rosy saxifrage


A plant that had gone extinct in the wild, rosy saxifrage, has been reintroduced to the UK mainland.

The exact location is kept secret to ensure its safety. This single plant symbolises a significant step in conservation, especially with one in six species in the UK currently endangered.

Pioneering horticulturist Robbie Blackhall-Miles returned the plant to its native soil.

The plants he nurtures there are so valuable that insurance isn’t even an option. Robbie is cautious about revealing too much because the illegal trade in rare plants can fetch thousands of pounds.

“There’s only 30 of those trees left in the world,” he says, pointing at a pot.

His nursery is filled with trays of seedlings, bags of soil, and flourishing plants, with thermometers hanging to monitor the climate. Robbie, tall and energetic, speaks passionately about his work.

His expertise is well-known in botanical circles, and he now works for Plantlife, a conservation charity.

“If you think about British biodiversity like a jigsaw puzzle – all the pieces are really important, but some are missing,” he says.

Robbie’s goal, in collaboration with the National Trust and Natural Resources Wales, is to restore biodiversity by reintroducing the extinct rosy saxifrage—a plant he refers to as a “mountain jewel”—to Eryri, also known as Snowdonia.

The last recorded sighting of the rosy saxifrage in the wild in the UK was in 1962 in the Cwm Idwal nature reserve in Eryri.

To explore this habitat, Robbie and National Trust ranger Rhys Weldon-Roberts trekked around a lake to a place ominously called Devil’s Kitchen, or Twll Du in Welsh.

Robbie frequently stopped to point out surviving rare plants thriving under the boulders.

The rosy saxifrage is listed as extinct but Robbie, a skilled climber, still double-checked. “I’ve been up there on ropes, looking for it for six summers, just in case we were wrong,” he says, pointing up at sheer cliff faces.

“The rosy saxifrage is about as a native as you can get in the UK,” Robbie says, perched on a rock looking serenely out on this dramatic landscape.

Part of a family of mountain plants that flourished during the Ice Age, rosy saxifrage faced extinction due to plant collectors and habitat loss exacerbated by poorly managed grazing. By 1962, it had vanished from the UK mainland.

In an almost folkloric twist, teacher and conservationist Dick Roberts discovered a fragment of the plant during a school trip to Cwm Idwal.

He took it home and successfully cultivated it in his garden. Today, all rosy saxifrage plants in the UK mainland trace their lineage back to that single fragment. About a decade ago, Robbie received a cutting from this lineage to care for.

“I feel quite humbled to be working with part of Dick Roberts’ legacy,” he says.

Reintroducing a species with its native genetic material is rare; often, related species are used instead. The European beaver, for example, was reintroduced using its continental relatives.

But Robbie says, holding it in his hands: “This is from cuttings of cuttings of cuttings of that original Welsh material.”

The UK has seen dramatic changes in its natural environment over the decades. With one in six species threatened and a 19% loss in monitored species over the last 30-40 years, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.

Julia Jones, a conservation professor at Bangor University, came to Cwm Idwal to discuss the significance of reintroducing the rosy saxifrage.

While a single plant won’t transform the UK’s nature, Prof Jones views it as a flagship species—a poignant reminder of the losses we’ve endured.

But Prof Jones says that this re-introduction acts as a flagship and “a reminder of just how much we have lost”.

High-profile plant reintroductions are rare, as most efforts focus on animals like the beaver or the white-tailed sea eagle, which tend to capture public interest more readily. The concept of “plant blindness”—where people overlook the importance of plants in ecosystems—is prevalent despite plants’ crucial roles.

A few days ago, after a decade of preparation, the moment to reintroduce the rosy saxifrage arrived. At a secret location in Eryri, a small group, including ranger Rhys Weldon-Roberts, gathered in the rain. Rhys will keep a vigilant eye on the plant to deter collectors.

“Hopefully the day comes when this is no longer rare and everyone who visits will be able to appreciate it,” he says.

For Robbie Blackhall-Miles, this moment marked the pinnacle of his career.

Carrying crates of the plant, Robbie led us to the reintroduction site. The plants had transformed, with long stems and delicate white flowers.

“I love these flowers – they shine up at you,” Robbie says.

After carefully preparing the soil, Robbie planted the mountain jewels back into their native habitat.

“That’s OK – in Latin saxifrage means rock-breaker.”

Visibly emotional, Robbie celebrated this career-defining moment, reintroducing a species into a landscape he deeply loves.

“In Welsh, we have a wonderful word adferiad, which means restitution or restoration,” he continues. “I’m absolutely over the moon.”



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