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Newly discovered tree could be wiped out, scientist warns

Published 23/11/2015

Unsuccessful attempts were made in Dublin's Botanic Gardens to germinate seeds collected from the tree
Unsuccessful attempts were made in Dublin's Botanic Gardens to germinate seeds collected from the tree

A scientist who discovered a new tree in a tropical forest has warned it could be wiped out before we know its value to mankind.

Dr Daniel Kelly, professor emeritus in the botany department at Trinity College Dublin, found the 10-metre tall species by chance in a national park in Honduras after pitching his tent beneath it.

Only 17 of the Sommera cusucoana have been located in a hectare of a deep mountain valley within earshot of loggers' chainsaws.

Part of the coffee family, it bears cream-coloured flowers and cherry-like fruits.

"We know so little about this plant and other plants - we don't understand anything about its ecology except that it likes moist places and being in the shade," Dr Kelly said.

"The fruit could be delicious, they could be poisonous, we don't know. It is a close relative of the cinchona which gives us the extremely useful quinine. The lush foliages may also contain hallucinogens, aphrodisiacs, medicines and so on.

"The problem would be if it was discovered to be valuable then how do you protect it."

Unsuccessful attempts were made at Dublin's Botanic Gardens and in Hawaii to germinate seeds collected from the tree.

Dr Kelly said: "This tree epitomises the plight of so many species today.

"There is a real danger that this and other species will be lost to the world before they have even been properly investigated. Exploring the rainforest is not just fascinating, it is really, really urgent."

Dr Kelly is lobbying to save the area and is writing to authorities in Honduras in an attempt to prevent loggers accessing the area, although the deep, narrow valley where it is growing may offer a natural protection.

The Sommera cusucoana, named after the Cusuco National Park, was immediately placed under the critically endangered banner of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The professor has set his sights on solving more mysteries of a tropical forest.

One he is seeking to identify is known only as Tree14 while a second has the lo cal name Zilguelillo, but neither has been discovered bearing flowers or fruits, preventing them from being scientifically catalogued.

Dr Kelly's latest find, made in 2013 and confirmed this year, has been detailed in the international journal PhytoKeys.

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