What We Killed Thursday

This week, I’ve got two more cycads that are extinct in the wild.  When Encephalartos relictus and Encephalartos woodii were discovered by western botanists, only one of each remained.

E. relictus was discovered in 1971 by J. J. P. du Preez on the eastern border of Swaziland near Mozambique.  There was only one plant.  du Preez relocated the plant to a garden in South Africa and the plant has never again been seen in the wild, despite repeated searches of the area.

John Medley Wood discovered E. woodii in 1895 in the Ngoye Forest of eastern South Africa.  There was just one plant with four main stems.  The stems were collected over the next several years, and E. woodii is now grown by collectors and in a few botanical gardens.  Like E. relictus, it is incredibly rare.

encephalartos woodii

Encephalartos woodii at Lotusland

E. relictus and E. woodii are both propogated from offshoots.  Cycads are dioecious (exceptions, anyone?) and the one specimen discovered of each species was male, so the plants can no longer reproduce sexually.  These plants are “evolutionarily extinct.”  Even if these species were reintroduced to their native habitats, their populations could never adapt to a changing environment.

Encephalartos woodii at Kew

Encephalartos woodii at Kew

There is still a chance for for E. woodii:

There is still the hope that a female plant is in the Ngoye forest somewhere and expeditions in that area always keep a look out for one. The most promising project is the crossing of Encephalartos woodii with its closest relative Encephalartos natalensis, and crossing the offspring with Encephalartos woodii again with the result that each successive generation is more and more Encephalartos woodii. There is also the remote possibility that a spontaneous sex change will occur in one of the male plants. Sex reversal has been observed in a few cases involving other species and once the process is more fully understood, it could be induced in an Encephalartos woodii plant.

Arboretums and botanical gardens carry out many vital conservation projects.  There’s almost certainly one near where you live.  Visiting an arboretum or botanical garden is always pleasant and usually inexpensive.  They are great places to volunteer, too!