Plant collection identifies dangerous mystery weed
Two of the now dozens of Velvetleaf specimens that Landcare Research has carefully preserved and added to its Allan Herbarium collection.
The Environment Canterbury biosecurity team remember it (for it was the best name they could conjure) sitting ‘on the smoko room table and not having any idea what it was’.
An Amberley farmer found it, a suspicious-looking weed, standing tall in the middle of his fodder beet crop and wisely decided to drop it in to the ECan biosecurity team. "No one had seen it before," Lance Smith, an ECan biosecurity officer, later explained. "So we decided to send it to the plant identification at Landcare Research. We use the service about once a week because it’s fast, accurate and some of the stuff we are finding is completely new to us."
The mystery weed ended up in Ines Schönberger’s mail bag. As manager of Landcare Research’s plant identification service, she is the recipient of hundreds of such packages every year from all parts of the globe. There’s a good reason ECan, pharmaceutical companies, museums, universities and countless others turn to her for help. Dr Schönberger has a rather formidable arsenal of tools at her fingertips, including the Allan Herbarium, holder of New Zealand’s largest nationally significant collection of plants, invertebrates, fungi and bacteria.
The herbarium is a modern research tool with a long history of helping reverse the decline of New Zealand’s biodiversity. Taxonomic records, some dating back to 1870, are being uploaded and digitised, so anyone with internet access can visit and search the collection at https://scd.landcareresearch.co.nz.
MBIE Strategic Funding underpins this truly vast collection (650,000 specimens), and the question the ECan team were eager to know was would it contain a record of the mystery weed on their smoko room table? Fortunately for New Zealand, the answer was yes.
Schönberger, who has a PhD in botany, identified Smith’s plant as Abutilon theophrasti, or velvetleaf, one of the world’s most invasive pest plants, damaging arable crops by competing with them for nutrients, space and water. It is an unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act, and as such it cannot be sold, propagated or distributed, and entry to New Zealand is prohibited.
After Schönberger’s identification the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) wanted to know whether velvetleaf had been detected in New Zealand before. Again Schönberger had the answers. The Allan Herbarium had five specimens on record, and the first of them was the key to making such a swift identification, thanks in no small part to farming foresight decades ago.
"A farmer in Lincoln found a single freak occurrence of velvetleaf in a soya bean crop in 1968," Schönberger said. "He sent it to Crop and Food and it became part of our collection, perfectly preserved. It was, then, the only known occurrence of velvetleaf in the South Island."
The latest discovery in February 2016 sparked a massive biosecurity response, and hundreds of velvetleaf plants have since been found in locations in both the North and South Islands. A plant identification kit sent to New Zealand farmers contained expert information provided by Schönberger.
The seriousness of the discovery was sobering news but illustrated the value of the plant collection. "The first of many questions from MPI was had it been found in the South Island before? We could answer that straight away. The second question was where had it popped up in the North Island before?, and we could answer this too."
There are hundreds of herbariums around the world. All contain treasures. Sadly, many are dusty anachronisms – relics from Victorian times when plant biologists were celebrities. Landcare Research’s collection is a notable exception.
Herbarium database manager Aaron Wilton said the collection had never been more accessible thanks to its free-to-use Systematics Collections Database (https://scd.landcareresearch.co.nz). "Key agencies wanted access to all our data – everything – and to be able to see images of the collections. So we made the conscious strategic choice to provide that level of access from the get-go. The more data and information we could get out there, the more people would see, and the more value they would ascribe to our service."
In times of crisis, such as a biosecurity incursion, the collection comes to the fore. But it is also an extremely valuable tool for researchers. Wilton said, "It has certainly made the collection data more accessible. Particularly with the emphasis on imaging it has made people aware of what we have got. We are also used to spending a lot of time servicing queries for data and that cost us a lot of time. We never really recouped the cost of that, but now we provide a better service in less time, and they can still come to us with more complex questions about the data and collection."
Schönberger calls the diagnostic tool a ‘one stop shop for any biological endemism in New Zealand’ and a way of future-proofing the collection. "You can search the collection without leaving your desk at work. Biosecurity officers use it to find weeds and specimens, and there will be close to 3000 images published on it by the end of the financial year, some dating back to 1870."
NOTES ON FUNDING: The Characterising Land Biota Portfolio received $6,081,858 of MBIE Strategic Funding in 2016. Of that figure, $5,708,358 was allocated to Landcare Research’s Science Collections and Infrastructure. The plant identification work featured in this story was underpinned by $266,000 of MBIE Strategic Funding for Biosecurity capability funding for the Allan Herbarium and its associated databases [794005-0511]. A further $204,970 was spent on ‘new’ biosecurity initiatives, including the digitising of the herbarium collection.