Scientists discover rare African plant that indicates presence of diamonds

Tuesday May 5 2015

A model displays the

A model displays the "Pink Star, " a 59.6-carat pink diamond that was auctioned in Geneva on November 13, 2013 for 83 million US dollars, a world record for a gemstone. Scientists have discovered a plant that grows directly on top of rocks that bear kimberlite, the ore that contains diamonds. FILE PHOTO | AFP 

By VINCENT NGETHE
More by this Author

A rare plant species may radically change diamond prospecting and mining in Liberia and the rest of the world.

Scientists have discovered that the plant, Pandanus candelabrum, which is native to West Africa, grows directly on top of rocks that bear kimberlite, the ore that contains diamonds.

Prof Stephen Haggerty, a researcher with Florida International University who made the discovery, told Science Magazine that the plant is the first species known to indicate the presence of diamond-rich structures called kimberlite pipes, which are formed when volcanoes erupt.

Geobotanical prospecting, or the use of plants to indicate the presence of ores, is also used in copper exploration.

The discovery in Liberia could change the dynamics of diamond exploration significantly by making prospecting in difficult terrain there more cost-effective.

Prof Haggerty, whose discovery is described in the latest issue of the journal Economic Geology, was cautiously optimistic when reached by the Daily Nation.

“Potentially important but too early to say as both diamonds, which are geologically restricted and the plant species, which is probably limited to the tropics, are very rare,” he wrote via email.

Tall Pandandus candelabrum in the background, with excavated kimberlite in the foreground. PHOTO | STEPHEN HAGGERTY | COURTESY

A tall Pandandus candelabrum plant in the background, with excavated kimberlite in the foreground. PHOTO | STEPHEN HAGGERTY | COURTESY

DETECTION FROM HIGH ALTITUDE

He added that the next step would be to examine the plant for ‘spectral features’, or its ability to be detected from high altitudes by an aircraft or satellite.

Mr James Ochieng, a former chief geologist in Kenya’s Department of Mines and Geology, was also optimistic.

“That’s very welcome news for diamond exploration,” he said. “Chances are that the plant will grow anywhere where there are kimberlites, not only in the thick forests.”

Mr Ochieng, who is a lecturer in Geology at Taita-Taveta University College observed that the Department of Mines and Geology had data on kimberlites in Western Kenya that had not yielded diamonds.

“This could be a new research angle for the department, in collaboration with botanical faculties in our universities,” he said.