Phylotta humifusa is a rare and endangered flowering pea. Photo - Robin Powell
Robin Powell joins two seed hunters on the trail of rare and endangered plants in the Penrose State Forest south of Sydney.
We are driving along a dusty dirt track in the Penrose State Forest in the Southern Highlands of NSW when Richard Johnstone shouts, “Stop, isn’t that Senecio diascides, in seed!” Our driver, Graeme Errington laughs, stops and reverses. “The man’s incredible,” he says. “We can be driving down a highway past of blur of green and he’ll not only recognise an individual plant in the blur, but notice whether or not it is in seed!”
Richard and Graeme are seed collection officers with Seedbank at The Australian Garden, Mount Annan. Joining them on their seed-hunting trip today are a couple of ring-ins. Tim Jackson, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney and Raul de Ferranti, the President of the Friends of the Gardens, won a day out seed hunting with the pair at a fundraising auction for Plantbank. Plantbank is the exciting new facility being built at Mount Annan that will store the seeds of Australia’s flora in safety, impervious to weather, blackouts, bushfires and rodent attack, unlike the current seed bank. It will also provide world-class research facilities and education opportunities. Work has already stated on the $15 million project (funded partly by the NSW government, and partly by private donations like that of Tim and Raoul) and the first part is due to be opened in December this year.
Seed-collector Richard Johnstone searches for seedheads in a tiny patch of Phylotta. Photo - Robin Powell
The other ring-in is me. And it’s clear that my inability to identify plants from a speeding vehicle is not the only reason I will never be a good seed hunter. I am too easily distracted: by a praying mantis using the flat top of a cassinia flower as a plate on which to devour the shiny blue-black body of a fly; by the red and blue dragonflies just hatched from a creek; and by the sheer abundance of plant diversity at my feet. As of June last year there were 5810 seed-bearing plants identified as native to NSW. (Just as a comparison there are fewer than 2300 in the whole of the United Kingdom.) Around my feet I can identify at least a dozen different little plants eking out a living in the sandy soil, and that’s not even counting the dandelions.
The column in the centre of the pink flower of the trigger plant (Stylidium productum) flicks pollen onto insects that land on the flower. Photo -Robin Powell
The plant I should be focussing on is a little groundcover pea called Phyllota humifusa. It’s only ever been recorded in a few patches in this forest, making it both rare and endangered, and therefore on the priority list for seed collection. So far just over a third of the 600 plant species that are threatened in NSW have been collected. Having indentified a patch of the plant Richard takes down the GPS co-ordinates of the spot, and takes notes on the immediate environment – “degraded bush, cleared in logging operation prior to the establishment of the forest.” The clearing in which we are on our hands and knees studying the ground is surrounded by the monoculture of radatia pine forest. Land use is just one of the threats to native plants –add human population pressures, the risk of imported diseases and pests and the impact of climate change and the scientific community estimates that one in five plants in Australia could be at risk of extinction by the middle of the century.
The pea has a sunny-orange flower with a burgundy trim, but our quarry is not the flowering specimen; it’s the seed that develops in the boat-like capsules of the fruiting body of the plant. They are about the size of a pinhead and the seedheads must be carefully pinched off and secured in a paper bag. Once the seed is collected and retuned to Mount Annan, it’s cleaned, then dried and frozen for storage. At the moment that storage is a freezer room like you’d find in a restaurant, but come Plantbank, the seed vault will enable a much larger collection in a much safer environment.
The pinhead seeds of the Phylotta will be saved to protect the future of the plant. Photo - Robin Powell
The other plant on our target list today is a rare swamp grass called Carex klaphekei. Over the past 20 years it has been recorded in just three swamps in NSW – one near Oberon, another near Blackheath and Hanging Rock swamp here in Penrose State Forest. Dragonflies careen like pinballs over the water surface, mosquitoes whine and among the bracken and grasses, the sparkling tentacles of a carnivorous sundew lay in sticky wait for an insect feast. It’s not possible to do a good job without getting your feet wet, and once we have the carex in the bag Richard notices another plant seeding and worth collecting. Utricularia is a bladderwort, a carnivorous plant that uses a bladder on its roots to eat tiny swamp-dwelling creatures. Above the ground it’s a pretty blue flower on a fragile stem. The seed is fine as dust, held in tiny balloon.
We’ve been so efficient, there’s time for one more swamp stop. Beyond the Christmas bells, and deep into the sedge is the yellow-flowered Xyris ustulata. We’re neck high in swamp grass and did someone say leeches? “Leeches don’t bother me,” says Richard, “ you can just knock them off, though they do itch like crazy a few days later. Water leeches are bad though.” He calls to Graeme, “remember that day we got the Bracteantha aphsubundulata? I got in the water and there were water leeches in it. And they sting. I was in the water for a minute and had 15 leeches on my leg!”
Okay, so there’s another reason I would make a bad seed hunter. Seed collecting is hot, cold, muddy, dusty, insect-dense, and hard work, but it’s also immensely satisfying. Today we have added five more species to the vault; five plants whose futures are now safe.