Firmiana major is a deciduous tree endemic to the hot arid valley of the Jinsha River in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, China, where the climate supports few trees species and environmental degradation is severe. Of the seven Firmiana species in China five are endemic, and F. major was recognized as a class II protected species in the first edition of the National Key Protected Wild Plants List of China (1984). The China Plant Red Data Book (1991) reported that as a result of habitat destruction caused by development, wild individuals of F. major were difficult to find, although c. 30 individuals were conserved at Kunming Botanical Garden, Kunming Black Dragon Pond Park, and two temples around Kunming in Yunnan province. In 1998 the IUCN Red List categorized F. major as Extinct in the Wild. The species was omitted in the second, current edition of the National Key Protected Wild Plants List of China (1999).
In 2004, however, 200 individuals were found in the National Nature Reserve of Cycas panzhihuaensis in Sichuan Province. Zhixiang Yu managed to grow F. major seedlings, and expanded the natural population by reintroduction. In 2012 China launched an emergency rescue plan for 120 Plant Species with Extremely Small Populations, including Firmiana kwangsiensis and Firmiana danxiaensis, and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces introduced provincial lists of Species with Extremely Small Populations, but F. major was not included on these lists.
In July 2017, funded by the National Key Programme Survey and Germplasm Conservation of Plant Species with Extremely Small Populations in South-west China (grant number 2017FY100100), we found two fruiting populations of F. major in Yunnan province, growing on the cliffs of the Jinsha River valley. We found c. 1,000 individuals in Lijiang City and < 50 individuals in Yuanmou County. The cliffs have protected these populations from logging, farming, and grazing but there is still human disturbance, including the construction of a rural road through the Lijiang population and frequent use of the seeds from the Yuanmou population, for edible oil.
The rediscovery of these populations is significant because this species has potential for use in restoration projects of arid river valleys. Shortly after the rediscovery the story was picked up by Chinese media outlets (including China Central Television), leading to the resurveying of the population by the Forestry Department of Yunnan Province and local forestry bureaus, who discussed protection plans. We recommend that this species should now be included in the national and provincial level lists of Plant Species with Extremely Small Populations, to help promote conservation of the species. We continue our investigation of F. major and have successfully cultured the seed embryos in Kunming Botanical Garden.