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A Never-Before-Documented Flower Blooms on One of World’s Rarest Trees

A Never-Before-Documented Flower Blooms on One of World’s Rarest Trees

The critically endangered tree bloomed in a greenhouse in Missouri.

Karomia gigas is a member of the mint family, and is also related to oregano, rosemary, and thyme. It grows wild only in East-Central Africa, in Tanzania, and in the past in Kenya. It’s so unknown there’s no common name for it in English, Swahili, or any other African language. It's also critically endangered. Discovered in 1977 in Kenya and later in Tanzania in 1993, the tree has a lot of issues to its survival. It only grows in soil substrate consisting primarily of old corral and termite leavings, it is often poached because its wood is similar to teak, and it is very susceptible to fungus that could harm it.

Right now there are only a handful of these plants in existence, both in protected forests in Africa and in laboratories and scientific greenhouses. One in Missouri has seen a miraculous turn; a flower has bloomed. The flower it produced consisted of five purple petals tugged down towards the stem, and four long pollen stamens protruding from the center. Scientists believe that they can use pollen from the flower to help grow the species again.

“On one side of the coin it’s a little scary because very rare species like this are depending upon us and we can’t get it wrong,” writes Andrew Wyatt, Senior Vice President of Horticulture and Living Collections at the Missouri Botanic Gardens, the oldest continually operating gardens in the nation.

“Personally, and I know others on my staff feel this way too, it is actually amazing and exhilarating. It is such an honor to use one’s skill to save a species from extinction.”

“As far as survival, we’ve got this one,” says Wyatt, this time to National Geographic. “We can actually make sure it does not go extinct. The idea of actually preserving the species is entirely possible. It’s protected in Tanzania. We have collections in the botanical garden. Once we’ve got enough seed, we hope we can store it [in a freezer] and create a buffer between loss.”

 

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