Nature

19
Aug

Rare and Remarkable Plant is Changing Our Sense of What it Means to Be ‘Old’

In 2004, Stefan Bloodworth and his 7-year-old son, Ethan, discovered an 800-year-old plant in their backyard.

The box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera) they found believed to be one of the oldest living things on Earth. It’s a small evergreen that bears fruit, and it’s now imperiled in several U.S. states—including North Carolina, where Bloodworth discovered the plant. Now he’s brought some of it to the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. for preservation.

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Box huckleberry reproduces by creating clones of itself.

Old box huckleberry’s are not new to science—in the early 20th century, botanists found a huge 10,000- to 13,000-year-old patch of it nestled near Losh Run, Pennsylvania. That particular clone eventually spread more than a mile wide; another nine-mile-wide section of it in a neighboring town is thought to be around 1,300 years old. The newer patch that Bloodworth found in North Carolina is smaller, meaning it’s a bit younger. We know that because of the unique way that we measure box huckleberry’s “age”—by how much territory it occupies.

Anthony De Palma interviewed Margaret R. Pooler, the arboretum’s director, in a story for The New York Times:

The plant is considered self-sterile—it cannot fertilize itself with its own pollen—and relies on similar box huckleberries around it to reproduce, Dr. Pooler said. But it is something of a loner, growing in dry spots isolated from other plants like it.

Without pollination, it sends out underground runners that produce genetically identical shoots, or clones, spreading an average of six inches a year until it covers an immense area. (A box huckleberry’s age is calculated by measuring its spread and dividing by six.)

Box huckleberries aren’t unique in this way of propagation. Aspen trees, for example, also send out clonal shoots, and entire groves can live for millennia. Aspen and box huckleberry calls into question what exactly we mean by age. Is the age only determined by the original’s longevity as opposed to its offshoots? Or can an age include the number of years that any clones have lived?

Regardless, botanists are working to preserve box huckleberry. Arboretum director Pooler is introducing isolated clones to spur the reproductive process and even bees to encourage cross-pollination. Box huckleberries may live long, but like so many other plants and animals, they sometimes need a little help getting started.