Back from the dead: scientist revives lost plant of old England

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This is the unlikely story of the native plant that came back from the dead.

For years it was thought to be extinct in Britain and, since this was the only place in the world it grew, on the rest of the planet, too. But thanks to the dedicated work of one extraordinary scientist, it has been saved, nurtured and returned to the wild. It is, The Independent on Sunday can reveal, the first extinct plant to be so restored in British conservation history.

The story would be a true wildlife fairy tale but for one thing: the plant in question is, in appearance, less a princess than an ugly sister. It is bromus interruptus, the interrupted brome, a grass, not a fetching flower, and so named because its seeds seem to have been picked away at intervals along the stem.

It was discovered in 1849, growing as an arable weed in a field in Cambridgeshire, and over the next century or so, it was recorded in southern counties from Kent to Somerset. But from the 1930s, as farmers sprayed pesticides and more and more weeds were screened out, it went into steep decline and was last seen, not far from where it was originally found, in 1972. Later, it was duly declared extinct.

So it might have remained, a kind of green dodo, had a botanist, Philip Smith, not secretly squirreled away some seeds harvested from those last few plants in Cambridge. He took them home, grew them on his window sill, and, at a Botanical Society of the British Isles conference in 1979, produced with a flourish a pot of the risen-again bromus interruptus, bringing gasps and requests for seeds all round.

Some fell on stony ground: one scientific establishment found they didn't keep if stored at room temperature. But others found a safer footing at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, and it was grown on in horticultural "captivity". Botanists began to dream that the plant, almost the only one exclusive to southern England, could be returned to the wild. Its seed was safely stored in the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, and Kew's Stewart Henchie began leading a team that intended to put the brome back into Britain.

Kew started growing as much as it could, as did Paignton Zoo, which has a tradition of fostering plants as well as animals. Last summer a far larger area was seeded, at English Nature's reserve at Aston Rowant in the Chilterns. Hundreds of plants germinated, flourished, and are now in fruit. Last week, word leaked out among botanical "twitchers" that the interrupted brome was back. Aston Rowant's manager, Graham Steven, is fielding calls from admirers asking when they can come to see it. The answer is now, in a field by the M40, just past the thistles.

If this work continues to succeed, the brome may prove to be not a thing of the past but merely, like its seed head, interrupted. And this project could be the first of many that return lost plants to the wild.