MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Now, a twisting and turning, complex and compelling story about a plant. It's from NPR's Robert Krulwich. And to put this story together he caught up with a botanist on her way through Philadelphia. He tracked down a scientist on an island in the Indian Ocean, and he got the dirt from a researcher at Kew Gardens in London. Now, the tale of the unimportant, unappreciated, unnoticed little plant that just wouldn't die.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Our story begins 27 years ago on a little island called Rodrigues.
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KRULWICH: Which is way out in the Indian Ocean. I've never been, but it's about a thousand miles off the African coast.
KRULWICH: Is it fair to say that this is in the middle of absolutely nowhere?
WENDY STRAHM: It's difficult to get further from nowhere.
KRULWICH: Dr. Wendy Strahm is a professional botanist, a plant expert, and for years she ran a conservation program on Rodrigues. and on the island there was, she says, a school.
STRAHM: There was a teacher on the island, a teacher called Raymond Dakeed(ph)...
KRULWICH: And Monsieur Dakeed said to the 12-year-olds in his biology class, I want to show you a drawing of a wild coffee plant that used to live all over this island and then, class, because of people and pests this special plant, unique to our island, vanished. It's extinct. Life's fragile, needs protection, and that when the boy at the back of the class raised his hand and said...
STRAHM: But sir, we've got one next to our house.
KRULWICH: No you don't, said the teacher. This plant has not been seen since 1877. But the boy insisted.
STRAHM: Yeah, yeah, he said, you know, I think you're wrong. He's very brave to tell the teacher he was wrong. So, anyway, Raymond Dakeed went out and looked at the thing...
KRULWICH: And lo and behold it looked right.
STRAHM: Yes. And so they took a couple of branches...
KRULWICH: And eventually sent samples to a lab, which said this is the real deal.
STRAHM: This is a great find. It's a plant that we believed extinct.
KRULWICH: So, naturally, conservationists on Rodrigues looked for a second plant, maybe a third.
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KRULWICH: Rodrigues is not a big island and everybody knows everybody's business and when you walk around the place, as you can from this field recording made in the '90s, people like to talk. But though he asked and though he searched everywhere for a second plant, conservationist Richard Payendee of the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation had no luck.
RICHARD PAYENDEE: I've not been able to find one.
KRULWICH: And no one else has either.
PAYENDEE: No one else has.
KRULWICH: So, suddenly that obscure, skinny little bush over at the boy's house became a national treasure.
PAYENDEE: It's not everyday you find one plant left in the whole world, you know?
KRULWICH: Only thing was the last wild Rodriguian coffee plant in the world was looking kind of sickly. Its leaves were missing, branches missing.
STRAHM: Problem was it was being eaten by goats. Yeah.
KRULWICH: So to fend off the goats, the government put up a fence and in photos it looks like a barbed wired fence?
STRAHM: There was definitely barbed wire around it.
KRULWICH: But that fence attracted the attention of local neighbors who wondered now why would the government put a big fence around that little bush? It must have some kind of power.
STRAHM: Suddenly people began saying that the plant was actually very useful and if you went and shook its bark and branches that it would actually cure hangovers and gonorrhea.
KRULWICH: Any of this true?
STRAHM: It's unlikely.
KRULWICH: Still, people kept talking and plucking, even climbing.
STRAHM: Oh, yeah, there were people climbing over, so they put up a second fence, which, you know, if you have one fence, you put up a second fence.
KRULWICH: But then neighbors cut through both fences to throw things at the plant.
PAYENDEE: Yeah, they were throwing, we saw quite a lot of dead animals.
KRULWICH: Dead animals? Why would you throw dead animals at a plant?
PAYENDEE: I don't know. This is, this is something I can't explain.
KRULWICH: So they added another fence.
PAYENDEE: Finally, there were four.
PAYENDEE: Yes, four fences around it.
KRULWICH: And then they added a roof?
STRAHM: Yeah, the plant was more like in a cage and eventually, this is really nice, they hired somebody to watch over the plant.
KRULWICH: So in the end with four fences, a roof, and a guard, finally the neighbors stopped plucking and the plant began to recover and to grow. And that is when Wendy decided now's the time for scientists to make a bold move. Even though this plant is not very valuable and not that useful, and for years not even noticeable, Wendy said since we're down to the last one let's see if we can make it have a baby so it can have a future. So she called one of the premiere plant laboratories in the world, Kew Gardens in London, and Kew said alright let's try.
