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Smokey the Gardener

Fire begets flowers, but heat often has nothing to do with it

By the end of the 1980s, the human race could grow golf course greens in the middle of a desert, breed bell peppers to look like chocolate, and raise pumpkins that weigh hundreds of pounds. But all that amassed knowledge wasn't telling graduate student Hannes de Lange, then at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, how to grow the plant he wanted to study for his dissertation—or even how to get the seeds to sprout. His subject, false heath (Audouinia capitata), resides in the botanical wonderland called the fynbos on the west side of the southernmost tip of Africa. More than two-thirds of the plant species there, including seven entire families, grow nowhere else. Putting all those seeds in the one habitat basket proves to be a risky strategy as human development encroaches, and false heath ranks as a vulnerable species.

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