Rare Plant Survives Black Saturday

"@kewgardens #PlantOfTheDay Find out about shining nematolepis and how it became close to extinction http://bit.ly/9TK5Ox."

That's the promise of a tweet sent by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew this morning, a promise fulfilled by visiting the Plants & Fungi pages of http://www.kew.org/. It's a good news story from last spring but why not revisit it as we celebrate spring in 2010?

I was curious about this story because the plant wasn't from the UK. It's all about a rare species from Victoria, Australia, described in the genus Phebalium by two of my old friends from the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne - Neville Walsh and David Albrecht - then moved to a new genus, Nematolepis, by the person they named the species after, Western Australian botanist Paul Wilson.

It's now called Nematolepis wilsonii.

When 'we' published the Flora of Victoria in 1999 (Neville and I were editors, but Marco Duretto wrote the account of this plant's family Rutaceae), the species was known from a single population of some 200 individuals near Marysville.

As most readers will know, the fierce fires that ripped through Victoria ten years later (February 2009)destroyed most of the town of Marysville and burnt and blackened much of the surrounding vegetation.

As reported on Kew's website, more than 4,500 square kilometres of land was burnt, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed and 173 people lost their lives. The entire population of Shining Nematolepis, as Kew calls it, was wiped out by the Black Saturday fires.

Three months after the fire there were no seedlings of the Shining Nematolepis to be found and it was feared  the species might now be extinct in its natural habitat. Thankfully seed had been collected as part of the Millenium Seed Bank Partnership, a project involving Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and many environmental organisations around the world, including most botanic gardens in Australia. (That's the link to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew!)

A good representative sample of the 200 plants was, and is, held in the Victorian Conservation Seedbank, with duplicates sent to Kew. All up, an insurance policy of 16,000 seeds.

So was it time to cash in that policy? Turns out not. Come spring of 2009, thousands of healthy seedlings appeared near Marysville. As the Kew site notes "although this is not a surprising response for the hard, black-seeded Rutaceae...there were fears that owing to the intensity of the fires and the deep-burning of the humus-rich soils...the soil-stored seed bank might have been destroyed".

For added projection, the seedlings have been fenced from animal damage (including accidental damage by the human species).

There is also the cheery report of a new population discovered. Parks Victoria staff were out checking on the well-being of the rare Broad-toothed Rat, also an inhabitant of the area burnt on Black Saturday. They found a small population that had been mostly burnt in the fires but with a "handful of surviving adult trees" and "numerous seedlings".

Seed from the new population will be collected in due season to improve the genetic representation in the Seedbank.

Image: The forests around Marysville when I drove through in spring 2009.


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