Saving the paintbrush lily from extinction

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Scientists from Stellenbosch University are trying to save a species of lily endemic to the Western Cape. from extinction. The paintbrush lily grows between Somerset West and Wellington. There are just 150 individual paintbrush lily (Haemanthus pumilio) plants left in the plant’s natural habitat in the Duthie Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch. host to the only viable population of these plants.

In total. about 500 of the plants are found in various populations in the Western Cape. “Apart from being fire-dependent. Haemanthus pumilio prefer ground that is dry in summer but waterlogged and marshy in winter. That is why the Duthie Reserve still remains the most suitable habitat for the survival of this rare and critically endangered plant.” says Martin Smit. curator of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden.

The main reasons for the plant’s decline are the destruction of its original renosterveld habitat and pressure from invasives like Port Jackson (Acacia saligna). The Duthie Reserve is now a third of the size
it once was. and the plant’s fire dependency has also placed it in jeopardy.

University of Stellenbosch

Photo: Gary Stafford

“Fire clears vegetation in the area where the bulbs are providing a clear space for the bulbs to grow in winter.” says Stellenbosch University plant biotechnologist Dr Paul Hills. But Duthie Reserve was last burned in 2004.

Smit has developed a management plan for the Duthie Reserve that emphasises conservation of this plant.  Hills and botanist Dr Gary Stafford are using tissue culture – essentially a high-tech version of taking cuttings from a plant – to propagate individual plants from a variety of genotypes to allow for potential repopulation of dwindling populations. The team has collected leaf samples and seed from Duthie. and from seven individuals from a now-extinct population in Wellington. “We aim to take leaves. which means we do not have to destroy the whole plant to gain material. and induce the formation of bulblets (little bulbs) from these using the correct plant hormone treatments.” Hills explains.

Without some sort of intervention this species could become extinct in the very near future

Paintbrush lily

Photo:Paul Hills

To avoid the inbreeding effect of using tissue from a single explant. the team will identify genetically diverse individuals within the population through molecular genetic analysis. ‘This way, we can generate as many different lines of plants as possible.” he adds.

The team will use phylogenetic analysis to determine the genetic diversity within and between populations. While the tissue culture samples and several seeds have already started growing in the tissue culture lab. the first seedlings will only be viable by the end of 2018.

These flowers do not self-pollinate. “We therefore have to try cross­pollinating the flowers with a paintbrush.” says Hills. They also take at least three years before they are ready to flower. “Without some sort of intervention. this species could become extinct in the very near future.” says Hills. “We already know that another population was lost in 207 8 due to agricultural expansion. It is imperative that we take action while we still can.”

Haemanthus pumilio facts ‘

  • Only l 0-1 Scm high, Haemanthus pumilio is one of the smallest paintbrush lilies in existence.
  • The plants usually flower during March and April, before the
    leaves develop.
  • This species prefers to flower after fire, when there is less competition from other vegetation.
  • There are only 22 species of Haemanthus, all of which are endemic to Southern Africa. At least 12 of these species are listed in the South African Red Data List.
  • The plant’s most viable population is found in Duthie Nature Reserve in Banhoekweg, Stellenbos

Written by Taryn Arnott van Jaarsveld

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