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Botanist preserves rare abutilon

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'Extinct' plant flowers

17 February 2010

The 'extinct' abutilon. Image: Dr Noeleen Smyth

An abutilon thought extinct until just a few years ago has produced multiple flowers for the first time at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland in Dublin.

Abutilon pitcairnense, found only on the small island of Pitcairn near French Polynesia in the South Pacific, was presumed extinct until 2002, when the chance discovery of a single remaining plant by local nursery-owner Carol Warren led to intensive efforts to save it.

The first cuttings, brought back to Ireland by botanist Dr Noeleen Smyth, rooted and produced a single flower in 2005 but were unable to set seed. Now, after several years of bulking up from further cuttings, more than 20 of the plants have burst into flower simultaneously.

"We want to build the most genetically diverse population possible," said Noeleen. "All we have at the moment are clones but we want to see what's happening at a genetic level and get as many individuals as possible."

The original plant has since been destroyed by a landslide, so more cuttings are being distributed to other botanic gardens such as Kew to ensure their long-term survival. It's hoped that within a year or two the plants can be returned to Pitcairn to re-establish a population in the wild.

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