Consider the lilies, please

11 July 2017 - 07:18 By PETRU SAAL
LITTLE TREASURE: Only 10cm-15cm high, 'Haemanthus pumilio' is one of the smallest paintbrush lilies. The plantsusually flower in March and April, before the leaves develop. This species prefers to flower after fire, when there is lesscompetition from other plantsPicture: DR GARY STAFFORD
LITTLE TREASURE: Only 10cm-15cm high, 'Haemanthus pumilio' is one of the smallest paintbrush lilies. The plantsusually flower in March and April, before the leaves develop. This species prefers to flower after fire, when there is lesscompetition from other plantsPicture: DR GARY STAFFORD

Scientists from Stellenbosch University have taken it upon themselves to save the internationally sought-after paintbrush lily, which is on the brink of extinction.

There are just 60 of the plants remaining, found only in Duthie Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch.

Martin Smit, curator of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, said more than 1000 of the lilies once grew in the reserve. But because the reserve is now less than a third of its original size, the Haemanthus pumilio species has dwindled.

"The main reasons for its decline are the destruction of its original habitat [Renosterveld] and invasive aliens like Port Jackson [Acacia saligna]). But the species is also dependent on fire to induce flowering and requires very specific conditions for the seedlings to survive. For various reasons, the Duthie Reserve was last burnt in 2004. For this type of vegetation, it is long overdue for another controlled burn," said Smit.

Smit, plant biotechnologist Paul Hills and botanist Gary Stafford have obtained funding to employ tissue culture as a means to increase the population.

Hills and Stafford have collected leaf samples and seeds from the reserve, as well as samples from seven other paintbrush lily species from the Newton Commonage in Wellington, which is under the care of the university's botanical garden.

"We are following a non-destructive strategy to mass-propagate individuals from a variety of genotypes to allow for potential repopulation in the Duthie Reserve and elsewhere," said Hills.

BSc Honours student Dominique West will determine the genetic diversity within and between populations. This will help with the micropropagation process when it comes to repopulating and conserving the plant species.

Several seeds have already started growing in the tissue culture lab. The first seedlings will be viable by the end of 2018.

"Because it is so rare, Haemanthus pumilio is highly sought-after by plant collectors. If we can get a viable population going, these will be spread to other botanical gardens and then some plants might be sold," said Smit.

Of the 22 species of the Haemanthus lily endemic to Southern Africa, 12 are on the South African Red Data List of threatened species.

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