J.I. Cubero,
ETSIAM, Cordoba, Spain

Germplasm collections became a priority in the last fifty years but they had already been formed and studied for at least two centuries. Obviously, different historical periods collected different vegetal materials and emphasized diverse scientific and practical objectives. Germplasm collections have produced many facts out of which valuable scientific theories have been proposed. Their “balance sheet” clearly being positive, there are however some negative points in their formation and handling which should be converted also in positive experience for the future.

First collections consciously maintained as much probably were those of medical plants kept in many monasteries during the Middle Ages. The empirical pharmacological knowledge obtained from them is out of the scope of the present paper. Monasteries also maintained garden plants whose number was increasing
following East-West contacts (as Crusades were). The interest in keeping and studying these materials motivated the creation of the first botanical gardens, not surprisingly by universities (Padua being the first one in 1945). Private collections of tulips triggered the first recorded “plant collection fever” as well as the first intense plants breeding activity as early as in the XVI century in The Netherlands. Collections performed by of both private and public organizations were continuous since that time until now. Most, if not all, collected plants till the end of the XIX century were ornamentals. The increased importance of the professional plant breeding motivated the first collections of varieties of agricultural interest. Extensive germplasm collections were performed during the first third of our century, with H.V. Harlan and, especially, N.I. Vavilov as outstanding names in this field.

Among the many positive facts derived from germplasm collections worth mentioning are: (1) the foundation of very precise taxonomic systems derived from the accurate description of varieties and forms of ornamental interest requested by gardeners from professional botanists in the first half of the XVIII century; (2) the interchange and ex situ domestication of valuable materials probably since the end of the XVIII century; (3) the knowledge of phytogeographical areas around the world as a consequence of the precise description of collecting sites; (4) the always increasing scientific interest in describing the amazing amount of variation recorded in living collections, which lead to the establishment of the modern Plant Systematics; (5) countless varieties of commercial use in all fields, both purposely and unconsciously (through accidental hybridizations in maintained living collections), and new methods to obtain them (wide and narrow crosses, for example) which were transferred to the common scientific practice (not to be forgot: Mendel selected his pea lines out of a living commercial collection maintained in his monastery); (6) experimental knowledge on population dynamics, as the well known Vavilov’s laws of “parallel variation” and “migration of recessives” in cultivated plants; (7) a deep insight into the origin and evolution of cultivated plants as well as on the host-parasite co-evolution and on the causes of genetic erosion; (8) a strong- effort on setting up priorities in germplasm conservation and on the best technical ways to implement them, and a long etcetera.

There are also some negative aspects on germplasm collections, or rather on germplasm amassing; among others; equipment for such a delicate task, a problem already detected in the XIX century and not yet completely solved; (2) development, especially at the national level, of a “stamp collector syndrome”, i.e.., collecting because nowadays it is a fashionable task, having the required infrastructure but not having clear ideas on why and how to use or to study the material collected; (3) spoliation of natural environment on behalf of commercial and/or scientific interests; (4) jealousy at many levels (personal, professional, national and supranational) which hinders a correct flow of information.

While still learning in a positive way from plant collections, our best contribution for the next future could certainly be to eliminate the negative aspects that preclude the right use of actual germplasm collections.


Darlington CD, 1973, Chromosome Botany and the Origins of Cultivated Plants. Hafner Press, New York.

Harlan HV, 1957, One man’s life with barley. Exposition Press, New York.

Harlan JR, 1975, Crops and Man. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, Wis.

Olby R, 1985, Origins of Mendelism. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Vavilov NI, 1949/50. The origin, variation, immunity and breeding of cultivated plants. The Chronica Botanica Co., Waltham, Mass.