Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Enabling Curious Minds to Join the War against Weeds

Students from Hicks Bay examining weeds under a microscope.

Students from Hicks Bay examining weeds under a microscope.

Last year a project conceived by Murray Dawson and Hugh Gourlay was awarded an Unlocking Curious Minds grant by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). These grants are aimed at better engaging New Zealanders with science and technology, especially those who have fewer opportunities to do so. Young people, especially those in remote rural areas and lower decile schools, have been identified as one of the more "hard to reach" groups that this fund hopes to get more involved. An added bonus of targeting this group is the potential to stimulate more young people to consider careers in science and technology – something the country definitely needs for the future.

New Zealand has a very serious problem with invasive weeds, and as many citizens as possible are needed to join the call to arms. But currently many New Zealanders are not even sure about which plants they see in the environment are native or introduced, or where they can find out, let alone what they should do about them. This Curious Minds project aims to start turning this around by increasing awareness amongst young people about the threats posed by weeds, how to recognise them, and how get further information and do things that will help. "We need to educate students about the importance of early detection being fundamental to controlling the spread of weeds, and hope they will pass the message on to others," Murray said. "The more people in a community involved, the better the chance we have of spotting new and emerging problems and nipping them in the bud."

So Murray and a team of helpers have travelled far and wide visiting schools to spread the word about the importance of recognising and controlling weeds early. "The Unlocking Curious Minds fund was a good fit with the national objective of trying to improve weed surveillance, especially in more remote areas of New Zealand where weed experts are thinner on the ground and have fewer resources for this work," said Murray. "Information about weeds in these areas is often out-of-date or incomplete since little, if any, formal surveillance work has been undertaken," he explained. "We need more 'boots on the ground', and eyes out there looking and reporting what they find."

Nine schools from Auckland, Gisborne and the West Coast of the South Island, involving years 5–13, participated in this pilot programme. The Brian Mason Trust provided additional financial assistance to allow more schools to be involved on the West Coast. The project has also been fortunate to have support from Weedbusters (who support community groups to manage their weeds) and the Department of Conservation (DOC). "DOC staff from all three regions came along to help," said Murray. "It was also great to see members of the community joining us."

Lincoln University ecologist Jon Sullivan was one of the collaborators, joining the visit to Haast School. Jon is a NatureWatch NZ founder, the citizen science platform chosen to share online the weed observations generated by the project. Landcare Research botanist David Glenny and weed biocontrol expert Hugh Gourlay also added their skills and expertise to the school visits. Monique Russell from the Tread Lightly Caravan (The Urban EcoLiving Charitable Trust) and Robinne Weiss, a heritage interpreter, also assisted as the North and South Island educators, respectively, for this project.

The school visits involved time in the classroom and field trips to local weedy areas. Taking the students out of the classroom to look for weeds growing nearby gave them a chance to use smartphone apps to identify, record and share their weed observations online. The students also collected specimens of weeds and added them to plant presses so that they could be taken back to add to the Allan Herbarium at Lincoln.

The project uncovered some interesting finds (see Table 1). Not surprisingly, a suite of well-known environmental weed species were found practically everywhere, such as blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), gorse (Ulex europaeus), ivy (Hedera spp.), privet (Ligustrum spp.), Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) and tradescantia (Tradescantia fluminensis). Because gorse is so widespread and recognisable, it was often used to demonstrate the weed identification app. Although cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.) was found in most places, it was particularly abundant at the Kaniere and Franz Josef field sites. Auckland had the most ornamental plants that had 'jumped the garden-fence', but Hicks Bay in Gisborne had several weed species not seen in the other locations, such as dragon's-head lily (Gladiolus dalenii) and love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).

Table 1: Contribution to Science

School No. of Students Involved No. of NatureWatch Observations No. of Species Found

No. of Herbarium Specimens Lodged

Fox/Franz Josef 27 85 36 41
Haast 11 74 45 43
Hokitika 45 38 24 28
Kaniere 25 134 52 36
Mission Heights 27 78 48 18
Mount Albert Grammar 34 85 57 17
TKKM 24 144 71 10
Whataroa 22 35 25 30
Total216673 223

A few native treasures were also discovered along the way, including Gunnera prorepens thriving in the lawns at Franz Josef, and raukūmara (Brachyglottis perdicioides), a local and rare native shrubby daisy growing in Hicks Bay.

"One of the highlights of the programme was visiting TKKM o Kawakawa Mai Tawhiti School in Hicks Bay, where some lessons were translated into te reo," said Murray. At the end of the 3-day visit Murray was invited to speak about the Unlocking Curious Minds project at the school's assembly, where the three most enthusiastic students were awarded with prizes, including a smart phone and two LED hand lenses. "For many of the students this was their first chance to interact with scientists and weed experts, and it was gratifying to see how much interest we created," said Murray. "There are definitely some budding biologists out there who just need a little nurturing."

As a bonus, one student from each of the participating schools was given the opportunity to visit Landcare Research's Lincoln campus for 2 days to develop their botanical and entomological skills. On the first day Ines Schönberger and other herbarium staff taught students about the role and function of the Allan Herbarium and how to add the specimens they collected to the research collection. Students also visited the nationally significant harakeke (New Zealand flax) collection with Katarina Tawiri.

On the second day at Lincoln, Hugh showed them around the containment facility, where the insects used for biocontrol are studied and reared. One lucky student was even given a package of beetles to take back to his school to release on the tradescantia that had been found growing under a nearby bridge! Students also looked for and collected biocontrol insects from around the Lincoln grounds and studied them under microscopes. Robinne Weiss then led them through some educational activities on biocontrol, including a small-scale food preference experiment to show how testing to determine whether potential agents are suitably specific or not is determined. When the caterpillars were put into small containers with a choice between three different plant species, the results clearly showed the students that specialist biocontrol insects will voraciously consume only their preferred plant species and nothing else.

The feedback from the students, teachers and parents was that they found the programme interesting and inspiring and would like to see it expanded to include more schools.

“Thank you so much to Murray, Robinne, Hugh and the weedbusting team that came to our school. I had the best time and learnt so much.” (Charlotte, Y6)

“I really enjoyed my time at Landcare but I think that my favourite activity was the caterpillar experiment... I found this trip very interesting and inspiring... Suggestions: Please do more trips so that other people can have this same experience. Thank you for having me!” (Lois, Y11)

For more information about Unlocking Curious Minds, see, and for more information about this particular project see Schools who would be interested in potentially taking part, if funding is available, can express their interest at