Into the Wild
What comes to mind when you think of a botanist? The word often evokes the thought of a nineteenth-century adventurer travelling the globe to discover new and exciting plants in far-flung places, but did you know that botanists at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria today play a significant role in exploring, conserving, and discovering rare and endangered plants? We sat down with Andre Messina ahead of his next collection trip to Victoria’s Grampian Ranges.
What is the value of a collecting trip? What do you hope to achieve in the Grampians?
We are coming into a whole summer of collecting for the Victorian Conservation Seedbank. In two weeks, we will be heading to the Grampians and Wimmera in Western Victoria. This will be one of the few non-bushfire recovery-related trips we will be doing. We’ve received funding to collect rare and threatened species which are poorly represented or absent from the seed bank. While these plants are in spots that weren’t burnt in the past year, they are at risk of future fires.
We are making seeds collections of plants that are particularly rare in the wild. Some of them are in reserves and doing okay, but they are threatened. These seed collections and plant propagations we are taking are a bit of insurance in case anything were to happen to those wild populations. We are also adding to our herbarium specimens, which increases our knowledge of where rare plants occur in Victoria.
What kind of plants are you looking at collecting?
There are about 120 species that we are hoping to collect this year! I guess the criteria include plants that are listed as vulnerable or endangered in Victoria. This will include plants like Salt Paper Bark (Melaleuca halmaturorum) and Buloke (Allocasuarina luehmannii) which are bigger trees, then there are also some shrubs, like Pultenaea graveolens which a sort of egg and bacon pea, native hop bushes (Dodonaea procumbens) which live in swampy areas at the base of the mountains - the list goes on.
How do you plan a collecting trip?
A collecting trip can be a bit like a camping trip where you collect plants. Before we go out, we will have a shortlist of species. We will go through herbarium records and search for locality information, such as GPS coordinates and specific descriptions of growing conditions sites and habitats. From there, I’ll sit down with a map and figure out where all the sites are in relation to each other, figure out a route, work out how many days it will take, explore contingencies, and from that, develop a plan. It’s like a holiday style itinerary, but instead of tourism attractions, you’re trying to get to specific locations to relocate plants.
How many trips would you do annually?
This year, I’m doing ten trips. Prior to the bushfires, I would typically have done six or seven trips. Each trip varies from one day or up to two weeks. I don’t usually go longer than two weeks because we would run out of steam. This trip to the Grampians will be a five-day trip.
How many people go?
In the past, it can range from just myself and another, or sometimes just me by myself. More and more, we are having horticulturalists come along, which means they can see plants in the wild and can collect propagation material for the Gardens as well. It means if we can’t get a plant to grow from seed, they can take some cuttings and grow the plants at the Gardens. Generally, I’m aiming for a mix of four to five scientists and horticulturalists on each trip.
Do you exclusively rely on herbarium records, or does citizen science come into play?
Our herbarium records are the most accurate point of information. They’ve been verified, and we know them to be accurate. Having local naturalists who you can speak to can be really good. They quite often know sites which haven’t been vouchered from yet. I speak to park rangers and other locals if I have contacts out that way. Amateur botanists and naturalists have great information on where things occur, how to best access them, and how abundant they are. There is a database including incidental records called the Atlas of Living Australia. It’s often far more comprehensive, but not all records can be fact-checked and sometimes plants turn out to be a different species to what has been reported.
More and more young people are discovering plants through social media. How do you feel about this latest trend?
It’s fantastic! A lot of people are getting more and more removed from the natural world. Getting into plants in whatever you can is great. I’m a bit biased - I go a bit crazy if I’m not in nature frequently!