Botanical Mystery Solved!

“Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it” - African Proverb

Recently, one of Flamingo Gardens’ outstanding volunteers, Simone Kaplan, solved a botanical mystery for our Horticulture department. Simone is 17 and a student at Archbishop McCarthy High School.

The project was part of this year’s High School Summer Research Internship at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. Simone had already been working on a research project studying Sclerotium rolfsii (a fungal pathogen) in Vanda orchids at Flamingo Gardens, under the mentorship of Dr. Jason Downing and Dr. Nichole Tiernan, research botanists from Fairchild. During a trip to Flamingo Gardens to work with her plants, a chance discussion about our baobab trees between Dr. Downing, Dr. Tiernan and our Director of Horticulture, Chris Maler, led to the impetus for this summer research project.

Using modern molecular techniques (DNA sequencing), Simone was able to identify species for the baobab trees in Flamingo Gardens’ collection. The baobab is a deciduous tree native to Madagascar, mainland Africa, and Australia, of which there are eight species. Some baobabs can store up to 32,000 gallons of water in their trunk to endure harsh drought conditions, and they are among the most long-lived of vascular plants, with specimens dating well over 2,000 years old!

Simone shared that she had to change her DNA extraction procedures to accommodate for the fact that baobab leaves are full of slime! Formally called mucilage, the slime deters animals from eating the leaves. Unfortunately, it also makes DNA extractions rather difficult!

The results of Simone’s research project showed that most of the baobab trees at Flamingo Gardens belong to a few of the species from Madagascar (Adansonia za, Adansonia grandidieri, and Adansonia rubrostipa). These trees are much rarer than the sub-Saharan African baobab species (of which Flamingo Gardens also has specimens). This project is the first step in starting an organized DNA identification program at Fairchild. In most botanical gardens, many plants on display do not have visible and accurate labels. The program will allow gardens to correctly tag unidentified trees from botanical gardens like Flamingo Gardens and Fairchild. Not only is this information useful for visitors wanting to learn more about a particular tree, but it is extremely important for future research and propagation.

Flamingo Gardens is grateful to Simone and the team at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens for their efforts to correctly identify our baobab trees, and we look forward to the discoveries that will be made when she completes her orchid research project as well.