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World’s rarest plant is a relic from the age of the dinosaurs

Durhan Botanical Gardens in South Africa the home to one of the rarest of a very ancient lineage of plants called cycads. Fossil records date them to the early Permian, 280 million years ago.

This plant, called the Wood’s cycad, Encephalartos woodii , is a male of the species and will never reproduce because the plant is dioecious, meaning it must have a female plant to reproduce. The Encephalartos genus is native to Africa where 65 different species are found. Encephalartos woodii has only one representative, with it being extinct in the wild. This one fact makes this particular plant somewhat special.

Two of the remaining stems of Encephalartos woodii at Ongoye Forest. The smaller one on the right is...

Two of the remaining stems of Encephalartos woodii at Ongoye Forest. The smaller one on the right is presumably the one which was collected in 1916 to be moved to Pretoria. The one on the left with the damaged stem was left because it appeared to have been mutilated. Photo taken between 1907 – 1912.

In 1895, botanist James Medley Wood was walking through the Ngoya Forest of Zululand in South Africa when he made a discovery that would make him famous, according to Atlas Obscura. He came across a clump of a rare and ancient cycad.

Cycads are not trees
Cycads are not really trees, but are seed plants, usually growing a single trunk with the leaves growing directly from the top of the trunk. The pinnate leaves are hard and evergreen. They grow very slowly and live a very long time. Cycads used to be abundant on Earth and were much more diverse than they are today.

There ability to grow in a variety of climatic conditions is amazing. They can be found in arid deserts and the rainforests of the Southern hemisphere, some needing full sun while others do well in shade. There are only three extant families of cycads left in the world today, the Cycadaceae, Stangeriaceae, and Zamiaceae. They have survived with very little change since the Jurrasic.

Encephalartos woodii in the Royal Botanic Gardens  Kew.

Encephalartos woodii in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

The loneliest plant in the world
Woods collected three basal offsets from the wild specimen he found in the forest and later went back and collected two large stems. He planted all the specimens at the Durban Botanic Gardens in KwaZulu-Natal, where he was the curator. In 1908, he was honored when the cycad he had found was named after him.

The original specimen is still growing at the gardens. One basal offset was sent to Kew Gardens in London in 1899, with one specimen received at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland in Glasnevin in 1905. The plant sent to Kew Gardens was grown in the Palm House until April 1979, when it was moved to the Temperate House.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. The female Encephalartos natalensis (shown)  has been used ...

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. The female Encephalartos natalensis (shown) has been used to clone E. woodii plants.

While the plant cannot reproduce, Mother Nature News says it can be cloned. There has been great success cross-breeding the Wood’s cycad with a female E. natalensis. So now the world has plenty of clones of the Wood’s cycad. Eventually, through continuous mating of a cloned female with the original plant, a genetically suitable female plant will result, we hope, and so does the Wood’s cycad.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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