This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, July, 2010
One Man, One Tree.
Extinction is an abiding threat for even the most populous of species. Extinction is an exceedingly close reality when a species is down to a sole surviving member, and when it is a lone female, there is not much nature can do to save the species.
At such a time, man's role as guardian of nature and all her inhabitants comes sharply into focus. Under such circumstances it takes a particular mindset to foresee the issues and more importantly conceive a solution that will rescue the species from the brink of extinction. New Zealand has had too many extinctions and we live with the constant threat that other species will follow. We are fortunate that we have had inspired and far-sighted people such as Richard Henry (1845-1929) and Don Merton (1939-), both deservedly famous for the bird species they helped conserve throughout their lives.
A more recent example of life-long dedication leading to equally important successes is that of Ross Beever, (1946-2010) who died last month. As a mycologist and phytopathologist at Landcare Research in Auckland, Ross successfully identified the diseases that were killing two of our most iconic tree species. In the 1990's cabbage trees in northern New Zealand were dying at an alarming rate from a disease named 'Sudden Decline'. Until his recent death Ross was fully involved in the research into the kauri-killing disease now known as PTA. Both cases required years of considered and meticulous research to gain an understanding of the symptoms, the vectors, and potential methods to minimise the spread and even effect a cure. Both have proved to be contentious and it required a quiet determination to continue in the face of loud opposition.
Yet it was a much less 'heralded' scientific breakthrough that may prove to be Ross's lasting contribution to conservation of our native flora and fauna.
Consider the plight of a tree from the Three Kings Islands, Pennantia baylisiana. It was discovered during a hunting exercise to rid the islands of goats. Botanist Geoff Baylis found both it and a single vine of Tecomanthe speciosa on the same day in 1945. Both had been reduced by the goats' foraging to a single specimen. Both are still alive today some 65 years later, and neither has produced any seedlings on the islands.
Nature has not recovered.
Meantime cuttings taken from the tree and the vine had been propagated and both were growing at the Government research station at Mt Albert. The Tecomanthe has set seed in cultivation and is now widely propagated. The Pennantia has not been so productive. The tree is functionally a female and as such did not produce any seed. Forty years after the Pennantia was found, Ross determined to try some experiments to see if he could induce it to produce seed. For him to conceive the process necessary to encourage the plant to set fruit, a clear understanding of both the reproductive process of plants, and the principles and effect of hormonal weedkiller was required. In short, Ross was successful and the resulting seedlings have proved to be more fertile than their mother. From having been the rarest tree in the world (Guiness Book of Records) it is now widespread in cultivation, and Oratia Native Plant Nursery which assisted Ross in his project, now donates all the proceeds from the sale of Pennantias to help fund botanical research and to minimise the risk of extinction of other species.