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Plant story - the elusive Erica greyi found after 111 years!

In August 2008 the Cape Millennium Seed Bank team went to a farm in the Koue Bokkeveld region in South Africa, to collect seeds of the endangered Erica greyi.

Erica greyi flowers

The first discovery

Erica greyi was first discovered in September 1860 by Admiral Sir E. Grey. After that it was only recorded as seen by Friedrich Schlechter, a German taxonomist and botanist who explored the area of the Skurfteberge in South Africa behind Kleinvlei in 1897.

Rediscovering Erica greyi

Seed collectors are required to list plant species growing alongside the plant they are collecting so the surrounding veld is explored. As a result opportunistic seed collections are made. One of the collecting team members, Olivia Pekeur, noticed a pretty pink low growing Erica. Not sure which Erica it was, a sample was taken back to the office.

‘The Genus Erica: Interactive Identification Key’ was used to identify the sample. Although there were no photos in the Key, and the available information suggested that the flowers were possibly white. Because the description in the key fitted that of Erica greyi, the team was convinced that it was in fact Erica greyi. Further reading into this plant species indicated that it had not been seen for the past 111 years!

When the team returned to the area, they collected seeds and herbarium vouchers of the Erica. The herbarium vouchers were sent to Compton Herbarium and Dr Oliver, an expert on the family Ericaceae, confirmed that it was indeed Erica greyi.

Saving seeds from the remaining population

On a return trip to the farm in March 2009, a local farmer informed the team that the area where E. greyi was rediscovered had burnt only the week previously in fires that started in the nearby Groot Winterhoek mountains. Mr Rossouw and his team spent a week fighting the blaze and keeping it out of the fruit orchards. In fear of the rapid spread of the fire Jan Rossouw rushed to the area where E. greyi was found and removed a few plants in order to prevent it from going missing once again, before the blaze destroyed the population.

Unfortunately the fire went through the population and only ten plants, of the hundreds, remained. After the fire died down and the farmer searched the surrounding areas and similar habitats he found two more populations. Fortunately the local Millennium Seed Bank team were able to collect seeds from the populations before and after the fire.

It was indeed a wonderful experience to be able to marvel at the sight of an Erica that was not seen for one hundred and eleven years! It is comforting knowing that Erica greyi and Leucadendron diemontianum, and many other plant species are safeguarded from extinction through the banking of seeds and the conservation efforts of concerned individuals.

Plant facts

Name - Erica greyi

Family - Ericaceae

Description - Erica greyi is a small, straggly shrub, growing to a height of about 30cm. It grows from a single stem, a few hairy leaves, which have sharp tips, add to the picture, all in all giving it a rather insignificant look - until it flowers! The hairs on the sepals are very peculiar because of the long hair. Being shy and hiding amongst the taller Restiod species, it forms a carpet of dusky pink in late summer. The flowers are in clusters at the end of branches.

Story by Olivia Pekeur and Nicolette Stoll, SANBI, Cape Town, Republic of South Africa

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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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