Laura (tavella) wrote,

The tale of cafe marron

One of my favorite books ever is Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams, and one of most memorable stories in it is the story of the last Rodriguan wild coffee plant. It had been thought extinct for years, until in 1980 a local teacher was showing pictures of the many extinct flora and fauna of Rodrigues to his class, and a student named Hedley Manan said "but there's one of those by my house."

And one it was; the only one. In the book, the story is memorable for the tale of the fences the government kept building around the plant, which convinced the locals it was special, which meant they kept cutting off bits, and so the government would build another fence around the fence.

But the afterlife is perhaps more interesting. In 1986, botanists at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens managed to get a cutting to root. It grew and flowered and they were able to clone it repeatedly, but it and the clones never produced fruit no matter how they tried to fertilize them. They began to think it might be male, and in fact they were right. And if that was true, their wild coffee plants would never be able to produce seeds, and cafe marron would remain a living dead plant, only reproducible in captivity.

But these were no mere mortal gardeners; they persisted, and after 17 years of experiments, their clone produced one fruit, with seven seeds.

None of which germinated. And the same procedure repeated produced no more fruit.

But as I said, these were no mere mortal gardeners, and finally they found the right combination of stresses and environment that would force the plant to occasionally produce a fruit. And four of the five seeds from that second fruit sprouted, and more than 50 from the others they were able to produce from the clones. And when the plants grew to maturity, some of them were female, and fertilized produced a proper fruit, with scores of seeds. Which, since plants are generally polyploid, had a great deal of genetic diversity despite coming from a single forefather.

And last year, many saplings and hundreds of seeds were taken back to Rodrigues, to be planted in reserves and hopefully eventually all over the island.

There's a lot to be depressed about these days, when looking at the environment. So sometimes you need a good story, and the pure determination that it took to get a hopeless case, a solitary male plant, into a whole forest of diverse and fertile seedlings, that's a good story.
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