Botanist turns matchmaker to save the wild asparagus

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The Independent Online

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."