Czech scientists discover world’s highest sited plant

Photo: Jiří Doležal

Czech scientists have recently discovered what is believed to be the world’s highest growing plant. While carrying out research in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas, they came across six species of a tiny plant, no bigger than a coin, clinging to a gravel on Mount Shukule, at an elevation 6,150 metres above sea level.

Photo: Jiří Doležal
An international team of scientists lead by Jiří Doležal of the Institute of Botany at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Průhonice have been carrying out research in the Himalayas for nearly 20 years. The species they have recently discovered surviving the extremely high altitude, is actually named after one of their former colleagues, Leoš Klimeš, who died on a previous expedition.

Ladakhiala Klimeshi is a tiny plant with thick compact leaves, which are arranged like a rosette. The plant has special features that help it to survive the extremely cold winters and lack of water, Jiří Doležal explains:

“These plants have relatively deep roots and other specific features that help them cope with the harsh elements outside. They have high concentration of carbohydrates both in their roots and leaves that protect them against the night frost. They also have a relatively high concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus which support photosynthesis and assimilation of CO2 in the short period of favourable conditions.”

Carrying out research in such extreme altitudes, scientists often had to endure nausea and extreme fatigue, but Jiří Doležal says it is all about good preparation and proper acclimatization:

“Before going to the elevation between five to six thousand metres we have to conduct an acclimatization trek at a lower altitude. Only when we know that no one suffers from symptoms of high altitude sickness we can climb up to an elevation above five thousand metres, where we stay for about ten to twelve days, conduct our research and then descend back to the valley.”

The discovery of the highest growing plant brings new information about plants' ability with freezing temperatures and the eco-physiological mechanism that enable plants to live so high. But the research also resulted in information on how plants are able to respond to the ongoing climate changes which are quite pronounced at these high altitudes.

With temperature in the region increasing by five degrees over the past ten years, the upward migration of plants may become more common in the future, but Jiří Doležal says such a trend may not be a positive sign:

“Global climate change is not only about warming. What changes in this particular region in Ladahk is the amount of summer precipitation. With more snow in the summer you have higher concentration of water in the soil which can eventually disrupt the soil and uproot the plants. So if this trend continues we may actually see an opposite trend, with plants migrating downwards.”