Page last updated at 19:43 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Fight to save dying plant species

By Simon Hancock
BBC News, St Helena

Bastard Gumwood Tree
Last chance to see: the tree is the last of its kind

A botanist from Kew Gardens is fighting to save one of the rarest plant species in the world, the Bastard Gumwood tree.

The last tree of this species is found on the tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena, and it is dying.

To keep the Bastard Gumwood in existence, it needs to be pollinated so it will produce a fertile seed from which to grow new seedlings.

Obtaining a pure seed from the tree is no easy task.

The tree (Commidendrum rotundifolium) is enclosed in netting to prevent insects cross-pollinating with its near neighbour, the False Gumwood.

It's like a needle in a haystack. The work is painstaking and very slow
Phil Lambdon, Kew Gardens

But even then because there are no other individuals in existence, the tree must self-pollinate, which it stubbornly resists.

And so it needs some help.

Every day, botanist Phil Lambdon visits the site along with local conservationists. The team delicately uses small paint brushes to collect pollen grains, which they spread from one flower to another.

But the odds are still against the Bastard Gumwood.

"The tree just doesn't want to pollinate itself," said Dr Lambdon, the botanist visiting from Kew Gardens who is in charge of the effort.

"Only around 1 in 10,000 pollen grains have the small genetic mutation which will allow self-pollination to take place.

"It's like a needle in a haystack. The work is painstaking and very slow."

Bastard Gumwood Tree in netting
The Gumwood tree is now enclosed in netting

The only way of knowing whether the seeds produced are fertile is to plant them.

"99.99% will be infertile and not grow, but it's the only way of finding out," said Dr Lambdon.

"It's not called the Bastard Gumwood because of this, incidentally," he added.

In fact there are a number of species beginning with the word on the island - the Bastard Cabbage tree, the Bastard Bell flower and the Small Bastard Cabbage tree.

Phil Lambdon and tree
Phil Lambdon is in charge of the conservation effort

They were named in by botanist John Burchell who was on St Helena between 1806 and1810.

Some think he may have been simply reporting the names given to the species by the locals.

Whatever the truth behind the tree's name, the island hopes these efforts will be more successful than with the St Helena Olive, which was also only found here, but which died out in 2003.

"Many of the tourists who come to the island want to see the island's unique wildlife. Another extinction would be very bad publicity," said St Helena National Trust Director Jamie Roberts.

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