A sweet pea plant with a unique purple flower that was believed to have gone extinct more than 200 years ago has been found growing in South Africa.
The stunning fountain bush was spotted by a sharp eyed student botanist during an expedition to the mountain-fringed wine lands of the Western Cape.
Named Psoralea cataracta, it has delicate petals and threadlike stalks. It had not been seen since 1804 until Brian du Preez accidentally stumbled upon a population.
It was on a narrow track close to a river on a farm near the scenic village of Tulbagh, which is enclosed on three sides.
The survival of the long lost species was confirmed by Professor Charles Stirton, former director of the National Botanic Garden of Wales.
The delicate flower and thread-like flower stalks of Psoralea cataracta, a type of fountain bush which only occur close to mountain streams in the Tulbagh region of the Western Cape, last observed in 1804.
He said: “This is a very important find as it shows how the Cape is still relatively unexplored in many mountainous areas.”
Sweet peas are among the most popular plants in the UK. Their combination of butterfly-wing colours and wonderful fragrance captures the very best of a British summer in one flower.
Psoralea cataracta was one of the first recorded plants to have been lost to forestry and agriculture in the Western Cape in the 1800s. It only occurs next to mountain streams in the region.
It was known from a single specimen collected from ‘Tulbagh waterfall’ at the start of the 19th century.
In 2008, after many fruitless searches, it was officially declared extinct on the Red Data List of South African Plants.
Mr du Preez, 26, instantly recognised it from previous search efforts as a volunteer with CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) around the waterfall.
He said: “As soon as I saw those delicate thread-like flower stalks, I knew it was Psoralea cataracta.”
Last seen in 1804, Psoralea cataracta was rediscovered by Brian du Preez, a Ph.D. student in botany at the University of Cape Town, when he accidentally stumbled upon a population on a narrow track close to a river on a farm near Tulbagh in the Western Cape.
Prof Stirton said the definitive characteristics are the remarkable leaves, very long stalks and the “unique flower colour”.
He said: “Given than many of the Cape Flora only come up briefly after fires, fading quickly, and that sometimes these fires are irregular, the chances of being in an area at the right time is slim. Well done to Brian for a wonderful find.”
Ismail Ebrahim, project manager at CREW, agrees that it is a groundbreaking discovery.
He said: “It is really uncommon to find a properly extinct species, something that hasn’t been seen for ages.
“And with Cape Flora it is even harder, because most species are restricted to a really small patch and it is easy to miss them if you don’t go off the beaten path.
“It also just shows you the value of proper field botany, like they did it in the old days.”
It was found on a narrow track close to a river on a farm near the scenic village of Tulbagh on South Africa’s Western Cape
Mr du Preez has built a reputation. While at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, in 2016, he rediscovered two presumed extinct species in the pea family.
Polhillia ignota and Aspalathus cordicarpa, were last seen in 1928 and the 1950s, respectively.
This year he collected a new species of Aspalathus growing on sand dunes on the banks of the Riet River in the Swartruggens Mountains north of Ceres.
He is now in a rush to get the species described, as this part of the Riet River is earmarked for orchard expansion.
Warned Mr du Preez: “We can only conserve what we have described. Only species that have been formally described can receive a Red Data List status, which by law then protect it from development, depending on its conservation status.”
For this reason, he has decided to tackle a revision of the genus Indigofera in the Greater Cape Floristic Region (GCFR) for his PhD.
This diverse genus comprises over 100 species in the region, with at least 30 new species to be formally described.
He has been covering thousands of miles in his Nissan bakkie – from the Richtersveld through into the Eastern Cape, and everything in between for the past six months, and has already collected over 60 Indigofera species.
For botanists, the period from September to November every year is when most plants are in flower.
So next week he is off on a three week field trip to the Garden Route and the Eastern Cape.
Sweet peas were unknown in the UK until 1699, when a monk in Sicily called Franciscus Cupani sent seeds of Lathyrus odoratus to renowned Enfield horticulturalist Dr Uvedale.
It was likely to have been the magenta and purple bicolour now called ‘Cupani’. There are thousands of varieties.
WHAT DO EXPERTS PREDICT FOR THE FATE OF THE PLANET’S PLANTS AND ANIMALS?
Nature is in more trouble now than at any time in human history with extinction looming over one million species of plants and animals, experts say.
That’s the key finding of the United Nations‘ (UN) first comprehensive report on biodiversity – the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat.
The report – published on May 6, 2019 – says species are being lost at a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past.
Many of the worst effects can be prevented by changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, the report said.
The report’s 39-page summary highlighted five ways people are reducing biodiversity:
– Turning forests, grasslands and other areas into farms, cities and other developments. The habitat loss leaves plants and animals homeless. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, making it harder for species to survive, the report said.
– Overfishing the world’s oceans. A third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.
– Permitting climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to make it too hot, wet or dry for some species to survive. Almost half of the world’s land mammals – not including bats – and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.
– Polluting land and water. Every year, 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters.
– Allowing invasive species to crowd out native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70 per cent since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.