Science & Technology

This Plant Survived the Dinosaurs, But There's Only One Left

They come from an ancient time, a time when monsters roamed the Earth. And now, millions of years later, these once-mighty beings have withered away until only one is left. Meet the cycad Encephalartos woodii, the loneliest tree on the planet.

A Tree for Jurassic Park

At a glance, you might mistake a cycad for a palm tree. Long, broad columns of leaves flow from the top of a leafless woody trunk — but that's where the similarities end. Cycad trunks have a gentle, Tim Burton-esque twist to them, and their limply hanging branches contribute to an appearance that doesn't seem quite of-this-earth. And then there's the cone, a football-shaped collection of seed or pollen that grows straight up from the crown of the trunk.

They look like they should be accompanied by a triceratops. During the age of the dinosaurs, cycads made up a full 20 percent of all plant life. They aren't doing so well today, but some of the surviving species of cycad have been able to thrive in celebrity collections like those owned by Brad Pitt and David Bowie.

And then there's E. woodii. It doesn't have any celebrity benefactors — it's far too important for that. This particular cycad was discovered by the botanist John Medley Wood way back in 1895, and since they hadn't discovered a tree like it, it got saddled with his name. For more than 120 years, we still haven't found another tree like it. Now a permanent resident of London's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, E. woodii (we're just going to call him "Woody") is the very last of his kind.

Cycads are dioecious, meaning you need a male cycad and a female cycad in order to reproduce. And since 2004, when he sprouted a cone to signal that he was ready to reproduce, old Woody's shaped up to be the loneliest guy on the planet. Well, okay, it's not as bad as all that. He still has his clones to keep him company.

Engineering a Solution

Thanks to a strategy of harvesting and replanting clippings from Woody's branches, you can visit a genetically identical cycad in many places around the world, including Philadelphia, Santa Barbara, and Amsterdam. But he'll forever be unable to reproduce in the natural way...unless we start monkeying around with his genes.

Botanists have already successfully bred a hybrid of Woody and other, more common cycad varieties, and they think subsequent interbreeding could result in a female version of E. woodii that's pretty close to what it would be like in nature. Now, whether or not bringing back extinct species is a good idea or not, we leave that to brighter minds than ours.

The Loneliest Tree in the World

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 11, 2017

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