauritius, which for the moment is cultivated only in Brest.

Brest also belongs to the two French networks of JBF and CBN. We feel that French botanic gardens must devote their efforts to preserving threatened species, not only on a local scale, but also on an international scale, through co-operation and partnership linkages.

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A few thoughts on botanical gardens and conservatories in France

We can say that CBNs were set up in France because at the time, for various reasons, the problem of threatened plants was not taken into account by most botanic gardens. Today, things have changed. The JBF (French botanic gardens) association has drawn up a charter and focused its entire interest on conserving the most threatened local plant species and educating the public. Some botanic gardens have become privileged partners for CBNs, pooling their conservation actions. Others are considering applying for the label of "Conservatoire Botanique National" for regions not yet covered by the CBN network.


We have tried to give you a very rapid overview of plant conservation in France, through the means of Conservatoires and Botanic Gardens. We are convinced that the prime goal of botanical gardens in the 21st century will be that of preserving biodiversity. Although we do not always have sufficient means at our disposal, we must prove our indispensable role in successfully carrying out both in situ and ex situ conservation action. We'd like to congratulate the BGCI for the excellent work it has done in this field and in organising this conference. We'd also like take the opportunity provided by this meeting to call for better co-operation between all countries in order to set up new Gardens or Conservatories in the regions which have many plant species but few botanic garden facilities.

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Copyright 1999 NBI