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Does the Loneliest Plant in the World Need Help?

One day in 1895, while walking through the Ngoye Forest in Zululand, southern Africa, a botanist with the oh-so-suitable name of John Medley Wood caught sight of a tree. It sat on a steep slope at the edge of the woods and looked quite unlike its neighbors, with a fattish trunk (actually it had two trunks) and what seemed like a splash of palm fronds on top.

It’s now called E. woodii, in Wood’s honor. It is a cycad. Cycads are a very old order of tree. They’ve been on the planet for roughly 280 million years, but this one is special—in a bite-your-lip kind of way. Richard Fortey, one of the world’s great biologists, calls it “Surely … the most solitary organism in the world.”

What Wood found may be the last surviving wild example of an ancient species of cycad, which stretches back in an unbroken line to the age of the dinosaurs. Now it’s all by itself, writes Fortey, “growing older, alone, and fated to have no successors. Nobody knows how long it will live.”

Unless there’s a twist ending. And thereby hangs a tale:

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In the 1890s Wood, who made his living collecting rare plants (he directed a botanical garden in Durban), had some of this odd tree’s stems pulled up and removed and, in 1903, sent one of them to London, where it sat in a box in the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. It was a very long sit, being on display—by itself—for the entire 20th century. It’s still there.

Two hundred million years ago, cycads were everywhere. The giant continent that includes today’s Greenland and Antarctica were covered with them. Pterodactyls flew between them. Big dinosaurs munched on them. During the Jurassic period, small, stumpy, palm-looking trees made up about 20 percent of the world’s plants.

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Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy

Somehow these E. woodii survived the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs, got through five different ice ages, learned to live with bigger, newer trees—conifers and leaf bearers, followed by a profusion of fruiting and flowering plants—then got pushed into smaller, then even smaller, spaces until there were merely tens of thousands, then thousands, then hundreds, and then, for this particular species, perhaps, just this one.

The problem is that these trees cannot fertilize themselves. Some plants contain male and female parts on the same individual. Not E. woodii. It is, as the botanists say, dioecious. It needs a mate.

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Encephalartos woodii, Photograph Courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

When a cycad is ready to reproduce, it grows a large colorful cone, rich with pollen or seed. It signals its readiness by radiating heat or sending out attractive odors to pollinators, who travel back and forth. Once fertilized, the seed-rich cone is ripped apart by hungry seed carriers (who’ve included, over the years, not just birds and insects, but also dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and bats—these trees have been eaten by just about everybody).

But what if you can’t find a mate? The tree in London is a male. It can make pollen. But it can’t make the seeds. That requires a female.

Researchers have wandered the Ngoye Forest and other woods in Africa, looking for an E. woodii that could pair with the one in London. They haven’t found a single other specimen. They’re still searching. Unless a female exists somewhere, E. woodii will never mate with one of its own.

But it survives. Plant geneticists have cloned it.

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Photograph Courtesy of Mark W. Skinner, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Indeed, botanic gardens across the world asked Kew for clones, or “offsets,” and now you can see genetically identical versions on display in Europe, Australia, California, South Africa. The plant is frozen genetically. It’s a living fossil, “an example of the curious but expanding process of the democratization of rarity,” says science writer Richard Mabey. It might be terminal, but if you like you can shoot a selfie in front of its exact genetic doppleganger. Or visit the original. Or maybe even buy a clone for yourself.

Cycads (there are several surviving species) are popular garden plants. Some of the rarest are bought and sold secretly. “Enormous sums of money change hands,” says the Kew Gardens website, “and because of the rarity of the species and their colourful history, offsets can sell for as much as $20,000 each.”

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Left: Photograph by Julian Parker, Getty; Right: Photograph by Todd Williamson Archive, Getty

The problem is serious, Kew says:

It is so serious that the San Diego Police Department in southern California assigned an officer to ‘cycad beat’ to monitor these precious plants. Elsewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, [the late] David Bowie and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities that cycad-sellers report as collectors. ”I planted a huge grove of them in Brad Pitt’s garden,” says Jay Griffith, his landscape designer. ”And Brad flipped. He kept saying, ‘I want more and more.’ To me, they are most majestic when you plant gobs of them. You expect a triceratops to come around the corner and just gobble them up.” Brad is not infringing any regulations though: his cycads are the commoner cycad species, Cycas revoluta, the so-called sago palm.

Genetically Engineered Females

There is even a move, supported by Kew, to solve E. woodii’s problem scientifically. Plant geneticists have taken pollen from our still fertile surviving male and fertilized a very close cycad cousin, E. natalensis. The hope is, by “back-crossing” the two plants, they may eventually create a very close genetic approximation of a female E. woodii and so reboot the species.

This reminds Richard Mabey of “the scientific dream that woolly mammoth hybrids may be brought back from the dark world of the extinct by inserting fragments of fossil DNA into elephant genes.”

We’re trying it with animals. Why not with plants?

Yes, why not?

To Stay or Go?

Interesting question. On the one hand, we humans have crowded the world, hemmed in, poisoned and savaged any number of plants, denying them the space to grow and thrive, so shouldn’t we, when the occasion arises, repair what we’ve done? Restore when we can?

These cycads come down to us through a long tunnel of time; they’re like a chain letter from a “magical once” (as Oliver Sacks wrote). Somehow they’ve made it down to us, and isn’t our duty to keep them going, to not break the chain?

Maybe. But on the other hand, if the only way to keep them going is to take them to a lab, add a gene here, subtract one there, and try to engineer back what once was—what have we done? Is this still a “natural’ cycad? An almost-but-not-quite female cycad would keep the line going, but whose line is it then? Its own? Ours? Whose?

There’s something not quite right with scuffling through the scrapheap of disappearing plants and animals, choosing a favorite few, and “pickling” them, as Richard Mabey says, to preserve their ancientness, when we know full well that a truly living thing must make its way on its own, must adapt, mutate, crossbreed, or die. An “almost” version of a cycad may look right, but we know deep down that the chain has been broken. This is not a real descendant. It’s our clever substitute.

So I don’t want to rescue the loneliest plant in the world. I want it to get lucky.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Which could still happen. After all, there are acres and acres of uninspected bush in South Africa. Somewhere, on the side of a hill, tucked up against a rock, hanging in a shadow, I can still imagine a shy female E. woodii. She could be out there, waiting.

I’ve written about E.woodii before, so this is, in effect, a rethink, occasioned by my reading Richard Mabey’s wonderful new book of plant essays, The Cabaret of Plants (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). The last time I wrote about the lonely cycad in London, I was all for saving it and unapologetically mournful. Now, thanks to Mabey, I’m finding this tale richer and harder to resolve. Which is a good thing. The great British biologist Richard Fortey talks about the London E.woodii in his classic Life: An Unauthorized Biography (Vintage, 1997). Oliver Sacks describes his personal encounter with the Kew cycad in The Island of the Colorblind (Vintage, 1997).