18 May 2018

Wood like to meet: The loneliest plant in the world

Encephalartos woodii is tough, elegant and handsome. Yet, since it arrived at Kew in 1899 it has been all alone. Will this lonely plant ever find a partner?

By Anthea Gordon

Encephalartos woodii

Handsomest of all Encephalartos 

Meet Encephalartos woodii. With a crown of bright green leaves, intricately patterned trunk and orange cones, it will certainly catch your eye. 
Found in 1895 by John Medley Wood on the edge of the Ngoye Forest in South Africa, he described it as ‘the handsomest of all’ Encephalartos. 
For David Cooke, Palm House Supervisor, the story of E.woodii’s arrival at Kew is what makes it special. It arrived in 1899 where it was originally in Palm House. It then moved to Temperate House, where it ‘coned for the first time in 2004.’ 
Lucy Smith, an artist illustrating the E.woodii for Kew’s botanical art collection, calls it ‘delicate’ and ‘elegant’ with ‘beautiful S-shaped curves.’ 
And yet, Kew’s Encephalartos woodii has been all alone over 100 years. 

Lonely cycad seeks partner 

It is the only specimen to ever have been found in the wild. 
Not only does this make the plant now extinct in the wild – it also means there is little hope of Encephalartos woodii reproducing naturally. 
While some plants produce seeds in flowers, Encephalartos woodii is a cycad, and cycad seeds develop in cones. They are also dioecious, with the male and female plants separate. Pollination (usually by insects) occurs in the wild when a male and female plant of the same species grow close to each other. 
But a female Encephalartos woodii has never been discovered. 
Unless a female plant is found, it won’t be possible for Encephalartos woodii to be pollinated and naturally reproduce.

Love is in the air 

Don’t give up hope quite yet – there are a few ways our Encephalartos woodii might face a less lonely future: 

  1. A female plant may be out there. The area of the Ngoye Forest, where Wood first saw the plant, has not yet been fully surveyed.  
  2. In the meantime, a project that involves crossing Encephalartos woodii with its relation Encephalartos natalensis could eventually produce a female very closely resembling an Encephalartos woodii. This works by successively backcrossing the female hybrid offspring with male Encephalartos woodii. Currently, the project has created second generation crosses.

An artist’s impression 

As E.woodii’s illustrator, Lucy Smith has spent a long time looking closely at the cycad and has got to know it rather well. 
She reveals hidden details of E.woodii, from the spiralling leaves to the diamond patterns in the trunk, saying, “The leaves come out of the centre of the cycad in a spiralling arrangement. Once the leaves have died off they leave their petiole bases behind and then these form a pattern. 
These eventually become the diamond shapes that we see on the lower part of the trunk. Each diamond on that trunk represents an old leaf. You could count every single diamond on that trunk and you would know how many leaves it’s produced in its life. 
Those leaf bases create Fibonacci spirals. On the trunk, there’s a spiral going from left to right – a spiral going downwards and a spiral going upwards. And where they intersect, you get the diamonds. It’s not until the leaves fall off that the pattern is revealed.” 
Another notable aspect of the plant is, she says, that “This cycad does something strange in that it tilts away from you, and that allows us to see a few more of the leaves on the opposite side.” 
For Lucy, whose final illustration will unusually include the architecture of the Temperate House in the background, E.woodii and the iconic glasshouse are firmly interlinked. By including both subjects in her piece, she hopes to “tell two stories: the story of this plant and the story of its cultivation and conservation.”

E.woodii’s future 

E.woodii is extinct in the wild. For David Cooke, this is what makes E.woodii important – because ‘it’s the only one left of it’s kind.’ There are only around 110 individual male plants in botanical gardens and private collections around the world, grown from the original E.woodii. 
Even so, David Cooke is upbeat about the outlook for E.woodii. He predicts it will ‘live long for many more years to come.’ 
As Lucy Smith points out, E.woodii’s uniqueness ‘reminds us about why it’s so important to look after our habitats, because it’s so easy to lose species and lose biodiversity.’