|Have we lost the St Helena boxwood?
Early this year we reported the re-discovery of the
St Helena boxwood. A single individual growing amongst the boulders below Lots Wife. A
thrilling discovery of a plant thought to have been extinct for over 100 years. Since then
there has been no more news, so what has happened to the St Helena boxwood?
Much of the reason for the long silence was that the
boxwood appeared to be dying. Not only this but the cuttings taken from the tree failed to
root and no seeds had germinated. It was beginning to look like the boxwood might have
only been re-discovered in time to become extinct again!
However, about 400 seeds were collected from the boxwood
before it died back ( I won't call it dead for the moment, I will remain a little
optimistic, in case it re-sprouts after the winter rain). The seeds were divided to
attempt germination in the hope that someone would successfully germinate them. Vanessa
Thomas of the Environmental Conservation Section has some seeds, John Price, the Chief
Education Officer had some seeds, some were sent to the Royal Horticultural Society, UK,
and some were sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UK. About half the seeds remain in
storage, as a safety measure to be used once successful germinating techniques have been
So far, two seedlings have been germinated by John Price
and eleven by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. A huge sigh of relief for all concerned as it
is hoped that more seeds will germinate successfully. The Royal Botanic Gardens is
interested in ways of helping the Island to undertake a recovery programme for the
boxwood. The more young plants that can be raised the greater the long term chances of
successfully re-establishing the boxwood on St Helena.
Hope has not been given up that seedlings will germinate
in the wild location below Lots Wife. Hundreds of seeds are likely to remain in the soil
and one day, under the right conditions they might germinate to re-establish the
Leaf samples from the original boxwood were sent to Dr
Quentin Cronk at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Dr Cronk has sequenced part of the
genome of the boxwood. That is he has read a very small part (a genetic sequence) of the
genetic code that makes or describes the boxwood. He has used this genetic sequence to
compare it to other related plants. This comparison has shown that the St Helena boxwood
is very closely related to a group of plants called Withania. Withania's are found as far
apart as India and Morocco. In India they are used for their medicinal drug properties. Dr
Cronk is carrying out more research to pin down just how the St Helena boxwood, Mellisia
begonifolia, is related to Withania. This is an important discovery, particularly if the
St Helena boxwood also produces an important medicinal chemical and we can re-establish it
We have still got along way to go before we can say that
the boxwood is no longer threatened with extinction. At least the picture is starting to
look a little rosier for this remarkable and attractive endemic shrub.
Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks