Resurrecting Café Marron

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Back in 1980, a school teacher on the island of Rodrigues sent his students out to look for plants. One of the students brought back a cutting of a shrub that astounded the botanical community. Ramosmania rodriguesii, more commonly known as café marron, was up until that point only known from one botanical description dating back to the 1800's. The shrub, which is a member of the coffee family, was thought to have been extinct due to pressures brought about during the colonization of the island (goats, invasive species, etc.). What the boy brought back was indeed a specimen of café marron but the individual he found turned out to be the only remaining plant on the island.

News of the plant quickly spread. It started to attract a lot of attention, not all of which was good. There is a belief among the locals that the plant is an herbal remedy for hangovers and venereal disease (hence its common name translates to ‘brown coffee’) and because of that, poaching was rampant. Branches and leaves were being hauled off at a rate that was sure to kill this single individual. It was so bad that multiple layers of fencing had to be erected to keep people away. It was clear that more was needed to save this shrub from certain extinction.

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Cuttings were taken and sent to Kew. After some trial and tribulation, a few of the cuttings successfully rooted. The clones grew and flourished. They even flowered on a regular basis. For a moment it looked like this plant had a chance. Unfortunately, café marron did not seem to want to self-pollinate. It was looking like this species was going to remain a so-called “living dead” representative of a species no longer able to live in the wild. That is until Carlos Magdalena (the man who saved the rarest water lily from extinction) got his hands on the plants.

The key to saving café marron was to somehow bypass its anti-selfing mechanism. Because so little was known about its biology, there was a lot of mystery surrounding its breeding mechanism. Though plenty of flowers were produced, it would appear that the only thing working on the plant were its anthers. They could get viable pollen but none of the stigmas appeared to be receptive. Could it be that the last remaining individual (and all of its subsequent clones) were males?

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This is where a little creativity and a lot of experience paid off. During some experiments with the flowers, it was discovered that by amputating the top of the stigma and placing pollen directly onto the wound one could coax fertilization ans fruiting. From that initial fruit, seven seeds were produced. These seeds were quickly sent to the propagation lab but unfortunately the seedlings were never able to establish. Still, this was the first indication that there was some hope left for the café marron.

After subsequent attempts at the stigma amputation method ended in failure, it was decided that perhaps something about the growing conditions of the first plant were the missing piece of this puzzle. Indeed, by repeating the same conditions the first individual was exposed to, Carlos and his team were able to coax some changes out of the flowering efforts of some clones. Plants growing in warmer conditions started to produce flowers of a slightly different morphology towards the end of the blooming cycle. After nearly 300 attempts at pollinating these flowers, a handful of fruits were formed!

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From these fruits, over 100 viable seeds were produced. What’s more, these seeds germinated and the seedlings successfully established. Even more exciting, the seedlings were a healthy mix of both male and female plants. Carlos and his team learned a lot about the biology of this species in the process. Thanks to their dedicated work, we now know that café marron is protandrous meaning its male flowers are produced before female flowers.

However, the story doesn’t end here. Something surprising happened as the seedlings continued to grow. The resulting offspring looked nothing like the adult plant. Whereas the adult plant has round, green leaves, the juveniles were brownish and lance shaped. This was quite a puzzle but not entirely surprising because the immature stage of this shrub was not known to science. Amazingly, as the plants matured they eventually morphed into the adult form. It would appear that there is more to the mystery of this species than botanists ever realized. The question remained, why go through such drastically different life stages?

A young café marron showing its brown, mottled, lance-shaped leaves.

A young café marron showing its brown, mottled, lance-shaped leaves.

The answer has to do with café marron's natural predator, a species of giant tortoise. The tortoises are attracted to the bright green leaves of the adult plant. By growing dull, brown, skinny leaves while it is still at convenient grazing height, the plant makes itself almost invisible to the tortoise. It is not until the plant is out of the range of this armoured herbivore that it morphs into its adult form. Essentially the young plants camouflage themselves from the most prominent herbivore on the island.

