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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 00:24 GMT 01:24 UK
Seed search finds vanished plants
Northern Cape landscape Paul Smith
South Africa's Northern Cape, where the vanished plants were redisovered
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

UK scientists have found healthy specimens of two plants thought to have become extinct decades ago.

The scientists, from the Royal Botanic Gardens' (RBG) millennium seed bank, found the plants on a trip to South Africa.

The discovery means the plants should now be safe from extinction, because the seeds will allow their reintroduction.

The team says the discovery proves the value of the seed bank's work.

The two species were found in South Africa's Northern Cape by a team led by Dr Paul Smith, a botanist from the seed bank. It is housed not at Kew, the RBG's London site, but at Wakehurst Place, its country estate in West Sussex.

Famine standby

Dr Smith's team was working with colleagues from South Africa's National Botanical Institute.

One plant is known as elephant's foot (Dioscorea elephantipes). A wild yam, it used to be cooked and eaten by local people in time of famine.

Cylindrophyllum plant Paul Smith
Cylindrophyllum hallii in all its glory
Dr Smith said: "Owing to its unusual appearance this attractive plant has been over-collected.

"It is now threatened in the wild and has not been seen in the region since 1954. Many people thought it lost for ever.

"We spent a whole day searching for it, with no success.

"Finally, on the point of giving up, we asked a local shepherd, who immediately recognised the plant we were looking for and directed us to a very healthy population."

He and his colleagues found about a thousand plants, concentrated on a steep mountainside. There were no seeds for them to collect, but they documented the discovery thoroughly so that the plants can now be closely monitored.

The other plant they found is a member of the Mesembryanthemaceae, Cylindrophyllum hallii L. Bolus. It belongs to the family of Namaqua daisies, and is described as of great botanical interest: its sister species all come from the Little Karoo desert.


Dr Smith said: "This population has not been documented or collected since 1960, and we were very excited to find it.

"Only about 219 living plants were left, with clear signs of having been ravaged. We saw many dead plants though, possibly victims of drought or destruction by animals feeding."

But there were plenty of seeds, and the team took less than 5% of what was available.

Millennium Seed Bank Alex Kirby
Safe haven in the seed bank
"This is exactly the kind of species that needs conservation off-site in the millennium seed bank", Dr Smith said. "The seeds will be safely stored in our vaults."

The seed bank will work out its germination method so that, if the wild plants do vanish, the seeds can be successfully reintroduced.

Dr Smith told BBC News Online: "There is certainly a good chance of finding other similar plants.

"There's an element of luck about it, obviously. And it is the more obscure plants that are likely to go under.

"We have a programme continuing over the next five years, and we shall certainly be looking for other plants which at the moment we believe to be extinct."

South African photos courtesy of Dr Paul Smith, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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