Meet Dr Barbara Briggs

Name: Barbara Briggs

Role: Honorary Research Associate. Previously I was a botanist and then Senior Assistant Director (Scientific) on the Gardens’ staff.

Briefly explain your area of research: Evolution and systematics of Southern Hemisphere plant families. Over the decades I have studied buttercups (Ranunculus), Veronica, Proteaceae, Myrtaceae and Restionaceae. My present studies are on Restionaceae and Ecdeiocoleaceae, both relatives of the grasses. This involves attempting to  find how the plants are related through their evolution –building their family trees -- often with colleagues producing and analysing DNA data, and developing a classification that reflects those relationships. Species are described and any new ones named. Botanists are also responsible for seeing that the herbarium collections are curated and kept up-to-date, in line with new findings by other botanical experts.

Favourite plant: Ecdeiocolea monostachya a tussocky plant native to Western Australia, related to the grasses. Colleague Adam Marchant and I found, from DNA data, that the Ecdeiocoleaceae are closely allied to the grasses and they are now considered to be the closest living relatives of the very important grass family. With another colleague I also studied the complex pattern of male and female flowers on each Ecdeiocolea plant and that they open at different times, giving an unusual way to promote cross-pollination. Ecdeiocolea flowers are small but lovely close-up, with fluffy white stigmas or golden-yellow anthers. Also, I was involved in naming and describing two new species of the family, in addition to the one already known.

Tell us about your garden: I enjoy having a garden but it is easy-maintenance, with camellias, two Dragon Trees and lilly pillies, along a few green vegies, herbs and tomatoes. It is not a plant diversity garden and I share it with possums that eat too many of the young shoots.  

Favourite garden, field trip location or bushwalk: either the Overland track from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair in Tasmania or walking to the upper limit of flowering plants on Mt Kenya in Africa long ago. The view of Cradle Mountain from Lake Dove is beautiful, but so was seeing the tree-daisies and giant lobelias on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.

If I wasn’t a scientist I would be: an archaeologist (but that is a science, so try again) or a librarian.

Career highlights:

In 1989 I was President of the Australian Systematic Botany Society and, with a small group of colleagues, we organised the annual conference, held at the University of Sydney. Our theme was ‘Plant Systematics in the Age of Molecular Biology’ because the relevance of DNA methods to plant systematics was beginning to be realised. This was so new then that some botanists were not interested in it, so the last day of the meeting was on a different theme , ‘Gondwanan elements in the Australian Flora’ to interest those people, and a few came only for the last day. That conference looked to the future and now we all know how hugely relevant DNA data are in many aspects of botanical research.

Moving into the Robert Brown Building in 1982 and, later, the start of studies using DNA methods at the Gardens. When I started at the Gardens the whole of science, administration and senior horticultural staff were in what is now the Anderson Building. It was shockingly crowded and a fire-risk. The present Cunningham Building was then a residence. If we were planning the Brown Building now, we would do it differently, but that was before there were computers on every desk and different ideas about how to prevent insect damage to the specimens. The new building gave space to better accommodate the herbarium -- our archive of specimens, for laboratories, for our design and editorial team and for a volunteer program to mount the specimens. There was also space for research students to work, leading to cooperation with universities. The space vacated in the Anderson Building allowed for the Education Program, a place where Friends of the Garden could meet and for corporate services. As Senior Assistant Director (Scientific) I welcomed the opportunities to expand our programs

Something I discovered or am proud of: I am proud of the work I did with colleague Lawrie Johnson (then Director of the Gardens) to discover evolutionary relationships in the two large families Proteaceae and Myrtaceae. That was done before we had methods using DNA and is superseded now by work of my colleagues Peter Weston and Peter Wilson. I am proud that our studies gave hypotheses that could be tested and built on by the new methods. So 25 years after our studies, our work was still being quoted as relevant.

Hidden talent or hobby: I enjoy travel to remote places, Kenya, Madagascar, Patagonia, South Georgia (an Antarctic island) and the Silk Road. Also, I could never sing as a child but when I retired I took up singing lessons—it was fun for some years and the teachers were very patient and encouraging --but it is still not a talent for me.