Have you made any plans yet for the zombie apocalypse? If not, what are you waiting for? If popular television shows and movies have taught us anything over the last decade, it’s that one day most of humanity will be wiped out and those of us that survive will have to battle for our lives against hordes of zombies.
If that sounds too much like the stuff of science fiction, you might not be too worried about zombies. Threats to human extinction do exist, though, even if the end of the world doesn’t contain zombie armies.
With a current population of over seven billion human beings, it’s difficult to imagine Earth existing without humans on it. Can you fathom what that would be like? How isolated would it be to exist as the last, solitary, lone human being on Earth?
If you can conceive of that feeling, then you can understand what it must be like to be Encephalartos woodii. More commonly known as Wood’s Cycad, it is considered by many to be the loneliest plant in the world.
And how peculiar that is! Nearly three hundred million years ago, cycads made up approximately 20% of the world’s plant species. These small trees topped with palm-like fronds were ubiquitous. Dinosaurs wandered among them, and some dinosaurs probably relied on them for sustenance.
Cycads survived the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. They also withstood five different ice ages. Over time, however, other tree species and vegetation took over. Cycads declined until, in the case of Wood’s Cycad, there was only one left on Earth.
Wood’s Cycad was discovered in 1895 by botanist John Medley Wood. He found it while exploring the Ngoye Forest in Zululand (modern-day South Africa). Perched on a steep incline at the edge of the woods, the tree stood out due to its distinct appearance compared to the other trees in the area.
It was later named Encephalartos woodii after Wood. Wood knew he had found a rare wild specimen of an ancient cycad species. He collected several offsets and a couple stems of the plant and sent them to various botanical gardens around the world.
Only later was the true rarity of his discovery realized. Despite extensive searching by scientists over the past century, no other wild specimen of Wood’s Cycad has ever been found.
The original tree found by Wood eventually perished. However, it lives on in its clones, as its offsets and stems have produced new Wood’s Cycads in botanical gardens worldwide.
Continued cloning is the only means of preserving the species today. This is because the Wood’s Cycad is a dioecious species, meaning it has distinct male and female organisms.
One plant cannot fertilize itself. Without a wild female Wood’s Cycad, the plant will never be able to reproduce naturally. To date, no female plant has ever been found, making the Wood’s Cycad a solitary bachelor.
Will Wood’s Cycad remain a living relic, genetically frozen in time forever? Perhaps. There is still a chance that a female plant may be discovered in the wild. In the meantime, scientists are working to solve the problem themselves.
Scientists have used pollen from Wood’s Cycad to fertilize the seeds of Encephalartos natalensis, a closely-related species, in order to create a plant that closely resembles a female Wood’s Cycad and allow the species to reproduce naturally.
Give It a Try
Are you prepared to search for more Encephalartos woodii? Remember to engage in the following activities with a friend or family member:
- Visit Wood’s Cycad online to learn more about Encephalartos woodii. Take a look at pictures and discover interesting facts about the loneliest plant in the world. Write down at least three new facts and share them with a friend.
- Do you believe a female Encephalartos woodii will ever be found? Explain your reasoning. If you were to organize an expedition to search for one, where would you look? What challenges might you encounter? How would you protect it if you found one?
- Consider the use of genetic engineering to create a close approximation of a female Encephalartos woodii. If scientists are successful in producing a seed-bearing plant that can be pollinated by a male plant, will the offspring be a true Encephalartos woodii plant? Do you think scientists should be involved in this type of genetic engineering? Explain your stance.
Sources of Wonder
1. What is the loneliest plant in the world?
The loneliest plant in the world is the Cycad Encephalartos woodii, also known as the Wood’s cycad or the loneliest palm. It is considered the loneliest plant because it is the last surviving individual of its kind. This cycad is male and has no female counterparts to reproduce with, making it unable to produce offspring.
2. Where can the loneliest plant in the world be found?
The loneliest plant in the world, the Cycad Encephalartos woodii, is originally from South Africa. It was discovered in 1895 in a remote area of the Ngoye Forest, but due to deforestation and illegal plant collection, it is now extinct in the wild. The only existing specimens are found in botanical gardens and private collections around the world.
3. How did the loneliest plant in the world become endangered?
The loneliest plant, the Cycad Encephalartos woodii, became endangered due to a combination of factors. Its original habitat in South Africa was destroyed by deforestation and urbanization. Additionally, it became highly sought after by collectors due to its unique characteristics, leading to widespread illegal collection. These factors, combined with its inability to reproduce, resulted in its critically endangered status.
4. What efforts are being made to save the loneliest plant in the world?
Efforts are being made to save the loneliest plant, the Cycad Encephalartos woodii. Botanical gardens and conservation organizations are working on cultivating and propagating new specimens through techniques like tissue culture and pollination with closely related species. These efforts aim to increase the number of individuals and potentially reintroduce the plant back into its natural habitat if suitable conditions can be restored. The goal is to prevent the extinction of this unique and lonely plant.