Thanks to the efforts of Carlos and his team at Kew, over 1000 seeds have been produced and half of those seeds were sent back to Rodrigues to be used in restoration efforts. As of 2010, 300 of those seed have been germinated, opening up many more opportunities for reintroduction into the wild. Those early trials will set the stage for more restoration efforts in the future. It is rare that we see such an amazing success story when it comes to such an endangered species. We must celebrate these efforts because they remind us to keep trying even if all hope seems to be lost. My hat is off to Carlos and the dedicated team of plant conservationists and growers at Kew.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

A New Species of Waterfall Specialist Has Been Discovered In Africa

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At first glance, this odd plant doesn’t look very special. However, it is the first new member of the family Podostemaceae to be found in Africa in over 30 years. It has been given the name Lebbiea grandiflora and it was discovered during a survey to assess the impacts of a proposed hydroelectric dam. By examining the specimen, Kew botanists quickly realized this plant was unique. Sadly, if all goes according to plan, this species may not be long for this world unless something is done to preserve it.

Members of the family Podostemaceae are strange plants. Despite how delicate they look, these plants specialize in growing submersed on rocks in waterfalls, rapids, and other fast flowing bodies of water. They are generally small plants, though some species can grow to lengths of 3 ft. (1 m) or more. The best generalization one can make about this group is that they like clean, fast-flowing water with plenty of available rock surfaces to grow on.

Lebbiea grandiflora certainly fits this description. It is native to a small portion of Sierra Leone and Guinea where it grows on slick rock surfaces only during the wet season. As the dry season approaches and the rivers shrink in size, L. grandiflora quickly sets seed and dies.

As mentioned, the area in which this plant was discovered is slated for the construction of a large hydroelectric dam. The building of this dam will most certainly destroy the entire population of this plant. As soon as water slows, becomes more turbid, and sediments build up, most Podostemaceae simply disappear. Unfortunately, I appears this plant was in trouble even before the dam came into the picture.

A. habit, whole plant, in fruit, showing the flat root, a pillar-like ‘haptera’, and a shoot with three inflorescences, B. detail of shoot with three branches, C. view of upper surface of a flattened root, with six short, erect shoots, each with 1–2 1-flowered inflorescences emerging from spathellum remains, D. side view of plant showing, on the lower surface of the flattened root, the pillar-like haptera, branched at base; upper surface of root with spathellum-sheathed inflorescence base, E. plant attached to rock by weft of thread-like root hairs (indicated with arrow) from base of pillar-like haptera; upper surface of flattened root with two shoots, F. side view of flower showing one of two tepals in full frontal view, G. as F. with tepal removed, exposing the gynoecium with, to left, the arched-over androecium, H. side view of flower with androecium in centre, two tepals flanking the gynoecium, I. androecium (leftmost of three anthers missing), J. transverse section of andropodium, K. view of gynoecium from above showing funneliform style-stigma base, L. fruit, dehisced, M. transverse section of bilocular fruit, showing septum and placentae, N. placentae with seeds, divided by septum, O. seeds, P. seed with mucilage outer layer. Drawn by Andrew Brown from  Lebbie  A2721  [SOURCE]

A. habit, whole plant, in fruit, showing the flat root, a pillar-like ‘haptera’, and a shoot with three inflorescences, B. detail of shoot with three branches, C. view of upper surface of a flattened root, with six short, erect shoots, each with 1–2 1-flowered inflorescences emerging from spathellum remains, D. side view of plant showing, on the lower surface of the flattened root, the pillar-like haptera, branched at base; upper surface of root with spathellum-sheathed inflorescence base, E. plant attached to rock by weft of thread-like root hairs (indicated with arrow) from base of pillar-like haptera; upper surface of flattened root with two shoots, F. side view of flower showing one of two tepals in full frontal view, G. as F. with tepal removed, exposing the gynoecium with, to left, the arched-over androecium, H. side view of flower with androecium in centre, two tepals flanking the gynoecium, I. androecium (leftmost of three anthers missing), J. transverse section of andropodium, K. view of gynoecium from above showing funneliform style-stigma base, L. fruit, dehisced, M. transverse section of bilocular fruit, showing septum and placentae, N. placentae with seeds, divided by septum, O. seeds, P. seed with mucilage outer layer. Drawn by Andrew Brown from Lebbie A2721 [SOURCE]

As mentioned, Podostemaceae need clean rock surfaces on which to germinate and grow. Without them, the seedlings simply can’t get established. Mining operations further upstream of the Sewa Rapids have been dumping mass quantities of sediment into the river for years. All of this sediment eventually makes it down into L. grandiflora territory and chokes out available germination sites.

Alarmed at the likely extinction of this new species, the Kew team wanted to try and find other populations of L. grandiflora. Amazingly, one other population was found growing in a river near Koukoutamba, Guinea. Sadly, the discovery of this additional population is bitter sweet as the World Bank is apparently backing another hydro-electric dam project on that river as well.

The only hope for the continuation of this species currently will be to (hopefully) find more populations and collect seed to establish ex situ populations both in other rivers as well as in captivity if possible. To date, no successful purposeful seeding of any Podostemaceae has been reported (if you know of any, please speak up!). Currently L. grandiflora has been given “Critically Endangered” status by the IUCN and the botanists responsible for its discovery hope that, coupled with the publication of this new species description, more can be done to protect this small rheophytic herb.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

1,730 New Plant Species Were Described in 2016

Manihot debilis

Manihot debilis

The discovery of a new animal species is celebrated the world over. At the same time, plants are lucky to ever make headlines. This is a shame considering that plants form the backbone of all terrestrial ecosystems. The conversation is starting to change, however, as more and more people are waking up to the fact that plants are fascinating organisms in their own right. In a recent addition of Kew Garden's State of the World's Plants, they report on 1,730 newly described plant species from all over the world.

Begonia rubrobracteolata

The discovery of these new plants species is truly a global event. Central and South America, Africa, tropical Asia, and Madagascar saw the addition of many intriguing taxonomic novelties. For instance, Malaysia can now add 29 new species of Begonia to their flora. Africa can now boast to be the home of the largest species of Bougainvillea in the world. Standing at 3 meters in height, it is an impressive sight to behold. Madagascar was particularly fruitful (pun intended), adding 150 new species, subspecies, and varieties of Croton all thanks to the diligent work of the late Alan Radcliffe-Smith. 

Commicarpus macrothamnum  Photo Credit: Ib Friis

Commicarpus macrothamnum Photo Credit: Ib Friis

One of the most exciting finds from Madagascar was a new genus of climbing bamboos named Sokinochloa. So far only 7 species have been named. The key to unlocking the diversity of this new genus lies in their flowers, which are not produced on a regular basis. Like many bamboos, the Sokinochloa produce flowers at intervals of 10 to 50+ years. The new discoveries did not consist entirely of small understory herbs either. Some of those 1,730 plants were massive forest trees.

Sokinochloa australis

Sokinochloa australis

One of these new tree species is Africa's first endemic species of Calophyllum (Calophyllaceae). They were discovered during a survey for a uranium mine and, with fewer than 10 mature individuals, are considered critically endangered. Expeditions in Central America and the Andes turned up 27 new tree species in the genus Sloanea (Elaeocarpaceae) as well as 10 new species Trichilia, a genus of trees belonging to the mahogany family (Meliaceae).

The list could go on and on. Even more exiting is the fact that 2016 wasn't a particularly exceptional year for new plant discoveries. An estimated 2,000 new plant species are discovered on an annual basis. We aren't even close to grasping the full extent of plant diversity on this planet. What plants desperately need, however, is more attention. More attention leads to more scrutiny, more scrutiny leads to better understanding, and better understanding leads to improved conservation efforts. We could be doing a lot better with conservation efforts if we considered the plants whose very existence is essential for all life as we know it.

Barleria mirabilis  Photo Credit :  Quentin Luke

Barleria mirabilis Photo Credit: Quentin Luke

Tibouchina rosanae  Photo Credit: W Milliken

Tibouchina rosanae Photo Credit: W Milliken

Englerophytum paludosum  Photo Credit: Xander van der Burgt

Englerophytum paludosum Photo Credit: Xander van der Burgt

You can download your own copy of the State of the World's Plants by clicking here

All photos thanks to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew unless otherwise noted.

Important Lessons From Ascension Island

Located in the middle of the South Atlantic, Ascension Island is probably not on the top of anyone's travel list. This bleak volcanic island doesn't have much to offer the casual tourist but what it lacks in amenities it makes up for in a rich and bizarre history. Situated about 2,200 km east of Brazil and 3,200 km west of Angola, this remote island is home to one of the most remarkable ecological experiments that is rarely talked about. The roots of this experiment stem back to a peculiar time in history and the results have so much to teach the human species about botany, climate, extinction, speciation, and much more. What follows is not a complete story; far from it actually. However, my hope is that you can take away some lessons from this and, at the very least, use it as a jumping off point for future discussions. 

