Most people heard about lonesome George, a male tortoise from the Galapagos. He was considered the rarest animal for decades until his death in 2012.
A unique palm species from the island of Mauritius is George’s counterpart of the plant world. Different from George, the last individual of Hyophorbe amaricaulis was never given a nickname.
Although Hyophorbe amaricaulis is known from very long time ago as it was first collected by a naturalist called Philibert Commerson, who visited Mauritius, between 1768-1773 – not much attention was given to it because it has been confused with another more common related species, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, known as bottle palm.
This last individual of Hyophorbe amaricaulis was recorded first time in 1940s during a survey of palms from the botanical gardens of Mauritius. This plant survived the transformation of a patch of native forest where it was growing in the town of Curepipe. Today is fenced off as George was once too.
The loneliest plant of the world – Hyophorbe amaricaulis – in its cage @C.Baider
There is little hope of discovering other individuals of the species as most of the original wet forest habitat of this conspicuous plant has been destroyed, and the surviving remnants are highly invaded by invasive alien plants. Moreover, since human colonisation in 1638, palms of Mauritius have been extensively harvested mainly for their edible hearts causing precipitous declines of all palm populations.
This last plant can no more reproduce naturally since it produces female and male flowers at different times. In vitro propagation has been tried in Mauritius in late 1990’s/early 2000’s, it does not pass the stage of callus. However, attempts at Wye College (Ireland) in the 1980’s (Douglas 1987) and again at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK) in 2008 (Sarasan 2010); plantlets were produced but died after transplantation, but no new trials were made since due to lack of material sent to institutions abroad. The best option to save the species from extinction seems to reside in cloning done in well equipped and staffed facilities which are unfortunately lacking in the country.
Close collaboration with foreign institutions is therefore extremely urgent and seems the only hope of survival for this species (Florens 2015) in the brink of extinction that unfortunately does not get some much attention as George did.
Douglas G.C. 1987. Embryo culture of a rare plant, Hyophorbe amaricaulis Martius (Palmae). J. Plant Physiology 130: 73-77.
Florens, F.B.V. 2015. International action required to rescue world’s rarest plant. Nature Plants doi :10.1038/nplants.2015.152
Sarasan V. 2010. Importance of in vitro technology to future conservation programmes worldwide. Kew Bulletin 65: 549-554.