Tasmanians discover 43,000-year-old plant

Published: Thursday, July 10 1997 12:00 a.m. MDT

The oldest living plant in the world - a self-propagating Tasmanian holly bush - has been growing for more than 43,000 years, scientists es-ti-mate.

A cloned cutting of the specimen, originally discovered on Apple Island in the 1930s, has lived unnoticed for years in a pot at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Hobart.The announcement this week by Stephen Harris, chief botanist of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, revealed that "Lomatia Tasmanica," whose common name is king's holly, was 30,000 years older than the previous contender for the title, a U.S. huckleberry.

Discovered in a fragment of rain forest in Tasmania's wild southwest more than 50 years ago, its extraordinary age was not initially suspected. "It's a wonderful creation to be able to study," Harris said, "The first reaction was one of excitement because it is very strong evidence."

The bush, which has glossy, pointed leaves and resembles holly, is described as a self-propagating clone. It does not produce seeds but sheds "cuttings" of itself that grow on the forest floor into genetically identical clones.

The plant appears to consist of hundreds of individual shrubs, but research has shown they are essentially the same plant, which flowers regularly.

"When people think of a 43,000-year-old plant, they probably visualize something gnarled and twisted," said Harris. "This just looks like an undershrub in the forest."

There are already plans to study the holly bush's ecology and chromosomes to reproduce it so it could be sold to gardeners around the world.

But the priority is for botanists from Parks and Wildlife and the University of Tasmania's Department of Plant Science to conserve the plant's environment.

"We've got to be careful we don't expose it to disease because it's in a family that is very susceptible to cinnamon fungus, which can be easily tracked in on boots," said Harris.

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