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article imageBotanists fight to save world's oldest living plant

By Karen Graham     Aug 29, 2014 in Science
Botanists in Australia are attempting to save the King's Holly, considered the world's oldest living plant. Lomatia tasmanica is found in only one place in the world, hanging on to life in a secluded location of South-West Tasmnia's Wilderness area.
The last remaining stand of the King's holly is scattered through about 1.2 kilometers of landscape along a gully, and is very well concealed unless it is in flower. First discovered in 1937 by Charles Denison "Deny" King while mining for tin in a windswept extremity of Tasmania’s World Heritage-listed South West Wilderness area, its extraordinary age was never suspected, at least at first.
In the 1960s, King sent cuttings of the unusual plant to the Tasmanian Herbarium in Hobart, Tasmania for identification. (The Herbarium was moved in 1977 to the Sandy Bay campus of the University of Tasmania). The plant group discovered by King has long since died out, and the remaining "plants," of which there are over 500 individual bushes, is actually all part of the same plant, and is estimated to be over 43,000 years old.
While the bush has beautiful clumps of pink flowers and glossy green leaves resembling the holly, it is not a holly. It is a shrub from the family Proteaceae. The Proteacae family is distributed throughout the Southern Hemisphere, and many are native to Australia and South Africa. There are around 80 genera with about 1,800 species, including Macadamia integrifolia, which is often grown commercially for its nuts.
There is only one Lomatia tasmanica living today. What makes this plant so very unusual is that all the plants are genetically identical, or clones of the original plant. Because it has three sets of chromosomes, it is known as a triploid, and is sterile. It reproduces vegetatively. When a branch drops off it will establish new roots, making a plant that is genetically the same as the original. Though the 500 or so plants are separate from one another, because they are genetically the same, they are considered one plant.
Dr Greg Jordan, associate professor at the University of Tasmania’s school of biological sciences says, “The whole species is just one plant, 1km wide. It never produces seed and it survives by growing up, falling over and sprouting up and it has been doing that for a very long time. So while other species, such as Wollemi Pine, are more ancient, king’s holly is doubly remarkable. Not only is the whole species made up of just one plant, but as far as we know, that plant is the oldest individual plant on land in the world.”
On September 19,2009, the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens issued a press release about the King's holly, saying: "The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens [RTBG] is working towards securing the future of a rare and ancient Tasmanian native plant... Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King's Lomatia, is critically endangered with less than 500 plants growing in the wild in a tiny pocket of Tasmania's isolated south west. The RTBG has been propagating the plant from cuttings since 1994... 'Fossil leaves of the plant found in the south west were dated at 43,600 years old and given that the species is a clone, it is possibly the oldest living plant in the world"
Because cultivation efforts have been largely spotty, at best, Natalie Tapson, with the University of Tasmania School of Plant Science says, "We collected King's Holly first in the mid-90s from its location in the wild and started propagating it with the aim of getting a conservation collection of 50 plants." The botanists figured that if they were successful in getting 50 percent of the plants to survive, they would be doing well. Tapson says, "It doesn't like root disturbance so every time we pot it on we're losing plants unfortunately."
Now Tapson and fellow botanist Jeff Gordan are attempting a new approach, grafting Kings Holly plants on to the roots of a similar plant species. Tapson says, "By putting it onto a different root stock it's hoped that when you plant it out or transfer it you're not going to have that loss because the root stock is stronger." If this method of propagation proves to be successful, the oldest plant in the world may be given the opportunity to live for another 43,000 years.
More about Australia, Tasmanian holly bush, selfpropagating, oldest living plant, Kings Holly
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