Jane Goodall Reveals Her Lifelong Fascination With…Plants?

After studying chimpanzees for decades, the celebrated scientist turns her penetrating gaze on another life-form

Goodall’s travels have often brought her face to face with exotic plants. In Cambodia, she was “awestruck” by the giant roots of an ancient strangler fig she found embracing the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat. (Ignacio Ayestaran / Flickr / Getty Images)
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Is it not amazing that a small germ of life can be kept alive—sometimes for hundreds of years—inside a protective case where it waits, patiently, for the right conditions to germinate? Is it not stretching the imagination when we are told of a seed that germinated after a 2,000-year sleep? Yet this is what has happened.

The story begins with several seeds of the Judean date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) found by archaeologists studying the ruins of King Herod’s castle fortress Masada on the shores of the Dead Sea. Small fragments of the seedcase of two of these date seeds were used for carbon dating. The remaining three were planted—and of these one grew, a seedling that they named Methuselah after the biblical character, Noah’s grandfather, who was said to have lived for 969 years.

Although Methuselah is the oldest seed to have been woken from a long sleep, there are other very old seeds that have germinated, such as the single lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) found in China in an ancient lake bed and carbon-dated at 1,288 years, plus or minus 271 years. Another seed—of the flowering perennial Canna compacta, carbon-dated at about 600 years old—had survived for goodness knows how long in a walnut shell that was used for a ceremonial rattle.

And then there is the delightful story of some seeds collected in China in 1793 that were housed in the British Museum. These seeds, at least 147 years old, started to germinate in 1940 when they were accidentally “watered” by a hose used to extinguish a fire!

A miracle of a different sort took place when a couple of seeds of an extinct plant, Cylindrocline lorencei, a beautiful flowering shrub, were—quite literally—brought back from the dead. In 1996 only one individual plant remained, growing in the Plaine Champagne area of Mauritius. And then this last survivor died also. The only hope for saving the species lay in a few seeds that had been collected by botanist Jean-Yves Lesouëf 14 years before and stored in Brest Botanic Garden in France. Unfortunately, however, all attempts to germinate these seeds failed.

But plant people do not easily give up. Using new techniques, horticulturists found that small clusters of cells in the embryo tissue of just one or two of the seeds were still alive. Eventually, painstakingly, three clones were produced. And finally, in 2003, nine years from the beginning of their efforts, those three clones flowered—and produced seeds!


When I visited Kew, horticultu- ralist Carlos Magdalena showed me their plant, donated by the botanical gardens in Brest, derived from one of those original clones. As I looked at it I felt a sense of awe. What an example of the determination and perseverance of the horticulturists—and thank goodness for the intrepid botanists who have collected seeds around the world and, in so many cases, saved precious life-forms from extinction. Plans are now underway to return Cylindrocline lorencei to its faraway home on Mauritius.

While I was still gazing at this plant, Carlos smiled and said, “This is like if tomorrow we find a frozen mammoth in Siberia and even though the mammoth is dead, a few cells in the bone marrow are still alive and from it a whole mammoth can be cloned.”

Almost one year later, I heard how Russian scientists, led by Svetlana Yashina, had been able to regenerate a plant from fruit tissue that had been frozen in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years! This plant, miraculously given new life, has been called Silene stenophylla. And, most exciting of all, it is fertile, producing white flowers and viable seeds.


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