The process of hybridization is a major force in the evolution of plants - much more so than in the animal kingdom.
Plants of related species often cross-pollinate to produce fertile hybrids, which can reproduce themselves or back-cross with the ‘parent’ species to produce hybrid swarms. Some hybrids do not reproduce sexually, but can effectively clone themselves to produce new microspecies. And some hybridization events produce entirely new species, often by doubling their chromosome number, in which case the offspring contain all the DNA of both parents.
The process of hybridization often occurs when plants find themselves growing near related species that they would not normally be found with in the wild. Introducing exotic species, disturbing natural ecosystems and altering the distribution of plants through climate change are all ways in which human activity can facilitate hybridization. The responses of plants to these changes are well worth studying.
Hybrids, despite often being difficult to identify, should not be ignored. They may reflect subtle changes in the environment, or they may be the best possible adaptation of wild plants to climate change. Hybridization is neither good nor bad, but it is inevitable.
The hybridization project is funded by the BSBI and is the only strategic initiative on this subject in the UK, despite its importance for conservation, land management and ecology.