In Search of Nature’s Treasure

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to join a scientific field expedition? The usually desk-bound Maraika van Wessem recently found out.

Being invited to join a botanic field expedition to the far reaches of the Omeo mountains to collect precious specimens for the State Botanical Collection conjures up romantic visions for those of us who spend most of the day in climate controlled environments.

I imagined balmy days trekking through the mountains, camel or two in tow, snipping a few pretty flowers before retiring to camp for gin and tonics, merrily exchanging tales of spectacular floral trophies, the likes of which no one had ever seen before.

This, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not the reality when I joined 24 members of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s Science and Horticulture teams on a recent field trip. There was a blizzard, blazing sun and torrential rain, and the team was out there, in the company of leeches, snakes, bull ants and ticks, collecting their precious treasures 12 hours a day.

What is the State Botanical Collection?

David Cantrill, Head of Science at RBGV explains the significance of the State Botanical Collection.

“The State Botanical Collection contains 1.5 million plant specimens of extraordinary cultural significance from Australia and around the world, including specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Burke and Wills. It also contains rare books, artworks and objects dating back to the 1500s. Valued at $251 million, this ark of Victoria’s flora is held in the National Herbarium of Victoria at Melbourne Gardens.

Australian and international scientists, local communities, artists, thinkers and students of all ages seek access to the secrets of the collection as an essential resource for unlocking an understanding of the diverse and changing biodiversity of Victoria and Australia.” 

A typical day

I had done my best to prepare responsibly and, being an office-bound writer, had Googled “Field Expedition” to ascertain what professional attire I would need to pack. A fashion shoot had popped up in the search and the happy participant, clad in colonial, explorer-style beige pants and a crisp white shirt, fedora style hat and white tennis shoes, looked completely at ease in nature.

Unfortunately, although Melbourne was a comfortable 24 °C, Omeo was not. In fact it was freezing.  Despite the cold, the team, clad in jeans, waterproof jackets, gloves and enormous boots, rose at dawn and packed their equipment, cameras, secateurs, magnifying glasses and importantly, the large wooden plant presses which would preserve their precious prizes.

Once packed, each of the five teams then bid each other adieu and left (disappointingly in cars, not aboard camels) in separate directions.

We made it to our first collection point on the side of a mountain and the team split up in search of flowering specimens. Once a plant of interest was identified, the team photographed it, labelled it, took a GPS reading and placed it into the press. This process was not the leisurely one or two hours ahead of a return to camp for cocktail-hour that I had envisioned, it  took many, many hours.

At this point we ascended the mountain further and droplets of rain began falling.  We finished our task, just as my cream camisole was becoming see-through, and continued climbing.

At our next stop, the rain became torrential. I watched the team clad in their outdoor gear carefully collating the specimens and made a mental note to rethink tomorrow’s wardrobe as my mascara  dripped into my eyes.

As we ascended further I began to feel panicked. You see, there were these largeish raindrops floating, oh so peacefully onto the windshield.

“What is that?” I croaked.

“It’s snow.” said David Cantrill, matter of factly, as though we had just dismounted a chairlift at Mt Buller.

Until this point, I had no idea it could snow in October, but here it was, becoming more blizzardly the further we went.

As a botanic professional, this didn’t deter David one bit. Seemingly resistant to hypothermia, he sprung out of the car, enthusiastically collecting snow kissed wattle and Grevillea.

We spent 10 hours that day painstakingly cutting specimens, labelling, GPS mapping, photographing and pressing. When I returned to camp, wrecked with exhaustion at having walked further than the train station in a single day, I was adamant I would get it right the next day.

I then collapsed into bed and slept like the dead.

Getting it right

The next day I wore daggy waterproof pants, a waterproof jacket, sturdy boots and a Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria issue Akubra hat.

I was refreshed from my heavy sleep. Suddenly fashion and the city and Instagram didn’t interest me. I listened to the water warble, the birds laugh and the trees rustle and I looked closely at small tiny flowers and fungi, things I’d usually pass without even noticing. I realised that the most important things in life, are found right out here.

We exited the car at a nearby Dead Horse Creek, where ironically, there was a half-rotted dead horse submerged in the water. The weather that day climbed to 25 °C, there wasn’t a snowflake in sight, just blazing golden rays that left me with a lobster glow.

I watched the Science team as they prepared dinner that night. It was fascinating. Like a perfectly ordered, precise analysis and dissection of specimens. There were three salad dressings, laid out in matching bowls, 3 spaghetti sauces, and a salad that was so meticulously chopped, I had to assume a  dissection knife had been used. There was also a distinct absence of cooking mess,  not a splash or splosh on the benches in sight nor was a single cupboard door left astray. It was an eerie sight compared my usual food mess.

Success

Neville Walsh, Senior Conservation Botanist, who has been with Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria for over 40 years, discovered a new species of Acacia in bud earlier this year. The private property on which it was found was revisited during the trip and flowering material collected. It will be formally identified and named in the next year. The Omeo region has not been botanically surveyed in detail and there could very well could be more species waiting to be found within this diverse and remote area.

Another highlight was the discovery of the Red Passionflower (Passiflora cinnabarina), flowering amongst rocks high up on an embankment of the Great Alpine Road alongside the Tambo River. With its distinctly tropical appearance, this seemingly incongruous vine is actually a native species, ranging from eastern NSW into eastern Victoria. The red passionflower had not been seen in nature by most of the team. Other notable sightings included the very rare Hovea magnibracteata, some highly localised Olearia daisies and Pimelea rice flowers, and the beautiful Boronia ledifolia, a pretty shrub whose numerous bright blossoms turned swathes of the forest understorey a brilliant pink!

It cannot be replaced if lost

Professor Cantrill says the State Botanical Collection is now under severe threat of irreparable damage because the current Herbarium facility is crumbling. “It allows for pest infestation, water damage and specimen degradation, impacting adversely upon irreplaceable and extinct plant specimens from earliest settlement. Now is the time to protect the collection before it is too late and to do that, we need a purpose built vault, and soon.”


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