Small crimes matter

Some sad news came from Kew yesterday.

Nymphaea thermarum isn’t simply rare, it’s also very unusual. It’s a water lily that doesn’t grow in water. Sadly these days it doesn’t grow anywhere in the wild as its home has been damaged by human action. In fact it’s astonishing that it grows anywhere at all because Nymphaea thermarum is a freak.

Nymphaea tells you the plant is a water-lily, but it’s the thermarum bit that hints at what is so strange about it. Thermae were the hot baths the ancient Romans liked, and Nymphaea thermarum likes a bit of heat. Its home was by a thermal spring in Rwanda. Normally a water-lily grows in deep water, not in this case. The plant had adapted to squat in the damp mud by the side of the spring. Unfortunately changes in water use have stopped water getting to the spring’s surface. The mud has dried and, in the wild, the plant is extinct.

All that remained were a few plants in saved by botanists.

Nymphaea thermarum
Nymphaea thermarum. Photo by pilot_micha/Flickr.

This was bad news, but they know what they’re doing in Kew so if anywhere could grow more, then they could. Except they couldn’t. They tried and tried, but the plant would germinate, but it would not grow. The scientists were left watching the plant go extinct before their eyes, and it seemed they had nothing they could do.

Carlos Magdalena recounts the problems he had in Water Gardener’s International. The breakthrough was applying warmth. The seeds need a temperature of 24-26ºC. After this working out what else was needed followed.

This doesn’t mean everything is now fine. It is still a staggeringly rare plant and with so few, they’re all needed to work on their conservation. If you read Carlos Magdalena’s piece you’ll see he didn’t simply do what he thought would work, but he also tested to see if there was something better he could do. Did the plants need more heat? As it happens no, but doing those experiments mean you risk losing some plants. No being able to do the experiments means taking a gamble on what works and, if you get it wrong, losing all of them. The theft of one matters.

Almost as depressing was the response from former MP Louise Mensch.

Louise Mensch can't see the point of a flower.

It’s a short-sighted opinion, but sadly not an unusual one. There’s a news story on this problem from a couple of years ago: In conservation, cute always wins. Yet cuteness is just one of many things that matter about species.

Yesterday at Kew, Paula Rudall posted Tiny plants make a huge impact about Nymphaea‘s cousins, the Hydatellaceae. Nymphaea thermarum itself is puzzle as it seems to be either a water lily moving from land to water or else moving in the opposite direction. Being able to study the plant in detail would reveal a lot about how evolution works.

The thermal requirements for growth are another feature of the plant. Heat is an important factor for some plants in signalling when to start annual growth. Understanding the mechanism for how this works would be useful in the conservation of many other species. The skills in saving this species can be applied to others too.

But suppose you’re talking to a politician who doesn’t value knowledge or skills and doesn’t see the point of a flower. What is the practical use? In Water Gardener’s International, Carlos Magdalena states: “Well, I really do think this little plant can change the face of tropical hybrid production. So many unusual traits could be added into the hybrids’ gene pool and this can’t be bad at all.”

That sounds like it has commercial value and so, to borrow a quote from Michael Faraday…

One day sir, you may tax it.

Image

Nymphaea thermarum. Photo by pilot_micha/Flickr. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.