New DiCaprio tree has Lismore roots

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Lismore-linked Lorna MacKinnon is among Kew scientists who have named an endangered tree after Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.

The DiCaprio tree, that only grows in the Cameroon forest, is the first plant new to science to be officially named by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens this year.

The DiCaprio tree with its glossy yellow flowers growing from the trunk. Photograph: Lorna MacKinnon
A view of the Ebo Forest in Cameroon.

It was named in a paper published in the scientific journal PeerJ and botanist Lorna, whose family on Lismore goes back generations, is  excited to be one of its co-authors.

Her involvement in presenting the tree as new to scientists was congratulated by island friends in a post on the Isle of Lismore Community Noticeboard Facebook page.

The tree – official name Uvariopsis dicaprio – which has glossy yellow flowers growing from its trunk, was named after the famous actor DiCaprio to honour his help in saving a rainforest from logging.

The small evergreen tree was first spotted by Lorna 15 years ago in a remote tropical forest while working on a six-month research project. The forest makes up one half of the Yabassi Key Biodiversity Area, home to the world’s only known chimps to  crack nuts and fish for termites.

Plans to open up huge parts of that forest for logging caught DiCaprio’s attention and he took to social media to save it. In August 2020, after an outcry also from scientists, conservations and locals, the President of Cameroon cancelled permission to log there.

It was during one of last year’s lockdowns that the tree sample, collected by Lorna on her first job as a botanist after graduating, was picked up as something new by a team at Kew who were working on tropical African plants and identified it as some thing new and not named.

‘It’s just a co-incidence I happen to be working at Kew now!’ said Lorna whose Lismore roots go back to her grandparents Bessie Miller and Alasdair MacKinnon and whose family still have a home there.

The part of the Ebo Forest where the DiCaprio tree was found has still not achieved protected status so it and lots of other still-to-be-seen plants could still be under threat.

‘Protected status still hasn’t been confirmed but the revoking of the logging concession is a very significant improvement to the forest’s prospects. The involvement of Leonardo DiCaprio in raising international awareness was greatly appreciated by scientists and conservationists fighting to protect the area but local outcry also had a massive part to play.

‘If the area was to be damaged, we could lose many plants before we get to know about them. There have been other trees of the DiCaprio species observed in the area but not many so it is classed as critically-endangered – a single event could wipe it out,’ said Lorna who began work at Kew last May and hopes to back on Lismore in the spring.

‘Lismore definitely gave me an  appreciation of the natural world  from a young age,’ she added.

In Cameroon in 2008, Lorna spent four weeks at a time out in the forest using an abandoned village as base camp and joining a research team who were surveying primates.

‘It was hot but not oppressive because it was a high altitude. Also there wasn’t much sun exposure in the forest so it was a good environment for Scottish people, not too hot and quite shady!’

Her task with the Ebo Forest Research Project was, with great care,  to collect samples of any plants with fruit or flowers. The collected material was quickly pressed in newspaper and between card with details  and notes  made on anything from a description of its location to colour, fragrance and texture – anything that might not survive the pressing process. Sometimes, only photos were taken rather than samples.

If all goes to plan, Lorna’s next mission will be a research trip to Madagascar to study its grasses. The plan is to be able to write useful information for smallholders on which grasses are useful and which are harmful to agriculture.