Ascension Island is, as land masses go, quite young. It arose from the ocean floor a mere 1 million years ago and is the result of intense volcanic activity. Estimates suggest that volcanism was still shaping this island as little as 1000 years ago. Its volcanic birth, young age, isolated conditions, and nearly non-existent soils meant that for most of its existence, Ascension Island was a depauperate place. It was essentially a desert island. Early sailors saw it as little more than a stopover point to gather turtles and birds to eat as they sailed on to other regions. It wasn't until 1815 that any permanent settlements were erected on Ascension. 

In looking for an inescapable place to imprison Napoleon Bonaparte, the Royal Navy claimed Ascension in the name of King George III. Because Napoleon had a penchant for being an escape artist, the British decided to build a garrison on the island in order to make sure Napoleon would not be rescued. In doing so, the limitations of the island quickly became apparent. There were scant soils in which to grow vegetables and fresh water was nearly nonexistent. 

The native flora of Ascension was minimal. It is estimated that, until the island was settled, only about 25 to 30 plant species grew on the island. Of those 10 (2 grasses, 2 shrubs, and 6 ferns) were considered endemic. If the garrison was to persist, something had to be done. Thus, the Green Mountain garden was established. British marines planted this garden at an elevation of roughly 2000 feet. Here the thin soils supported a handful of different fruits and vegetables. In 1836, Ascension was visited by a man named Charles Darwin. Darwin took note of the farm that had developed and, although he admired the work that was done in making Ascension "livable" he also noted that the island was "destitute of trees."

One of Ascension Island's endemic ferns -  Pteris adscensionis

One of Ascension Island's endemic ferns - Pteris adscensionis

Others shared Darwin's sentiment. The prevailing view of this time period was that any land owned by the British empire must be transformed to support people. Thus, the wheels of 'progress' turned ever forward. Not long after Darwin's visit, a botanist by the name of Joseph Hooker paid a visit to Ascension. Hooker, who was a fan of Darwin's work, shared his sentiments on the paucity of vegetation on the island. Hooker was able to convince the British navy that vegetating the island would capture rain and improve the soil. With the support of Kew Gardens, this is exactly what happened. Thus began the terraforming of Green Mountain.

For about a decade, Kew shipped something to the tune of 330 different species of plants to be planted on Ascension Island. The plants were specifically chosen to withstand the harsh conditions of life on this volcanic desert in the middle of the South Atlantic. It is estimated that 5,000 trees were planted on the island between 1860 and 1870. Most of these species came from places like Argentina and South Africa. Soon, more plants and seeds from botanical gardens in London and Cape Town were added to the mix. The most incredible terraforming experiment in the world was underway on this tiny volcanic rock. 

By the late 1870's it was clear the the experiment was working. Trees like Norfolk pines (Araucaria heterophylla), Eucalyptus spp. and figs (Ficus spp.), as well as different species of banana and bamboo had established themselves along the slopes of Green Mountain. Where there was once little more than a few species of grass, there was now the start of a lush cloud forest. The vegetation community wasn't the only thing that started to change on Ascension. Along with it changed the climate. 

Estimates of rainfall prior to these terraforming efforts are sparse at best. What we have to go on are anecdotes and notes written down by early sailors and visitors. These reports, however, paint a picture of astounding change. Before terraforming began, it was said that few if any clouds ever passed overhead and rain rarely fell. Those living on the island during the decade or so of planting attested to the fact that as vegetation began to establish, the climate of the island began to change. One of the greatest changes was the rain. Settlers on the island noticed that rain storms were becoming more frequent. Also, as one captain noted "seldom more than a day passes over now without a shower or mist on the mountain." The development of forests on Ascension were causing a shift in the island's water cycle. 

Plants are essentially living straws. Water taken up by the roots travels through their tissues eventually evaporating from their leaves. The increase in plant life on the island was putting more moisture into the air. The humid microclimate of the forest understory cooled the surrounding landscape. Water that would once have evaporated was now lingering. Pools were beginning to form as developed soils retained additional moisture.

Now, if you are anything like me, at this point you must be thinking to yourself "but what about the native flora?!" You have every right to be concerned. I don't want to paint the picture that everything was fine and dandy on Ascension Island. It wasn't. Even before the terraforming experiment began, humans and other trespassers left their mark on the local biota. With humans inevitably comes animals like goats, donkeys, pigs, and rats. These voracious mammals went to work on the local vegetation. The early ecology that was starting to develop on Ascension was rocked by these animals. Things were only made worse when the planting began.

