Archaeological site in Lebanon becomes unlikely location for plant conservation breakthrough
Now the symbolic and endemic plant is bouncing back from the verge of local extinction thanks to work by Lebanese researchers
Nestled between the monuments of a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Tyre in Lebanon, a small population of a beautiful reddish flower, Astragalus berytheus, is once again thriving and blooming. The site showcases important archaeological remains of a Phoenician city, meaning that any plant growth was routinely cleared off – making this an unlikely site for plant conservation. That was until a CEPF-funded team from the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut began work.
A. berytheus is one of the most threatened plant taxa in Lebanon. Endemic to the eastern Mediterranean coast, historically the species was known from five localities in Lebanon, but due to urban sprawl in coastal areas of Beirut, four populations went extinct, leaving one last population in the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve – not far from the archaeological site.
“This flower is named after Beirut, so it is symbolic to us”, says Professor Magda Bou Dagher, leader of a research team the University. “This is just another reason for conserving it.”
The University was granted by BirdLife (through its role as Regional Implementation Team for the Mediterranean Hotspot of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)) to conserve this symbolic flower. A new conservation approach, circum-situ conservation, is being tested through their project.
The circum-situ conservation technique consists of introducing plants, grown from seeds germinated out of their natural environment, in a protected area with ecological attributes similar to the species’ original habitat. The research team took stored A. berytheus seeds that had been collected from wild population together with some seeds collected from the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve and germinated them in the laboratory through ex-situ conservation. In an unfortunate setback though, many seeds did not germinate or were infected with parasites.
Some seeds did germinate successfully, however, and were later introduced into the similar environment of the Tyre archaeological site in April 2020. With a lot at stake, the research team’s nerves were as tight as violin strings. Fortunately, 11 plantlets out of 13 continued growing to cover a large area.
In March 2021, the team’s efforts were rewarded when they saw flowers bearing healthy fruits and seeds. Since A. berytheus is a biennial plant, producing healthy fruits and seeds is crucial for its survival.
The unexpected results amazed Dr. Ali Badawi, the Tyre archaeological site manager, who, at the beginning, had concerns about the impacts of these flowers on the monuments. The workers within the archeological site used to remove all plants from the site as it may cause damage on the monuments or inconvenience to the site visitors as the invasive species did.
Changing this mentality needed extra efforts from the team. But working on a project funded by CEPF gave the team the credibility to work in plant conservation and testing a new innovative approach. After taking the approval of the Directorate General of Antiquities, the research team worked with Dr. Badawi to define the most suitable place to grow A. berytheus, in an area away from tourist trails but still visible to visitors.
One year later, the aesthetic view of the growing flowers encouraged Dr. Badawi to offer other areas within the archaeological site to plant this symbolic plant, and other native species. He also appointed a focal point to be in direct contact with the research team for any support needed.
To ensure the survival of this amazing flower, the research team will follow up this flower for the upcoming three years. They will introduce new seedlings into the site and take seedlings from the site to germinate in the laboratory. This will ensure the gene flow through seeds, thus ensure having a rich genetic base that will help the plant to survive. This project and its approach can be replicated in other archaeological sites in Lebanon.
They will also identify the invasive species and ensure, as they always do, removing those cause a serious threat to this small flower. They will take this opportunity to raise the awareness of visitors about endemic plants in Lebanon and the importance of plant conservation.