World's Loneliest Plant Is a Relic of the Dinosaur Age

This clone of the last Encephalartos woodii in the world still stands at the Durban Botanic Gardens. Wiki Commons

If you want to know what it might have been like to walk beneath the canopy during the Age of Dinosaurs, make a visit to South Africa's Durban Botanic Gardens and stroll under this tree. It's a clone of the rarest and, some might say, loneliest tree in the world, derived from a single specimen found in 1895 that has no surviving mate, reports NPR.

The plant — Encephalartos woodii — is a type of cycad, part of an ancient lineage that was once among the most numerous types of plant on Earth. Forests of them once covered the globe, and dinosaurs walked among their trunks, nibbled on them, and likely found solace in their shade. Though they look like palm trees or large ferns, they're actually only distantly related to both.

They were historically diverse, but the cycads that have survived into modern times are sparse relics, having struggled to compete against more modern plant lineages, not to mention having to endure five major extinctions. When that lone specimen of E. woodii was stumbled upon in 1895, it might have been the last of its kind on Earth.

The main problem for E. woodii is that it is dioecious, meaning that it must have a mate to reproduce. Many plants have both male and female parts, but not this plant. The 1895 specimen was male, and despite the best efforts by scientists and explorers, no female has ever been found.

The good news is that even though the plant cannot reproduce without a mate, it can be cloned. So there remain several specimens in botanical gardens around the world today that are derived from the stems of that original plant. They periodically sprout large, colorful cones, rich with pollen. But their efforts are futile; there are no seeds for them to fertilize.

"Surely this is the most solitary organism in the world," writes biologist Richard Fortey, "growing older, alone, and fated to have no successors. Nobody knows how long it will live."

The original plant found in 1895 has since perished, though its clones live on. And where there is life, perhaps there is hope. As they say, life finds a way. That is, until it doesn't.