How these scientists are saving a tiny lily from extinction

A major project is underway in South Africa to rescue the paintbrush lily.

Dominique West, Dr Paul Hills, Dr Gary Stafford and Martin Smit

Dominique West (centre), Dr Paul Hills (left), Dr Gary Stafford (right) and Martin Smit (back) are working to conserve the paintbrush lily © Stefan Els


Biologists at Stellenbosch University are trying to conserve the last remaining individuals of a paintbrush lily known scientifically as Haemanthus pumilio.

Only 60 individual plants exist at Duthie Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

There used to be more than a thousand of the lilies at Duthie, as well as populations at Wellington and Klapmuts, but increasing urbanisation has resulted in habitat destruction.

“Unfortunately the plant is quite tiny and easily overlooked,” said plant biotechnologist Dr Paul Hills, who is working on the project.

“The expansion that built over Duthie was in the 1990s, so there was less emphasis on conservation than there is now…it appears that the lost parts of Duthie correspond exactly to the main areas in which H.pumilio grew.”

H. pumilio is one of the smallest paintbrush lily species, growing to only 10-15 cm high © Gary Stafford


Habitat management could also be playing a part in the plant’s decline, and a management plan for the reserve has been developed.

“The species is also dependent on fire to induce flowering and requires very specific conditions for the seedlings to survive,” says Martin Smit, curator of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden.

“For various reasons the Duthie Reserve was last burned in 2004. For this type of vegetation, it is long overdue for another controlled burn.”

Hills will be working with botanist Dr Gary Stafford to increase the population of paintbrush lilies through a technique known a micropropagation.

This involves taking leaves of the bulbs, cutting them into smaller portions and placing them onto a tissue culture media containing nutrients and growth-regulating hormones.

It is hoped that these leaf samples will regenerate new plantlets, from which further samples will be taken and grown.

To prevent inbreeding, samples have been taken from genetically diverse plants.  

A seed from the paintbrush lily © Stefan Els


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