A new sword sedge species that was right under the noses of Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander has been discovered in the heart of Sydney. Sword sedges hold many important uses for Indigenous people, including making fishing lines, fish traps and baskets.
The rare, grass-like plant, now named Lepidosperma prospectum, grows in some of Sydney’s most iconic locations – near Manly, Cooks Landing at Kurnell and inside the Royal National Park, but it is found nowhere else.
Australian Institute of Botanical Science researcher Dr Russell Barrett said Banks and Solander first collected around Cooks Landing and Cape Solander in 1770 but did not find this species at this time.
Dr Barrett said the new find highlighted a gap in the documented European knowledge of the Sydney region since the pair first collected plants around Botany Bay 250 years ago.
“Growing to 1.5m, the species has been overlooked as it has a very narrow habitat range,” Dr Barrett said.
“It is only found in dense tea-tree thickets on clifftops, in a threatened ecological community. It was first collected in Royal National Park, near the track to Wedding Cake Rock, but not recognised as new at the time.
"It is likely that it was utilised for fibre and weaving, and the leaf bases may have been chewed when fresh water was scarce.
“Fishing was a very important source of food for Indigenous people in coastal regions around Sydney.
“Dharawal women made hand fishing lines using hair or plant fibres including twine from similar plants. Fibre from this plant may well have been used for this purpose too. Sword sedges were also woven together to make fish and eel traps.”
Dr Barrett said the species was first recognised as new when he collected it from the top of North Head, near Manly, with Karen Wilson.
“It is only known from these three locations and will likely be listed as a threatened species.”
The species was named in National Herbarium of NSW journal Telopea.
Dr Barrett said the new name meant to look out, or have a view, in reference to the location where it grows being the places that First Nations people first saw European ships arrive in the region.
He said while 77 species of sedges were currently named, up to three times this number still awaited description.
“Lepidosperma species are critical components of many southern Australian ecosystems and play a key role in community ecology,” he said. “They are very long-lived plants that are able to resprout quickly following fire, so they provide important cover and food for a very wide range of animals.”
“Given the threat status, searching for additional populations in suitable habitat in the Sydney Basin should be prioritised.”