48°C Heat and Snow in Summer: What it’s like to collect rare flora specimens for the Botanic Gardens Seedbank
Collecting seeds for the Victorian Conservation Seedbank at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is pretty adventurous job. The Seedbank collections team regularly go on seed collecting expeditions across Victoria, sometimes scaling mountains to collect rare and threatened plants in all sorts of weather conditions, often encountering cute native animals like koalas along the way.
Though the expeditions are exciting, they can be challenging in a number of ways. With many plants tending to set seed over summer, the often physically arduous journeys to collect plants can take place in 40 degree heat. Seedbank Coordinator Andre Messina, who has participated in many seed collecting expeditions, recalled a trip this summer up on the Snowy River where his car thermometer read 48 degrees, and he had to wait until sundown to collect the specimens - "I spent most of that day sitting in the car with the aircon on”.
At the other end of the temperature spectrum, an expedition to the Baw Baw Plateau in early March 2015 took an unexpected turn when it started to snow, and all the fuel lines in the car froze up. The team had get creative, pouring buckets of boiling water over the fuel line in order to get the car started to get home.
Though the weather can throw an unexpected spanner in the works, each expedition is carefully planned to run as smoothly as possible. The team begins by deciding which species to collect, which is generally based on the urgency of its conservation status. They then need to establish where plants occur and when they will be fruiting to determine where and when trips will take place. During this planning, they also work closely with park rangers and authorities to ensure that weather conditions aren’t dangerous, especially in bushfire season.
Along with the fruit, the team will generally collect bycatch such as leaves, stems or bits of branches during expeditions. This means they then need to ‘clean’ the seeds by physically extracting them, before counting them and running a series of tests on them, including germination tests, before finally preparing them for long term storage at -20°C.
Some specimens in the collection are so rare they’re known from 50 or fewer plants. One species that’s recently become much more precious is the Mountain Geebung (Persoonia asperula), the seeds of which were collected a few years ago. Known in Victoria from only a single population near Mt Reynard in the Victorian Alps, the area this species was collected from has been hit by multiple bushfires since the seeds were collected. There is every likelihood that the Mountain Geebung population was wiped out completely, rendering it potentially extinct in the wild in Victoria.
It’s cases like the Mountain Geebung that highlight how critical the seedbank is to protecting the biodiversity of native habitats, especially as the detrimental effects of climate change and introduced species are resulting in more and more species being classified as rare and threatened. With extinction of these species in the wild likely to have negative effects on the surrounding habitat, it is vital that the seeds of rare, threatened, and in some cases borderline extinct native species are collected, so that they can eventually be germinated, propagated and then ultimately the seedlings can be translocated back into their native habitats to rebuild the population.