Just outside the village of Tobermory, Ontario, in a protected area called Bruce Peninsula National Park, there lives a small population of a tiny plant called the Hill’s Thistle. Some are growing in sandy soil. Some are on rocky outcroppings. All are scattered along the west side of Bruce Peninsula—a 20-mile-wide jut of land that separates Lake Huron from the Georgian Bay—and on nearby Manitoulin Island.
For the first few years of its life, the Hill’s Thistle is a broad rosette of spiky leaves. After that, if things go well, it will suddenly shoot up two feet tall and make a few small purple flowers. In other words, it’s a pretty ordinary thistle. But the Bruce Peninsula population is special. About 300 of the plants living in this location started their lives in a carefully controlled research lab.