Space & Innovation

New Heart-Shaped Hawaiian Fruits Discovered

The fruits, which look like chubby red Valentines when fully ripe, were recently discovered on the island of Maui. Continue reading →

Botanists have just discovered a new Hawaiian plant with heart-shaped fruits, a study reports.

The discovery, announced just before Valentine's Day, adds to the growing number of known plants within the coffee family (Rubiaceae). The new plant, described in the journal PhytoKeys, has been romantically named Coprosma cordicarpa, meaning the Coprosma (a type of flowering plant) with hearts.

The researchers even write that the find resulted from a "loving adventure with Hawaiian biodiversity." It began with Hawaii State botanist and co-author Maggie Sporck-Koehler noticing a plant with little red fruits growing in the Kanaio Natural Area Reserve on the island of Maui.

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"I was very taken with it," she said in a press release. "It seemed different than any other (Coprosma) foliosas I've seen."

Intrigued, she shared the find with lead author Jason Cantley, a Coprosma expert who was then at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (now at Bucknell University).

The two looked at similar plants at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, but could not find a match. They strongly suspected that the plant belonged to a new species that had never been documented before. Before officially announcing the find, however, more research was needed.

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They decided to travel to Maui, bringing co-author Marian Chau of the Lyon Arboretum's Hawaiian Rare Plant Program into the project. Chau is the program's seed conservation laboratory manager.

Cantley explained, "We needed to get all our ducks in a row, making sure we knew what we were looking for before we flew to Maui. Part of that planning was to think about the long-term conservation of Coprosma cordicarpa from the start. That's one reason it was necessary to bring Dr. Chau into this project."

The researchers' suspicions were correct, as the plant was confirmed not only as a new species, but also as a very rare one that's only known so far to be on Maui. In fact, the species has already been added to the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

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The hopeful news is that 609 seeds from 32 plants were collected, which the researchers say will help to preserve the biodiversity of the heart-shaped plant for many years to come.

It should be noted that the plump, red fruits will not wind up in your morning mug, even though the plants are related to coffee.

While birds and other animals eat the fruits, facilitating the natural spread of the plants, many Coprosma fruits are known for two very unromantic characteristics: Some smell like dung, and others have a potent laxative effect.

There's nothing quite like taking a seed, dropping it into the ground and watching it germinate over time. Spring offers us a reminder that each seed is a tiny embryo, and you can hold hundreds or thousands of these plants in your palm. The oldest viable seeds ever found were located in Siberia. Carbon dating showed the narrow-leafed campion seeds were nearly 32,000 years young. Plant tissue from the find was used to grow flowers.  

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A 2,000-year-old Judean date palm seed found at the Masada, the fortress of Herod the Great, was germinated in 2005, after 40 years in storage. Called Methuselah, the plant grew to over 6 feet.

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Some seed superlatives: An orchid seed pod can hold as many as 3 million seeds. The largest seed, commonly called the double coconut (pictured) can weigh up to 66 pounds. Some argue the seed takes the size and shape of a well-endowed butt.

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Apple seeds carry a very small amount of a cyanide and sugar compound called amygdalin, but it would take a huge number to cause ill effects. Also, apple seeds have a tough outer coating helps them pass through the body -- and be spread by animals. On the flip side, the seed of the castor-oil plant contains a potent, deadly poison.

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Seeds travel best, going solo, in hot weather using updrafts. Seeds can spread in the wind over large distances, including from one continent to another. Humans and animals also give them a ride, as do ocean currents.

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Norway's Svalbard Seed Vault is dug into a frozen mountainside in the Arctic. The facility is a last chance repository for millions of seeds from all over the world, which could be used to restore agriculture should a disaster wipe out many of the plants we depend upon for food.

Sources: BBC, University of Illinois, Arizona State University, Straight Dope, CDC

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