Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The amazing, wonderful and remarkable Borya


This is an exceedingly rare species. The remaining natural population consists of 70 tufts, in five small clumps spread across a hundred square metres or so. It's listed as endangered nationally.

Borya mirabilis is a tough-leaved lily-like plant with small white, star-like flowers. It lives in the Wonderland Range of Victoria's Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park and each of the 70 'plants' are almost genetically identical. It's effectively, and perhaps really, a single clonal plant.

In summer it shrivels up, playing dead (one of the so-called resurrection plants I've posted on before, able to lose up to 94% of its water), ready it seems to burn into extinction should a bushfire pass through. In 2005 the Mt Lubra fires tested its fire tolerance: about half the clones were lost but the rest re-sprouted a few months later. So it seems relatively well adapted to fire and drought, despite it rather parlous state today.

Borya mirabilis was discovered in only 1924 and first thought to be a rather isolated occurrence of the otherwise Western Australian species, Borya nitida. It was found again in 1952 and then not until 1981, when it was discovered to be a distinct, and rather rare, species.

I called it 'lily-like' because it has been confirmed by recent molecular work that Borya is in its own family Boryaceae. At various times it has been included in a more broadly viewed Liliaceae.


Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne have been growing this cushion lily in their nursery for decades, going right back to the time when David Churchill was Director. Material from the botanic gardens collection, and many years of propagation expertise, were used to establish a new population about 20 kilometres (and hopefully a bushfire or two) in the Mt Difficult Range.

Mirabilis means amazing, wonderful or remarkable, and this species is perhaps all three. There are other plants down to their last individual or clone (e.g. Lomatia tasmanica in Tasmania), but few that seem to be clinging on so desperately to existence as the Grampians Cushion-lily.

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne botanist Neville Walsh, and colleagues Noushka Reiter and Anne Lawrie  have just published a paper in our scientific journal Muelleria on the fungi that live associated with the roots of this species, including those that live in special nodules. This is the kind of information that might make the difference between survival and extinction should drought, fire and no doubt pestilence conspire to wipe out the remaining plants.

Images: The flowering plant is a typically charming shot by John Eichler and the equally charming hand with the plant is Neville Walsh's (hand and photo), taken during the translocation to the Mt Difficult Range. 

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