Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Lazarus flower

The way things are, sometimes it's nice to find a bit of good news to focus on.  Today's good news comes to us by way of my dear writer friend Vivienne Tuffnell, whose books are brilliant and whose lovely blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking should be on your "subscribe" list.

The article Vivienne posted was about an amazing accomplishment -- the "de-extinction" of a plant, the York groundsel (Senecio eboracensis).

[Photograph credit: Andrew Shaw/The Rare British Plants Nursery]

The plant has an interesting history.  It's an example of a curious phenomenon where a new species has resulted from hybridization -- in this case, between the exotic Sicilian ragwort (Senecio squalidus) and the native common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris).  Some time in the last three hundred years -- when Sicilian ragwort was unintentionally introduced to England -- the two cross-pollinated.  Such hybrids are usually infertile because of having sets of non-homologous (unpaired) chromosomes, but the hybrid then backcrossed to S. vulgaris, resulting in an allopolyploid, a plant that had a combination of chromosomes from two different parent species but was self-fertile.  It was also genetically distinct enough from both parent species that it couldn't backcross again, and thus was reproductively isolated -- i.e., a new species.

(Interestingly, another example of allopolyploidy is wheat, a hybrid of two grass species that have actually been identified in the wild.)

The problem was, the new species was only found in the city of York, and an extensive cleanup campaign in 1991 involved the overzealous application of weedkiller.  The only colonies of York groundsel known were destroyed.  Researchers had three small pots of the plant on a windowsill in the University of York, but the plant is an annual or short-lived perennial, and they didn't last long.  Fortunately, before dying, they produced a pinch of tiny seeds -- which were sent to the Millennium Seed Bank at the fabulous Kew Gardens.

Andrew Shaw, of The Rare British Plants Nursery, wanted to see if the York groundsel could be brought back.  There was a small amount of seeds in private ownership, but those germinated poorly.  So he approached Kew to see if the remaining seeds might be used to try to save the species from extinction.

It worked.  Of the hundred seeds planted by Shaw, all but two of them germinated.  Over the next two years, Shaw oversaw the production of over a thousand seedlings, which were planted out in specially-chosen plots of land in the city.  The reintroduced plants are now flowering in the wild for the first time in over thirty years.

"It’s a smiley, happy-looking yellow daisy and it’s a species that we’ve got international responsibility for," said Alex Prendergast, senior vascular plant specialist at Natural England, who worked on the project.  "It only lives in York, and it only ever lived in York.  It’s a good tool to talk to people about the importance of urban biodiversity and I hope it will capture people’s imagination.  It’s also got an important value as a pollinator and nectar plant in the area because it flowers almost every month of the year."

So there's your cheerful news of the day.  While humans do their fair share of damage, it's nice to know that sometimes, people who care will actually work toward fixing something.  In this case, bringing back a rare plant from the brink of extinction -- and introducing a bit of color into the landscape of a city.


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