Saturday, March 3, 2012

The bachelors

Here are the three large specimens of Encephalartos woodii seen at Lotusland. These have a fair claim to be among the world's rarest plants because they are extinct in the wild and the last known specimen, from which all garden specimens derive, was male.

The Cycad Garden has been called a “million dollar garden” because its development coincided with the auction of Madame Walska’s enormous jewelry collection, which fetched nearly that amount.

Kew Gardens in London has another large specimen of Encephalartos woodii and their website has some interesting information on it, and on rare cycads and cycad collecting.

In 1895, a single clump of this cycad was discovered by John Medley Wood on the edge of a forest in South Africa. In 1903, Wood sent his deputy, James Wylie to collect some of the smaller offsets for cultivation in the Durban Botanic Garden, where they survive to this day. More offsets were collected from the wild until finally in 1916, the Forestry Department collected the last remaining stem, making the species extinct in the wild. To date, no other wild specimen has been discovered. Two more male cycads have been found that resemble E. woodii but are not identical. All of them are male. The successful cultivation of offsets of the original plant has ensured the ex-situ preservation of this enigmatic species.
The search for a female
Although the area in which the original Wood’s cycad was discovered is well explored, it is yet to be thoroughly surveyed. Consequently, there is still hope that a female plant will eventually be found, and that could reproduce with the growing population of male clones in cultivation. Alternatively, there is a remote possibility that one of the plants in cultivation will undergo a spontaneous sex change, as has been documented in a few cases in other cycad species. Meanwhile, efforts are being made to create a female plant by crossing Wood’s cycad with the closely related E. natalensis. By successively backcrossing the female hybrid offspring with male Wood’s cycads, the aim is to eventually produce a ‘pure’ female. The project has currently created second generation crosses.

Cycad collectors
The rarity of these cycads is part of their appeal to a network of smugglers and thieves, who try to evade restrictions placed on plant movements by the CITES treaty. The other is a network of willing and obsessive buyers who grow their collections in secrecy to avoid having their own illegal plants removed. Enormous sums of money change hands, and because of the rarity of the species and their colourful history, offsets can sell for as much as $20,000 each.
It is therefore not surprising that theft is a serious problem. It is so serious that the San Diego Police Department in southern California assigned an officer to 'cycad beat' to monitor these precious plants. Elsewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, David Bowie and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities that cycad-sellers report as collectors. ''I planted a huge grove of them in Brad Pitt's garden,'' says Jay Griffith, his landscape designer. ''And Brad flipped. He kept saying, 'I want more and more.' To me, they are most majestic when you plant gobs of them. You expect a triceratops to come around the corner and just gobble them up.'' Brad is not infringing any regulations though: his cycads are the commoner cycad species, Cycas revoluta, the so-called sago palm.

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