King’s Holly: The 43,600 Year Old Plant

Apr 7, 2021 0 comments

Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King's lomatia or King’s Holly, is an unusual plant. It bears flowers, yet produces neither fruit nor seeds. The King’s holly propagates by dropping a branch, and letting the fallen branch take root and grow into a new plant. Unsurprisingly, all existing members of Lomatia tasmanica, numbering just 300 plants, are found within a narrow corridor of land just over one kilometer in length. Because the reproduction is vegetative, all the plants in this colony are genetically identical making the entire grove a clone. The plant has been cloning itself for at least 43,600 years, and possibly up to 135,000 years. This makes Lomatia tasmanica one of the oldest living plant clones.

Lomatia tasmanica

Lomatia tasmanica. Photo: Natalie Tapson/Flickr

Lomatia tasmanica was discovered in 1934 by Australian miner Charles Denison King while mining for tin in the foothills of the Bathurst Range in south western Tasmania. Being a naturalist himself, King was able to recognize the plant as a species of the genus Lomatia. However, he was not aware that it was a new species, neither did he suspect its extraordinary age.

In 1965 King found another population of the same species about 5 km from the first. The original plant group had unfortunately died out. This time King sent cuttings of the plant to botanist Winifred Curtis from the University of Tasmania for identification. Curtis was able to confirm that it was indeed a new species of Lomatia and called it Lomatia tasmanica, but more popularly it’s known as King's Holly after its discoverer.

The growth of King’s holly is remarkably slow. Dendrochronology dated one piece of stem to be 240 years old, signifying a growth rate of only 0.26 mm per year. At this glacial pace, such a plant could persist in a confined location for several hundred or thousands of years. Indeed, carbon dating of fossilized leaf fragments yielded the date of 43,600 years. That’s how long the plant has been cloning itself, although each individual plant's lifespan is only about 300 years.

Related: Pando, the Single Largest Living Organism on Earth

Lomatia tasmanica is critically endangered. There is only one remaining group of plant scattered through about 1.2 kilometers of landscape. This area is prone to fires and other natural threats, so starting from the 1990s, Tasmania began an effort to develop other populations of the Lomatia in controlled environments. But efforts to cultivate the plant have been largely a failure. “It doesn't like root disturbance so every time we pot it on we're losing plants unfortunately.” explained Natalie Tapson from the University of Tasmania School of Plant Science.

Lomatia tasmanica’s fragility is surprising given that it’s been propagating for thousand of years.

Tapson and her fellow botanists are now attempting to graft Kings Holly plants on to the roots of a similar plant species. Tapson says, “By putting it onto a different root stock it's hoped that when you plant it out or transfer it you're not going to have that loss because the root stock is stronger.”

King’s holly is so delicate that specimens of the plant at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens are not on display to the public.

# Marion Jarratt, King's Holly - The World's Oldest Living Tree?, Australian Plants Online
# Karen Graham, Botanists fight to save world's oldest living plant, Digital Journal


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