Science - September 16, 2004

New cola tree discovered

Dr Carel Jongkind of the Biosystematics group and colleagues from the University of Liberia have discovered a close relative of the African cola trees, which include Cola nitida and Cola acuminata. The fruits of these trees contain fibrous, bitter-tasting seeds. The stimulants in ‘cola nuts’ are used in the manufacture of various soft drinks.

The new species has been named Cola liberica and is described in the summer edition of the journal Blumea. The scientists found the tree in Sapo National Park in Central Liberia during an expedition organised by the Nationaal Herbarium Nederland and Fauna & Flora International of Cambridge, England. It is not yet known whether the Cola liberica nuts will be usable in energy drinks. Jongkind’s group and his colleagues from Liberia specialise in the taxonomy and ecology of trees and plants. To find about more about the potential uses of substances in the nuts will require research by other specialists.

Jongkind comments that the botanical biodiversity in this part of Liberia is very high for tropical Africa. ‘Within two weeks we had collected 354 different plants and these are now available for research in the herbarium in Wageningen. Among them there are various new plant species. Unfortunately we were not able to leave any specimens behind, because the national herbarium in Liberia burnt down during the civil war.’

The taxonomists want to return to the Sapo National Park but have to wait for the all clear from United Nations Peacekeeping Force there, UNMIL. Jongkind: ‘We’d really like to do research in western Liberia, near the border with Sierra Leone. Once the political situation has calmed down we hope to help with the restoration of our counterpart at the University of Monrovia, using EU and Dutch money.’ / HB

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