Prehistoric plant parents

A prehistoric plant has produced male and female cones outdoors in Britain for what is believed to be the first time in millions of years.

Two cycads, a type of primitive tree that was widespread in the Solent area in the Jurassic period and even before, up to 120m years ago. It is now native to Japan and usually found in the UK only as an ornamental houseplant.

A plant in the Ventnor Botanic Gardens, in the shelter of the undercliff has now produced the first female cone on record, raising the prospect of being able to transfer pollen and generate seed. In Japan the plants are believed to be pollenated by beetles, but the female flour in Ventnor will be pollenated by hand in around a week’s time.

According to Chris Kidd, curator at the gardens it is a worrying sign of climate change. He said: “For the first time in 60m years in the UK we’ve got a male cone and a female cone at the same time which will enable us to produce seeds. It’s very exciting and I’m looking forward to making history, but that is twinged with great concerns about the climate change that is bringing it about.”

“This is not something that’s happened with a short-term mild spell. It’s a longer-term warming which is making these things happen. Here on the Island the Botanic Garden is the mildest place on the Island, so this is a precursor of what could happen in Island gardens in 20 years or so.

“Twenty years ago we couldn’t have grown them. In 1986 the cycads at the gardens were very badly damaged by cold weather, since then we’ve not had any conditions even close to giving them any problems. These are relics from flora that dominated the earth when dinosaurs were here, their demise led to the arrival of flowering plants, but that was a catastrophic event, and I can see a similar change happening before my eyes right now.”