George is on display behind admissions and we need your help to find him friends! All you have to do is:
- Snap a photograph of your favorite cactus at the Garden
- Share on the Garden’s social media using the hashtag #friendsforgeorge
Who is Lonely George?
At the Desert Botanical Garden, the plant we fondly call Lonely George is an endangered Florida semaphore cactus, Consolea corallicola. This species of prickly pear native to the Florida Keys no longer has the ability to reproduce. This plant flowers, but does not have the capacity to produce seeds, although the cactus is able to create clones by dropping pads which take root.
“The amount of genetic diversity within this species is super, super low. Even though on one of the Florida Keys there are several hundred plants, they are basically all clones,” says Dr. Kimberlie McCue, Assistant Director of Research, Conservation and Collections. “The ability to respond to changes in the environment is tied to the amount of genetic diversity there is within a species. If all individuals are alike, then what is harmful to one plant will likely be harmful for all.”
George made his way to the Garden as part of the back-up collection for this species. The Fairchild Tropical Garden in Florida is the primary institution responsible for George, but best practice in conservation is to establish a back-up collection of endangered plants at a separate location. The Garden maintains a healthy collection both on display and in greenhouses.
It is unclear when George lost its reproductive ability and the reason why. One theory revolves around the idea that this cactus is a hexaploid plant that has six complete sets of chromosomes. Sometimes, when there are multiple copies of chromosomes they do not sort properly when the ovules and sperm are formed. Then when fertilization happens, it is impossible for a seed to form.
“George became a candidate for federal listing as an endangered species in 1999 and was officially listed in 2013. When plants get proposed for listing, the entity doing the proposing has to provide information about the plant. So it could have been in that time frame when the species was being looked at closely that the lack of genetic diversity was discovered,” says McCue.
If losing the ability to reproduce wasn’t bad enough, there are additional and pressing threats to the health of George:
The biggest threat is a cactus moth that has arrived in the Caribbean and is decimating it and other prickly pear species. The moth lays its eggs on a cactus and once the eggs hatch, the larvae eats the pads.
George is affected by a pathogen that causes the pads to rot.
Loss of habitat on the Keys due to land development, the sea level rising and increased salinity of the soil.
George is not the only cactus facing severe threats. The cactus family is ranked as the fifth most threatened group of living organisms in the world. The Garden has been at the forefront of cactus conservation since inception and continues to preserve rare and endangered species.
“By maintaining a healthy collection of Lonely George and telling his story, the Garden is able to bring attention to conservation on a larger scale and share common threats that may affect other cactus species,” says McCue.