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Nickel Bark

A peculiar tree species that is renown for its curious magnetic properties and is often used as a natural alternative source for mining various metals such as nickel.       Discovery   George Agragore, mineralogist, was said to notice that the pins he would use to post his papers on his corkboards would often disappear when he left them on the ground. He soon found said pins would find themselves drawn to the roots of these particular trees. After consulting the local farmers, they extracted the sap and pulp of these trees to find they had significant amounts of metals particularly nickel, leading to the name. He shifted his research to exploring the nature of these tree magnetic properties, discovering the first metallophyte.

Basic Information

Anatomy

A medium sized tree, ashy off-white or brown bark and green leaves. The sap within the tree is a neon green hinting at the presence of metallic material inside.

Biological Traits

The Nickel Bark is a metallophyte, a plant adapted to habitats with toxic levels of heavy metals. It is able to extract metals from the soil, primarily nickel into itself which is generally stored in its trunk and sap, though metal can also be found in its leaves. What makes it most interesting is that the amount of nickel within the plant can still retain some of its ferromagnetism. Thus the Nickel Bark itself can actually become a ferromagnetic plant, though it depends on how much metal it has leeched from the soil.   It does this by being a hyperaccumulator of mostly nickel, along with lower amounts of cobalt. The metal is stored within its tree trunk and sap, along with the veins in its leaves. The high concentration of metal within deters many herbivores from eating it.

Genetics and Reproduction

The nickel bark flower structure indicates that this species is usually pollinated by moths.

Ecology and Habitats

Found throughout Nusantara islands, particularly in soils near abandoned mines. They thrive there where other plant species fail, likely due to the metallic pollutants. However this tree has adapted to the harsh conditions of this environment.

Additional Information

Uses, Products & Exploitation

They have lead to the technology known as phytoremediation which is a cost-effective, plant-based approach to remediation that takes advantage of the ability of plants to concentrate elements and compounds from the environment and metabolize various molecules in their tissues. These plants are of interest for their ability to extract metals from the soils of contaminated sites to return the ecosystem to a less toxic state. As the plants can grow in soils near abandoned mines, they can potentially remove the large amounts of heavy metals and make the area more suitable for grow other plant life in the future.   Related to this the related technology of phytomining or agromining, where the Nickel Bark and other metallophytes are used to mine metals from soils with very high concentrations by growing the plants, then harvesting them for the metals in their tissues. A number of related tropical Phyllanthus-species have the potential to be used as ‘metal crops’ in agromining operations mainly because of their ease in cultivation and their ability to attain high nickel concentrations and biomass yields.   This unique merge of farming and mining has recently become a new industry for individuals living on the tropical island. It is a growing method of meeting the worlds increasing need for metals without relying on mining efforts that pollute the areas mined or leech pollutants into the soil and groundwater.  
metal-bleeding-tree-NYT.jpg
by Credit to Dr Antony Van Der Ent
  Also because of how magnetic they are, a Nickel Bark twig can effectively used as a natural compass when placed on a leaf in the water, not unlike a steel pin.

Geographic Origin and Distribution

The Nickel Bark's range is mainly within the Nusantara archipelago of the Zomia Tropics
Scientific Name
Phyllanthus magnes
Lifespan
20 -50 years
Geographic Distribution

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Cover image: by Image credit: Antony van der Ent

Comments

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Eternal Sage AmélieIS
Amélie I. S. Debruyne
1 Apr, 2021 19:46

Nice article! I like how you took inspiration from real world metallophytes.   Do your world have other plants that can do the same with other metals?   How common is this new mining method in your world/on the island? Would some people use it as an excuse to pollute now that they can point out to a solution afterwards?   A few typos I noticed:   " The high concentration of Ni deters many herbivores from eating it." Since it's the only place where you us the abbreviation, this feels strange.   " hey have lead to the technology known as phytoremediation is a cost-effective," you have a "which" missing before your "is".   " were other plant species fail" you mean "where" here.

8 Apr, 2021 21:10

I am planning on some more since I would like mining metals from plants to be an effective alternative to regular ore mining. The island chain is where the practice is becoming more common and is aiming to compete with regular mining worldwide.   I think the pollution excuse you mentioned while not my intention could actually be a good motivation for antagonistic forces within my world so thanks. (The idea is that plants can be breed or engineered to mine in the future without having to dig up polluting mines.) But until they arrive greedy people can use these excuses.   And lastly, thanks for catching those typos.

6 Apr, 2021 21:07

Interesting plant! I do wonder how exactly was that tree stealing the pins (from the discovery story). Are the tree roots mobile and actively going to the surface to get the pins? Because otherwise, the rate of degradation & absorption would be very long. Long enough for the person to see the pin and grab them back.   All in all, this is a very neat plant. It has left me wondering about the world & islands where it is found.

8 Apr, 2021 21:12

The plant is passively magnetic, to the point where the pins where being drawn to it just from all the nickel contained in it. While tiny amounts probably won't be so magnetic, that's just how much nickel is in this tree.

10 Apr, 2021 16:24

Interesting article! Firstly nice pun on the naming :) It sounds like quite the usefull plant with its ability to clear the soil of heavy metals. It is also nice that it can be used as an alternative for mining. You mention that only moths pollinate the tree. Is there any specific reason why the flower only is attractive to moths?

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12 Apr, 2021 18:11

I spent way too much time coming up with a name so I'm glad that seems to be worth it. As for the moths, its mainly because the genus this plant is based on has an affinity with moths over other species it seems.

17 Apr, 2021 12:55

I really like the idea of a plant that can turn pollution into useful byproducts. A nice way to clean up an abandoned mining site or a polluted factory.

Too low they build who build beneath the stars - Edward Young
17 Apr, 2021 17:37

This is a really interesting plant, I love the role it plays in the ecosystem!

Author of Interarcanum.