Kew builds global wood library

Kew builds global wood library


The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is the natural home for the wood sample reference collection of World Forest ID (WFID).

Trees have been among Kew’s most prized possessions since it was turned from royal estate into public botanic gardens in 1840.  Today it has over 14,000 across its 300 hectares, comprising more than 2,000 species from every part of the planet.

What drove development of Kew was the Victorians’ unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the natural world. That sheer passion for trees and plants remains undimmed and now, along with near two centuries of horticultural and arboricultural knowledge, it is also being turned to address the threats facing them.

Kew’s laboratories are focusing on adverse environmental impacts of human activity on the plant world. They’re looking at how its variety supports wider biodiversity and, notably, the role of forests in carbon storage and climate regulation and how they can be maintained to combat global warming.   

This work is exemplified by Kew’s involvement with WFID and its mission to enable use of latest, science-based traceability methods to monitor and police the market in the world’s  most traded wood species and help crack down on illegal logging. 

Central to the project is its library of geo-referenced samples of these target species gathered worldwide, with WFID estimating that it will ultimately contain up to 500,000.

Making Kew even more the obvious place to house this is its experience curating other large natural material collections. Its sister site at Wakehurst holds the Millennium Seedbank, storing 2.4 billion seeds, and Kew itself has one of the world’s  largest herbaria, a collection of 7 million preserved plants.  

Arriving at Kew in their individually bar-coded collection bags, the WFID samples undergo a thorough quarantine process.   Methods of analysis then undertaken at its Jodrell laboratories include examination with the XyloTron macroscopic imaging tool. This connects to an international database of images, where a machine learning algorithm uses pattern recognition to match species. It is additionally using its new £250,000 DART Mass Spectrometry (DART-TOFMS) machine and cross references samples with the herbarium for leaf, fruit and seed identification.

It also despatches sections of the samples to other members of the WFID consortium for double checking and further types of analysis. The resulting data is then available for cross-referencing against analysis of traded timber to verify species and provenance.

“We’re also working with organisations in other countries to build their sampling and analysis capacity,”  said Dr Victor Deklerck,  wood anatomy and timber identification specialist and WFID Research Team Leader at Kew. “What makes WFID unique in this field is having such a diverse group of experts worldwide, with access to all the analysis techniques. It’s a really strong consortium.”

Kew’s involvement with WFID, he added, is a long-term commitment, a natural addition to its other work supporting diversity in the natural world and maintenance of its forests. 


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Ellen Powley