Oldest living plant clone

In a sense, this qualifies as “oldest living plant.” However, this grove of shrubs in Tasmania is really a colony of genetically identical, vegetatively propagated clones: “World’s oldest plant?

A team of Tasmanian botanists claims to have found the world’s oldest living plant–a vast, low-growing, one-of-a-kind shrub born more than 43,000 years ago. If their conclusions are accurate, this Lomatia tasmanica, a member of Proteaceae family otherwise known as King’s holly, would be more than three times as old as the previous record holder, a 13,000-year-old box huckleberry in Pennsylvania

The leader of the research team, Rene Vaillancourt, a plant geneticist at the University of Tasmania, says the plant ranges over an area of 1.2 km. Its age–about 43,600 years–was estimated using carbon-14 dating of charcoal found along with fossilized leaf fragments. The fragments themselves were too fragile to date, he says.

Vaillancourt admits that there is no direct evidence linking the plant fossil to the living representative. But he says the time it would take for the slow-growing organism, which scientists have been monitoring for several years, to spread so broadly in the nutrient-poor soil is consistent with the isotope dating. A report on the discovery is to appear next January in the Australian Journal of Botany.

Discovered in 1934, the plant is the only known example of its species. “We’re trying to keep the exact location secret,” says Vaillancourt, noting only that it lives in a rainforest in the protected World Heritage Area in southwest Tasmania. It has shiny green leaves, 10 to 20 centimeters in length, dissected like other hollies; red flowers that bloom off the leaf tips; and about 200 stems. This specimen is sterile, propagating itself by sending out rhizomes, or roots.


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