During the age of dinosaurs, a family of plants known as cycads flourished all around the planet. These fern-like species left fossils everywhere from Alaska to Antarctica, but their descendents have been restricted to tropical and subtropical habitats as Earth’s temperatures cooled.
Now, in an age of human-driven global heating, fertile cycads are returning to one of their old haunts. For the first time in an estimated 60 million years, cycads have produced both male and female cones on the British Isles. It would be purely amazing, if it wasn't the direct result of the very same climate trends that are threatening to displace tens of millions of people due to rising sea levels.
The cones belong to the species Cycas revoluta, which is cultivated at Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight, an island with average temperatures that are warmer than the rest of the United Kingdom.
Cycads are often found in indoor gardens at higher latitudes, but Ventnor’s plants are kept outside where it is typically too cold for them to develop the cones they need to reproduce. One male cone appeared at the garden in the summer of 2012, but it remained a bachelor in the absence of a female counterpart.
“This is the first female cone out of doors in the United Kingdom,” the garden announced on its blog this month. “This presents us with an exciting opportunity to transfer pollen and generate seeds for the first time in the United Kingdom for 60 million years.”
As average temperatures have risen over the past decades, the garden’s cycads sensed an opportunity to invest energy into cone production. The plants were further aided by intense heat waves in Europe this summer, which stimulated growth of the reproductive organs.
Cycads in their native environments are pollinated by beetles, but the Ventnor staff will try to manually fertilize seeds to grow the first new generation of these plants bred in the British Isles since the dawn of the modern Cenozoic Era.
While this experiment will be fascinating to plant-lovers, Ventnor curator Chris Kidd cautioned against looking at the cones as unequivocal good news.
"This could be seen as exciting for British gardeners,” Kidd told CNN. “But if you can see the climate changing so dramatically in such a short range of time, it's very minor when you consider what could be happening elsewhere in wider agriculture, horticulture, and socially, for populations on the planet.”