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KRULWICH: So Wendy was told to take two cuttings from the plant and get them immediately, as fast as possible, to London.
PAYENDEE: Why not? Because, you know, when you make a cutting if you take too long then it's going to desiccate and die.
KRULWICH: So she made the cuts, she wrapped them, she packed them...
STRAHM: And immediately put them on a plane from Rodrigues to Mauritius. And British Airways very kindly flew our two cuttings for free, and somebody from Kew Gardens from London had gone to Heathrow to meet the plane, to pick up the two cuttings that were in a special box, and they whisked them back to the laboratory in Kew where they managed to get one of them to grow.
KRULWICH: However, even thought the Kew scientists got that plant cutting to grow in London, it wasn't really a baby, says botanist Margaret Ramsay of Kew Gardens.
MARGARET RAMSAY: It's cloning. I know that sounds frightening, but it's basically it's a duplicate.
KRULWICH: An identical copy of the mother plant back in Rodrigues. What they wanted was a real baby with slightly different genes from the parents so you get some genetic variation. And to do that you need a seed, which means that scientists, like surrogate bumble bees or pollinators, would very gently take say a tweezer...
RAMSAY: Or a cocktail stick or a brush.
KRULWICH: And sweep pollen off the male part of the flower and then brush it onto the female part, hoping to produce a seed.
RAMSAY: Unfortunately with this plant that wasn't happening.
KRULWICH: It just wouldn't seed. They tried, they tried.
RAMSAY: We've been basically working at Kew on the plant for 20 years. Yeah.
KRULWICH: Twenty years. Whew. And all that time back in Rodrigues the original plant it was sitting there under guard, behind its fences, and it was also not seeding. And then Margaret Ramsay said well why don't we try something truly radical?
RAMSAY: This experiment was very much a suck it and see approach.
KRULWICH: What did you call it? A suck it and see approach?
RAMSAY: Approach? Yes.
KRULWICH: Ooh, you talk dirty down there in Kew, don't you? And the experiment was kind of kinky, too. They gave the London plant kind of like sex hormone shots.
RAMSAY: Yeah, I suppose it would be like taking the hormones that the athletes aren't' supposed to use to enhance their performance.
RAMSAY: And about two or three weeks after we started doing this...
KRULWICH: They saw a swelling and then Margaret said the swelling produced a teeny, what would you...
RAMSAY: Basically it looked like a tiny little fig.
KRULWICH: Ooh, that's what you'd been waiting for, right?
RAMSAY: Indeed. And we couldn't believe it.
KRULWICH: Because with that seed they could create real genetically different babies. So in the plant world this was big.
RAMSAY: To a very small group of people it was very big news.
KRULWICH: But then came the biggest and strangest news of all. Back in Rodrigues a cutting from the original plant with no hormones and for no apparent reason, it seeded too.
RAMSAY: All by itself. And nobody has seen that for, like, since the plant had been watched.
KRULWICH: Wow. Because this is the same plant, more or less...
KRULWICH: ...doing it all at once.
RAMSAY: Yeah. Doing it in Rodrigues where it was found and also the plant in Kew was producing seeds at the same time.
KRULWICH: But why?
PAYENDEE: How do you explain that it happened at the same time in here?
KRULWICH: Maybe the hormones helped in London, the plant there continues to seed, so there are now real babies.
RAMSAY: There are about 20 little seedlings.
KRULWICH: That one day could go back to Rodrigues. The seeds in Rodrigues, meanwhile, have not produced a plant, not yet.
PAYENDEE: But I'm still waiting.
KRULWICH: And who knows if this plant will survive in the wild. The real question is, why after 20 years and all the efforts by all those people all over the world, why after sitting there all this time did they plant suddenly decide to help itself? To this hour nobody knows. Though Wendy has a notion. It's not scientifically defensible, it comes really more from admiration...
RAMSAY: This is (unintelligible) fantastic plant. It's one of the best plants in the world.
KRULWICH: That maybe she thinks what really happened here is at the very, very, very edge of extinction this plant just decided to stick around. Robert Krulwich, NPR News in New York.
BLOCK: And you can see what that fantastic little plant looks like at our website, npr.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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