Botanist turns matchmaker to save the wild asparagus

A A A

Wanted: matchmaker for the delicate task of introducing a lonely female to the opposite sex. Agility with tweezers and magnifying glass an advantage.

One of the most unusual jobs in Britain has gone to a botanist at an environmental research centre who will attempt later this week to facilitate sex between wild asparagus plants.

Bryan Edwards has agreed to take on the onerous responsibility of bringing flowers from the nearest male asparagus plants in Cornwall to a single female living 125 miles away on the Dorset coast.

His job is to ensure that healthy, mature pollen within the flowers of the male plants is transferred to the sexual organs of the female flowers in the hope of successful fertilisation.

If the sex act goes to plan then the female asparagus in Dorset ­ the only wild member of the species outside Cornwall and south Wales ­ will set fruit in September with the hope of spreading her seeds further afield.

"I haven't done this sort of thing before but I'm not that nervous. There was a pilot project done last year on hand pollination with some success," said Mr Edwards, a biological surveyor at the Dorset Environmental Research Centre.

Mr Edwards will snip stems from about six male plants at two National Trust sites in Cornwall to use as pollen donors to the lonely female growing near a cliff edge on the Portland coast.

"You need to choose flowers that are fully open and which are full of mature pollen. I'll be transporting the flowers in a vase with water," Mr Edwards said.

"It's not hopefully going to take too long by car. This is the safest way of doing it without damaging the plant," he said.

Once in Dorset, Mr Edwards will gently introduce or "kiss" the male flowers to the females in the hope of transferring pollen from the male stamens to the female stigma.

Lucy Cordrey, a conservationist with the National Trust, which is overseeing the project, said that some of the fruit from the union would be taken and grown in pots with the possibility of reintroducing them into the wild after two years of domestic cultivation.

"It's a rare plant and the 28 recorded populations of it in Britain are on their most northerly distribution range in Europe," Ms Cordrey said.

The Dorset female is the single surviving member of a Portland population that was once far more extensive. The plant was first recorded in the area in 1782.

However, local naturalists lost track of the Portland asparagus after a torpedo factory was built on their habitat in 1885. The plant made a reappearance near an old railway in 1951 but was lost again in 1961, only to be found rediscovered in 1997.

Wild asparagus, Asparagus prostratus, is related to the domestic variety but unlike its cousin it tastes bitter. It grows underground rhizomes or tubers and dies back to the soil each winter, with its shoots re-emerging in spring. It is conceivable that the sole remaining female is the direct descendant of the original 19th-century population, in effect making it more than 100 years old, Ms Cordrey said.

In addition to vegetative reproduction using its rhizomes, the plant can engage in sex so long as there are male and female plants within a close-enough vicinity to allow insects to act as natural pollinators.

"The National Trust plays a vital role in the conservation of wild asparagus as it owns and manages much of the coast where they grow," Ms Cordrey said.

"If all goes well on the day, these rare plants should hopefully be on the road to recovery in this part of the country," she added.

Dr Tim Rich, a botanist at the National Museum of Wales, said: "These fantastic plants are usually pollinated by bees ­ but lack of insects, cold, wet and windy weather, and distance can all put pay to pollination. We're here to give them a helping hand. From here on it's up to the plants themselves."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue
E L James's book Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

It's hard to understand why so many are buying it – but then best-selling was ever an inexact science, says DJ Taylor
Behind the scenes of the world's most experimental science labs

World's most experimental science labs

The photographer Daniel Stier has spent four years gaining access to some of the world's most curious scientific experiments
It's the stroke of champions - so why is the single-handed backhand on the way out?

Single-handed backhand: on the way out?

If today's young guns wish to elevate themselves to the heights of Sampras, Graf and Federer, it's time to fire up the most thrilling shot in tennis
HMS Saracen: Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled

HMS Saracen

Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'

7/7 bombings 10 years on

Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'