Nature

A prehistoric plant could reproduce in the UK for the first time in human history

Palm tree-like Cycads are flowering and could possibly reproduce in the UK for the first time in human history – and experts think that climate change could be the cause.

While Cycads (or more specifically Cycas revoluta) flower in several parts of the world, they only bloom like this in very warm climates. Not, usually, in the Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England.

Now cones from both male and female Cycads have appeared, something which has never been recorded as happening before in the UK human history, and that gives local botanists the chance for another first: to transfer pollen between them.

“Interestingly, back in time Cycads lived in the area that was to become the Isle of Wight, fossil Cycads have been found in the cliffs along the West Wight coast,” wrote Liz Walker from the botanic garden in a news update on the site. ”Therefore Cycads have been on holiday away from the area for 120 million years.”

“This can be seen as further evidence from the plant kingdom of climate change in action,” she added.

“Certainly this sort of plant could formerly not be considered hardy in the UK; the recent heatwave has contributed to the individual cone growth.”

Experts think Cycads have been absent from northwest Europe for around 60 million years, which gives you an idea of what an extraordinary event this is – and which demonstrates how temperatures are shifting across the globe.

July 2019 saw the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK – 38.7 degrees Celsius or 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit – and we know that many other parts of the world are consistently getting warmer too.

“Conditions must be improving or triggering for us to get a male and a female at the same time,” John Curtis, the director of the Ventnor Botanic Garden, told Yessenia Funes at Earther.

“For us, it’s just a symptom of the changing climate. It’s the plants talking to us and responding to these favorable conditions.”

The Isle of Wight is one of the mildest parts of the UK, and botanic garden staff say the lowest January temperatures are now averaging above what the highest January temperatures were 100 years ago.

That’s a shift that’s allowing a different type of plant to survive the winter. Speaking to Patrick Barkham at the Guardian, Ventnor Botanic Garden curator Chris Kidd said he thinks the site is a “predictor” for what Britain will be like in 20-30 years.

While the discovery is an exciting one for Britain’s botanists, it shouldn’t take away from the very real dangers that our climate emergency threatens: ultimately a genuine threat to human civilisation, according to some experts.

We can’t say the plants didn’t try to warn us.

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