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13 Dec 2021

'Heaven' for a botanist's day in the field

“This is it! We’ve done it!” exclaims Dr James Clugston after a day traipsing through the Sydney bush looking for two Australian native plant species.

It’s a special feeling scientists get to experience in the field but of course, sometimes they don’t when their mission proves fruitless.
Such is the life of a botanist who sets out to find plant species that could be right in your backyard or not seen for decades, sometimes thought to be extinct.
Dr Clugston is one of many botanists from Sydney’s Australian Institute of Botanical Science who heads out in the field for their vital research.
They could be in the bush behind your house, in far flung locations west of the state or arriving by helicopter to remote regions anywhere in the country.
Dr Clugston is part of team at the Institute collecting specimens to build an e-flora database, part of the wider Genomics for Australian Plants initiative, which aims to develop genomics resources to enhance our understanding of the evolution and conservation of the unique Australian flora.
After Sydney’s lockdown restrictions ended, the Postdoctoral Research Fellow was eager to get back out in the field to finish collecting specimens for the project.
Pultenaea mollis, also known as the soft bush pea, and Phyllota grandiflora are both members of the plant family Fabaceae and can be found in locations around Greater Sydney.

Pultenaea mollis, also known as the soft bush pea.
Pultenaea mollis, also known as the soft bush pea.

But even though the Atlas of Living Australia marks specific places where species can be found, uncovering their precise location can prove quite tricky.
Some specimens have been collected many years ago and are now long gone, or they can be hidden in hard to access habitats.
As luck would have it though, Dr Clugston finds the Pultenaea mollis not long after entering Eric Mobbs Reserve in Castle Hill.
“It’s not normally this easy to find them,” he says.
“This is what we call the textbook find the position where the point is and it doesn’t normally work this way.”
Dr Clugston inspects the stipules on the plant – outgrowths or appendages on the base of a leafstalk - with his hand lens (small magnifying glass) to make sure he’s right.
“The next thing I do is describe the habitat,” he says, noting it’s dry sclerophyll, or hard, leafy green foliage for non-scientific folk.
Dr Clugston then collects the leaves for a DNA sample, some of it plant’s seeds and a specimen for the National Herbarium of NSW.
“DNA is literally in the leaves so that goes in the packet to dry out and our horticulture team will then grow the seeds,” he says.
“These are pretty special and when you’re growing them in our Living Collections you’re effectively creating conservation collection for the species.

Collecting seed for horticulture is really important because it means we’re introducing new species into the garden all the time.
Dr James Clugston
“In science we go into the field a lot and we can be contributing to our Living Collections significantly.
“We then collect a specimen that’s a good representative sample without damaging the plant too much.”
The specimens are pressed between a piece of newspaper and some cardboard to take back to the herbarium to be mounted.
While Dr Clugston was only looking for one particular species, before long he’s stumbling across others.
“My gosh this is like legume heaven,” he says, finding a patch with at least four different species congregated together.
“This is a really exciting area.”
Dr James Clugston looking for plant species in Sydney.
Dr James Clugston is also an expert in cycad species.
But the day is edging on and Dr Clugston wants to find the Phyllota grandiflora.
His first encounter with what he believes to be the plant proves wrong.
“The distinctive thing is they have these two horns on the flowers but without evidence of flowers it’s so difficult to identify,” he says.
He snaps a photo and fires it off to a colleague who says to keep looking. Institute botanists are often texting each other in the field confirming their suspicions or asking if their colleague is after something they’ve happened to find for their own research.
Dr Clugston continues down the Binya Trail in Hornsby a little further and starts to get excited.
“It’s getting really sandy which is always promising,” he says.
“The tell-tale sign is when the soil changes.”
He’s right because he soon spots the distinct yellow flowers and races ahead in further excitement.
“This is the aim for the day, we can collect the next species and that’s amazing.”
Phyllota grandiflora is a member of the plant family Fabaceae
The hunt is over: Phyllota grandiflora up close.

Learn more

Find out more about the work our science team does and learn more about our collections, including what's in the National Herbarium of New South Wales which houses more than one million plant specimens.

Watch Dr Clugston speak about our cycad pollination mystery at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney:

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