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York groundsel blooms again in Britain’s first-ever de-extinction event

York groundsel was a cheerful yellow flower that slipped into global extinction in 1991, thanks to overzealous application of weedkiller in the city of its name.

But now the urban plant has been bought back to life in the first ever de-extinction in Britain, and is flowering again in York.

The species of groundsel was only ever found around the city and only evolved into its own species in the past century after non-native Oxford ragwort hybridised with native groundsel.

York groundsel, Senecio eboracensis, was discovered growing in the car park of York railway station in 1979 and was the first new species to have evolved in Britain for 50 years, thriving on railway sidings and derelict land.

But the new plant’s success was short-lived, as urban land was tidied up and chemicals applied to remove flowers dismissed as “weeds”.

It was last seen in the wild in 1991. Fortunately, researchers kept three small plants in pots on a windowsill in the University of York. These short-lived annual plants soon died, but they produced a precarious pinch of seed, which was lodged at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.

Andrew Shaw of the Rare British Plants Nursery had a vision to bring the species back to life, but when tests were carried out on some privately held seeds very few germinated successfully.

So Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog, quickly authorised a de-extinction attempt via its species recovery programme, which has funded the revival of the most threatened native species for 30 years.

“The Millennium Seed Bank said the seed was getting near the end of its lifespan and so we thought we would only have one more chance of resurrecting it,” said Alex Prendergast, a vascular plant senior specialist for Natural England.

Natural England paid for a polytunnel at the Rare British Plants Nursery in Wales, where 100 of the tiny seeds were planted. To the botanists’ surprise, 98 of the seeds germinated successfully. The polytunnel rapidly filled with a thousand York groundsel plants.

In February six grams of seed – potentially thousands of plants – were sown into special plots around York on council and Network Rail land.

This week, the first plants in the wild for 32 years began to flower, bringing colour to the streets and railway sidings of York.

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This de-extinction is likely to be a one-off in this country because York groundsel is the only globally extinct British plant that still persists in seed form and so could be revived.

But Prendergast said the de-extinction showed the value of the Millennium Seed Bank – to which plenty of York groundsel seed has now been returned – and there were a number of good reasons for bringing the species back to life.

“It’s a smiley, happy-looking yellow daisy and it’s a species that we’ve got international responsibility for,” he said.

“It only lives in York, and it only ever lived in York. It’s a good tool to talk to people about the importance of urban biodiversity and I hope it will capture people’s imagination.

“It’s also got an important value as a pollinator and nectar plant in the area because it flowers almost every month of the year.”

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