Obituary: Hugh Synge 1951 - 2018

Andy Byfield

Andy Byfield

Plantlife Founder

7th September 2018


Hugh Synge

Hugh Synge has always had plants in his blood. His father was one of those rare things – an accomplished botanist and horticulturist, who played key roles in the Royal Horticultural Society over decades. This love of plants must have rubbed off onto Hugh, though Hugh’s passion very much revolved around their conservation, for which he was a passionate advocate and a leader in the field. In 2010, BBC Wildlife Magazine voted him one of the UK’s top 20 conservation heroes.

Trained in horticulture at Wye College, he volunteered at Kew’s herbarium during the 1970s, though it was not long before he was taken on a member of staff, producing the world’s first red data book for threatened plants with Gren Lucas in 1979. He soon became a leading figure in development of many of the key international plant conservation initiatives of the time, displaying a unique ability to both identify conservation needs as well as pragmatic approaches to their conservation. Thus, he helped to develop the plant conservation programme for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); acted as consultant to the World Health Organisation on the conservation of medicinal plants; set up the threatened plants database for Europe; and forged links between botanic gardens across the globe, encouraging them to work on conservation issues together, to mention just a few. In the late 1980s he joined forces with five others to found Plantlife.

Hugh was measured in manner and meticulous in detail, with an extraordinary skill in getting projects off the ground. He shunned the limelight, instead working behind the scenes, seemingly never happier than when confronted with a report to write, a conference proceedings to edit, or a meeting to minute. His list of contacts in the world of plant conservation and botanic gardens was legendary, something he drew on in later years as co-founder of the magazine Plant Talk, which ran for 44 issues over 11 years.

Hugh asked me to organise an autumn jaunt to Turkey for a few of his close friends, to enjoy autumn cyclamen, crocus and snowdrops under warm Mediterranean skies for one last time. It was not to be. He died of cancer on 4 August at the age of 67, and his quiet enthusiasm for all things plants will be missed by many in the conservation world.