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One Of The World's Rarest Trees Recently Bloomed At The Missouri Botanical Garden

There are fewer than two dozen Karomia gigas trees known to exist in the wild, at two sites in Eastern Tanzania.
Cassidy Moody
Missouri Botanical Garden
There are fewer than two dozen Karomia gigas trees known to exist in the wild, at two sites in Eastern Tanzania.

Researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden have been waiting almost three years for the Karomia gigas tree, a species that's dangerously near extinction, to flower and bloom.

On May 3, Missouri Botanical Garden senior horticulturist Justin Lee was watering the plants in the garden’s greenhouse, per his usual routine. But this time, there was a long-anticipated visitor making its debut. For nearly three years, garden researchers had waited for the Karomia gigas tree to flower and bloom.

That’s because the species is alarmingly close to extinction — only about 25 known trees remain in existence. Missouri Botanical Garden researchers in Tanzania have focused their efforts on preserving what’s left of the species. Of the thousands of seeds sent back to the garden in 2018, only a handful turned out to be viable.

Andrew Wyatt is senior vice president of horticulture at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. He’s a part of the team working to research and preserve the Karomia gigas.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Wyatt joined host Sarah Fenske to share more about what we know about the tree species, and the garden’s efforts to prevent its extinction.

“The good news is that out of the 25 individuals, we've got representation from about seven, we think. And that's really important because it's not just [about] the plant itself, but it's the genetic diversity we want to consider in the conservation of the species. So the more individuals we've got, the more genetic diversity we've got, the higher chances we've got of being able to create viable breeding populations back in the wild,” he said.

The flower that bloomed in the garden’s greenhouse last month only lasted for about 24 hours, and the researchers there are likely the first taxonomists to ever see the tree flower and document it.

“The excitement was very, very evident amongst the staff,” Wyatt recalled. “Obviously, it took three years to get the plant to flower, and we were debating whether it was actually going to flower during our careers, during our lifetimes even, because trees like that can take many, many years.”

In the 24 hours, staffers were able to take pictures and describe the flower’s characteristics. A week later, a second flower bloomed. Wyatt said the garden harvested it and preserved it in alcohol to further botanically describe the species based on its dimensions.

“If I was to bet, I think that we're gonna see flowers probably every year on the species as it comes out of dormancy, maybe sporadically,” he added.

If all goes well with fostering the plant’s growth, garden patrons might have the opportunity to view it in the Climatron conservatory in the near future.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Lara Hamdan joined St. Louis Public Radio as the news intern in 2017 and went on to become a producer for St. Louis on the Air before her latest role as the newsroom's Engagement Editor. A St. Louis native, Lara studied journalism and international relations at Webster University. She's fluent in English and Arabic – and in eating falafel sandwiches and veggie burgers. She enjoys discovering new people and gems in the city throughout her work at St. Louis Public Radio.
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