Blooming great to save a species

TO THE untrained eye it might look like just another pot plant.

• Lousie Galloway with what could be one of the rarest plants in the world.

But the rhododendron currently in flower at the Royal Botanic Garden is actually one of the rarest in the world.

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Collected from the slopes of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo in 1995 by Botanics staff, it is now feared extinct in its homeland. If that is the case, the six plants in the gardens may be the only ones anywhere in the world.

Horticulturists at the gardens now hope to nurture the plants and reintroduce them to their native habitat.

Rhododendron tuhanensis was first described as a new species by the Botanics' Dr George Argent on an expedition to the Malaysian part of Borneo. He brought back some samples.

But two subsequent visits to the area have failed to find the plant.

Glasshouse supervisor Louise Galloway, who visited in 2006, said: "To my understanding we're the only people that are growing rhododendron tuhanensis.

"The area that it was collected in 1995 is off the beaten track. You can climb Mount Kinabalu but because of conservation issues you can only climb up one or two tracks. Because of the strong links the area has with the Botanics we got special dispensation to go off the beaten track and that's when the plants were first found.

"I went back in 2006 and we had a good look where the original collections had been found and we couldn't find anything and there was a subsequent trip and they couldn't find it either."

The plant may have suffered because it is in an area prone to landslides - its name comes from the word "tuhan" which means "landslide" in the local Dusen language. However, it may also have been a victim of drought caused by climate change.

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Ms Galloway said: "We have so many rare and endangered plants and so many plants are facing destruction - especially in South Asia due to climate change, changes of land use, logging, and so on. Since two subsequent trips have not found it, it's pretty high up there as a priority for conservation.

"When you grow plants from samples you form a bond with them, and want to see them grow. It's a great responsibility and we rise to the challenge."

As well as nurturing the rhododendrons in the hope of reintroducing them, the team are keen to teach people more about the plant and its story.

It will be on display at the garden's John Hope Gateway until Sunday to allow visitors to see it.

Ms Galloway said: "We're aiming to display some plants from our research collections that we can't always have on public display, so that people can have a chance to come and see them.

"I think due to the nature of the dark foliage, with the bright, bright flower, people are just drawn to it. It's a very attractive plant."