Does the plant in the above photo look familiar? That’s probably because the tree in the photo is in the same genus—Sophora—as the kowhai. There are about 45 species of Sophora worldwide, including the toromiro tree from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) shown above. There are eight different species of Sophora in New Zealand, several examples of which can be seen in Te Papa’s Collections Online.
What is so special about the toromiro tree? Toromiro is an endemic plant species from Rapa Nui that has been extinct in the wild for over 30 years.
The species was formally described as Sophora toromiro in a 1921 book about the botany of Rapa Nui . An interesting account of the history and taxonomy of the toromiro has been published previously.
Last week, an article in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera highlighted the exciting recent progress of a team of scientists from Universidad Católica in Chile who are working toward re-establishment of the toromiro tree on Rapa Nui.
The team of Chilean scientists, led by Patricio Arce, have managed to propagate 700 individual plants so far. This is a big accomplishment. Growing these plants is especially tricky because they need a specialized fungus growing in their root system in order to survive.
Importantly, the use of genetic techniques has confirmed that the original plants used to vegetatively propagate these individuals are Sophora toromiro (and not some other closely-related species). By next year, the scientists hope to have about 5000 toromiro individuals ready to be relocated to Rapa Nui.
I saw my first toromiro tree at Rapa Nui’s small botanic garden while visiting the island with my family in 2007.
This individual is one of few re-established individuals currently alive on the island, as previous attempts to restore larger populations there have so far proven unsuccessful.
Other botanic gardens around the world are also growing toromiro as part of an international conservation effort to help keep it alive. For example, check out the efforts of the Royal Botanic Garden at Melbourne and watch a short video on toromiro conservation work at Kew Gardens in England.
Although it is hard to imagine based on the size of the plants in these photos, toromiro trees were once big enough that their wood was prized by Rapa Nui carvers. I checked Te Papa’s Collections Online and discovered that Te Papa has several Rapa Nui wood carvings in its collection, one of which is shown below.
Was this beautiful statuette made using toromiro wood? In addition to toromiro, a few other tree species are found on Rapa Nui, at least one of which may also be used for carving. Comparative wood anatomy techniques have been used to show that certain carved wooden tablets from Rapa Nui were made from the wood of the mako‘i tree (Thespesia populnea). Such specialised methods would be required to accurately identify the type of wood that was used in the figure shown here.
Due to the cultural, historical and biological significance of the toromiro to the people of Rapa Nui and the rest of the world, I sincerely hope that the efforts of international and Chilean researchers to re-establish the toromiro on its native island are successful.