Of the 10 endemic plants native to Ascension Island, 3 went extinct, having been pushed out by all of the now invasive plant species brought to the island. Another endemic, the Ascension Island parsley fern (Anogramma ascensionis) was thought to be extinct until four plants were discovered in 2010. The native flora of Ascension island was, for the most part, marginalized by the introduction of so many invasive species. This fact was not lost of Joseph Hooker. He eventually came to regret his ignorance to the impacts terraforming would have on the native vegetation stating “The consequences to the native vegetation of the peak will, I fear, be fatal, and especially to the rich carpet of ferns that clothed the top of the mountain when I visited it." Still, some plants have adapted to life among their new neighbors. Many of the ferns that once grew terrestrially, can now be found growing epiphytically among the introduced trees on Green Mountain. 

The Ascension Island parsley fern ( Anogramma ascensionis )

The Ascension Island parsley fern (Anogramma ascensionis)

Today Ascension Island exists as a quandary for conservation ecologists. On the one hand the effort to protect and conserve the native flora and fauna of the island is of top priority. On the other hand, the existence of possibly the greatest terraforming effort in the world begs for ecological research and understanding. A balance must be sought if both goals are to be met. Much effort is being put forth to control invasive vegetation that is getting out of hand. For instance, the relatively recent introduction of a type of mesquite called the Mexican thorn (Prosopis juliflora) threatens the breeding habitat of the green sea turtle. Efforts to remove this aggressive species are now underway. Although it is far too late to reverse what has been done to Ascension Island, it nonetheless offers us something else that may be more important in the long run: perspective.

If anything, Ascension Island stands as a perfect example of the role plants play in regulating climate. The introduction of these 330+ plant species to Ascension Island and the subsequent development of a forest was enough to completely change the weather of that region. Where there was once a volcanic desert there is a now a cloud forest. With that forest came clouds and rain. If adding plants to an island can change the climate this much, imagine what the loss of plants from habitats around the world is doing. 

Each year an estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost from this planet. As human populations continue to rise, that number is only going to get bigger. It is woefully ignorant to assume that habitat destruction isn't having an influence on global climate. It is. Plants are habitat and when they go, so does pretty much everything else we hold near and dear (not to mention require for survival). If the story of Ascension does anything, I hope it serves as a reminder of the important role plants play in the function of the ecosystems of our planet. 

The endemic Ascension spurge ( Euphorbia origanoides )

The endemic Ascension spurge (Euphorbia origanoides)

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

The Smallest and Rarest Water Lily

Nymphaea thermarum is both the smallest and the rarest water lily in the world. It is so rare that it no longer exists in the wild. Back in 1987 it was discovered growing in the mud of a hot spring located in Rwanda, Africa. The botanist who discovered it, Eberhard Fischer, realized that it was quite rare and collected a few specimens to bring back to Germany. Indeed it has never been found growing anywhere else. This was a wise decision on his part because after decades of habitat degradation, the hot spring was destroyed by locals in order to divert water for laundry. 

For years, the original specimens were not doing so hot in captivity. It was looking like this species was going to be lost forever. That was until a handful of seedlings ended up in the hands of plant germination specialist Carlos Magdalena of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Carlos saw a challenge in this species and realized that his efforts could possibly be the last chance this species had at survival. 

Carlos tried many avenues of approach to growing this species and none seemed to be working. He messed with water chemistry, nutrients, and water depth, all the while the plants seemed to languish, never reaching maturity. In a final attempt to make things work, Carlos returned to the original literature. Here he found something interesting. Apparently, N. thermarum was not growing in water at all. Instead, it seemed to only grow in the wet mud surrounding the hot spring. 

This was the key that unlocked the door to propagating this species. Instead of growing this water lily submerged like every other water lily species, Carlos decided to grow the plants as they once grew in the wild, in mud. This was it! Carlos successfully grew 8 new plants to maturity. This may seem like a small amount but for the last remaining members of a species, every little bit counts. Recently in 2009, the first of Carlos's plants flowered. This marked a milestone for this species. While it has been wiped out in the wild, this species can still persist in cultivation until experts can decide on what the best course of action is for its future. 

Further Reading:
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/nymphaea-thermarum