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Plant story - conserving willowmore cedar

Find out how the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership saved willowmore cedar (Widdringtonia schwarzii), an ancient giant plant which occurs in the Baviaanskloof and Kouga Mountains in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

Widdringtonia schwarzii in the wild

Introducing willowmore cedar (Widdringtonia schwarzii)

Family Cypressaceae
Common name - willowmore cedar

Willowmore cedar (Widdringtonia schwarzii) is endemic to this area and can be found in rocky ravines and growing on steep cliff faces in kloofs.

This slow maturing tree was historically used for timber and is at present under threat from runaway fires. Off-road tracks have also been identified as a possible future threat to this plant species unless strictly controlled, as 4x4 vehicles disturb habitats and destroy the fragile saplings of the trees. The willowmore cedar tree was classified as Near Threatened in IUCN Red List Index assessments in 2006.

This tree prefers elevations of 70-1220m. Most of the accessible specimens have been cut down, so trees of any substantial size are confined to remote rocky kloofs. This makes seed collecting difficult, but not impossible with the use of ropes and abseiling gear.

In July 2005 the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership team based in the Cape region received a nice new collecting vehicle and promptly set off for the Baviaanskloof Wilderness in search of the last South African cedar needing to be banked, Widdringtonia schwarzii. Our Toyota Hilux, the 'Millennium Falcon' as she was dubbed, did well and took us almost to the locality. Not being a 4x4 and not wanting to damage any vegetation, we left the bakkie and set off on foot. After an hour of scrambling over rocks and around huge Protea bushes we saw our quarry nestled high up in a ravine. Some of the trees were lower down and with a bit of rock rabbit-like climbing we managed to collect a few cones. The older and more fruit full trees were higher up and required us to hike above the trees and lower ourselves down the cliff face using ropes. This was safely done and the seeds of all three Widdringtonia species are now in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst.

Plant facts

These trees often have gnarled trunks and spreading branches and can reach 40 m in height. The bark is red-grey, thin and fibrous, leaves are a grey-blue colour and they are flattened and ovate in shape. Juvenile leaves are narrow, needle-like and are spirally arranged. Fruits are in the form of cones with, male and female cones borne on the same plant. Male cones are very small, up to 2 mm long and are produced in autumn. Female cones are dark brown, with rough, warty scales. They develop in autumn and remain on the tree for almost three years before the seeds are released during late summer. As a result, cones can be found in various stages of development on the tree, all year round. Seeds are black-brown, ovoid and broadly winged.

Story by Carly Cowell, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town, South Africa | More plant stories

Get involved - Adopt a Seed, Save a Species

We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.

Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.

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