Starfruit seeds spring to life in restored ponds

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

A century ago, Britain was still dotted with tens of thousands of small ponds on commons, village greens and roadsides for farm animals to drink from. Their heavily trampled banks were muddy and the water level rose and fell with the rainfall. At the end of summer, there were large areas of dried out mud.

The starfruit was well adapted for coping with the difficult conditions that life on the edge of these ponds presented to water plants. It produced large seeds which either sunk to the bottom or floated, usually to the water's edge. These would only germinate after they have been in dried out mud then re-wetted, but if this did not happen, the seeds would remain viable for decades.

So while the annual plant died out at the end of summer, the specialised seeds could restart the cycle of life when the autumn rains flooded the dried out mud banks. Cattle helped move the seeds from habitat to habitat on their hooves.

Most of these ponds have disappeared now, filled with sediment, trees and scrub because they were no longer needed. Once fairly common as far north as Yorkshire, the starfruit was restricted to just three ponds by 1990, one in Surrey and two in Buckinghamshire.

But when one pond in the Chilterns was cleaned out and cleared of scrub and trees by local conservationists, the starfruit reappeared in profusion because its seeds were still in the mud and the right condition for their germination was created. This experience has been repeated at a handful of other ponds.

The starfruit gets its name because its small white flowers turn into green fruits which resemble six-pointed stars, each point bearing two seeds. It is no relation to the exotic fruit import now found in your local superstore.

A committee of wildlife conservationists, academics, government biologists and civil servants has included it on a list of 116 British plant and animal species. A rescue plan has been drawn up for each specie because it is rare or rapidly declining.

The starfruit has already been returned to several of its old ponds by the conservation charity, Plantlife, either through restoration work which has reawakened long dormant seeds or by importing the plant.

The committee says it should be returned to at least 10 of its old sites by 2004. It suggests all of its known sites today should become government- designated Sites of Special Scientific nterest, which would give them some measure of protection from development and damage. The rescue plan, which is centred on ensuring a few ponds are managed in a way which favours this rare plant, has been costed pounds 4,000 a year.