June 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Consider the lily

By Chloe Hooper

Nearly six months after the Grampians bushfires, the national park has the eerie beauty of a land from a fairytale. Rows of blackened trees are decked in regrowth resembling green fur coats. These epicormic shoots are signs of the park’s recovery. The Australian bush is, after all, pyromaniacal. Many species, including hakeas and grevilleas, rely on fire, or chemicals in the smoke, to crack open their hard pods so as to reseed. Other plants – like arsonists in disguise – have volatile chemicals within their leaves that help them burn. However, not all plants will benefit from the fire. Some have suffered heat of such intensity that they will not recover during our lifetimes. And in the case of the pincushion lily, the rarest species in the park, no one knew if it would grow back at all.

Of Australia’s 260 native lilies, the pincushion lily is among the rarest. There are approximately ten known species, of which just one grows in south-eastern Australia: the critically endangered Grampians pincushion lily, Borya mirabilis. Amidst the silence of a remote 400-million-year-old rock outcrop, the ancient flower grows to 15 centimetres, with spiky pin-like leaves and, during spring, delicate white star-shaped petals. It could be the primordial prototype for the ones in the Gospel of Matthew: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

The Borya mirabilis is known as a “resurrection plant” because it appears to die during dry periods, but regenerates after the onset of autumn rains. Named for Bory de St Vincent, a nineteenth-century French naturalist, the lily was first collected in 1924, but was believed to be extinct – or some kind of botanical hoax – until its rediscovery in 1983. Even with expert directions it can be difficult to find. The entire population lives in an area just 20 by 60 metres, a location that is now a tightly guarded secret. (“Half the staff don’t even know where it is,” one ranger told me. “They’d have to be shot.”) Visitors to the Grampians, looking for rare plants, come into the park and try to dig the lily up. Other vandals include introduced pests, such as rabbits and goats, which disturb the soil and spread bacteria.

Twice a year, in autumn and spring, the lily is monitored by Mike Stevens, a ranger and the leader of the Grampians Pincushion Recovery Team. He and a team-mate record the lily’s progress, place erosion matting nearby, and apply pasteurised mulch to the stem to retain moisture and help good microbes attack bad microbes. “Not often in your career do you have a custodial role over a plant where there are only 70 known specimens in the world. I know this sounds wanky, but I want it to be in better condition for my grandchildren than it is now.”

Then lightning struck on 20 January and began a blaze so fierce it created its own weather pattern. Graham Parkes has been a ranger for 33 years but had never before seen such an inferno: “It tended to generate an intensity and speed that you rarely see in fire behaviour, due to the weather and extremely dry fuel conditions.” 130,000 hectares of bush and parkland burned. Parkes watched birds land and die in front of him.

After the fire, Mike Stevens went to visit the pincushion lily site and found it a “moonscape, white ash and charred tree stumps”. Nothing was known about the lily’s relationship to fire. (After its 1983 rediscovery, the botanist DM Churchill wrote in Muelleria, the journal of the National Herbarium of Victoria: “It must depend for its precarious survival on absence of fire.”) Was the lily, the rarest species in the Grampians, gone forever? The rangers waited. Could the lily resurrect itself not only from the dead, but also from extinction?

In Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, as a back-up, the plant was being propagated from offcuts and seed gathered before the fire. Liz James, a conservation geneticist, took me to see Borya mirabilis. In a hothouse, sitting on a shelf, were nine plastic pots containing the tiny plant, each with a flower the size of a small child’s fingernail. The Grampians pincushion lily was a kind of novelty, almost a botanist’s brainteaser: Where did this species come from? Why is it here?

No one knew if the lily was a “relic species”, a plant on its way out for evolutionary reasons; or if its narrow area of existence was due to human intervention. Without proof either way, the scientists were not prepared to give up on it. “As you lose the species of an ecosystem,” James explained, “you are reducing the ability of those plant communities that also support all those animal communities to buffer themselves. The more you dismantle, the more chance you have of disrupting a whole suite of things. And we are not prepared to make the decision that this plant is less important than something else that is more common.”

The news of the Grampians bushfire had been upsetting for James and others studying the plant: “A lot of people had spent a lot of time and effort trying to keep them alive.” All that research seemed to be for nought. “Sometimes you might think, ‘Why do you do it?’” James said, “because it’s a bit depressing. We’ve got students working on orchids that used to be common around Melbourne, but that habitat has gone and those orchids are just in pots now.”

Reintroducing plants to their natural ecosystem is delicate, difficult work, and a high proportion of species die. Barely anything was known about the pincushion lily’s ecological requirements. In general, plants do better when a lot of them are reintroduced, but the tiny original population of Borya mirabilis meant only a few specimens were available.

James said, “You can see if it was trampled by something, or if a wallaby ate it – there’s not a lot to it.” Looking at it, there wasn’t. These plants had outlasted dinosaurs and volcanos and European settlement. Now they were here in this greenhouse, like a plant hospice, waiting for their twice-weekly watering. “It’s easier to say, ‘How could you live in a world without elephants?’” James pointed out, “rather than, ‘How could you live in a world without Borya?’”

On 3 May, ranger Mike Stevens went monitoring in the Grampians and found, among the reseeding and resprouting plants, Borya mirabilis. The pincushion lily was living up to its Latin name: wonderful, extraordinary, marvellous! “I’m amazed,” Liz James said. “I’m amazed that it’s come back. It’s not just a resurrection plant, it’s a Lazarus plant.” “There were tears of joy,” Stevens recalled, “and Woo-hoos! Us rangers can get pretty excitable. Two of us were acting fairly silly there on a rock.”

The idea of extinction tends to make people emotional. It isn’t just our cat dying, it’s all the cats that ever were and ever will be. What’s more, it makes us think of our own futures. Plants with bad evolutionary luck have been disappearing for millions of years, but most scientists agree we are currently living in an age of mass extinction. In April, the US journal Conservation Biology declared that with present rates of global warming, a quarter of the world’s species could be extinct by 2050. It named south-western Australia an “extinction hotspot”. A certain level of biodiversity is needed to maintain our ecosystem, and it’s hard to predict how many plant species can be lost before the system will cease to function. As we wave goodbye to all these acquaintances we didn’t particularly care for – the dodo, Steller’s sea cow, the Tasmanian tiger – are they all thinking, “Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing you before you know it”? The quest to keep the pincushion lily alive is, in a way, a quest for our own survival: if it clings to its rock outcrop, fulfilling some mysterious ecological role, just a bit longer, we might buy ourselves a few extra million years.

But Borya mirabilis does have a fundamental problem. It appears to be infertile. The lilies, which are thought to be genetically identical, suffer from “self-incompatibility”. Stevens explained: “Basically, brothers and sisters are trying to make seed together. Like in the human world, it doesn’t really work that well.”

“As species age,” Liz James said, “if they have the capacity to reproduce clonally, off these little vegetative shoots, sometimes that becomes their mode of reproduction and they forget about the sexual reproduction and seed. But if there’s something that stimulates the plants, sometimes they can revert back.” In other words, fire. The January bushfires could encourage the pincushion lily to return to old-fashioned methods of reproduction. Fire could be the missing link, invigorating the Borya, leading to the spread of tiny mirabilis on the cliffs of the Grampians.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of several books, including A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man. Her latest book, The Arsonist, is out now.

Cover: June 2006

June 2006

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