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Unexpected benefits of seed banking

For some years the Victorian Conservation Seedbank had as a target species Olearia tenuifolia, known in Victoria by a single population on a high cliff overlooking the Mitchell River. The population has been long known, but when checking herbarium vouchers after the first visit in June 2013, to secure seed of the species, we smelled a rat. The specimens of O. tenuifolia from inland New South Wales on which the original description was based, were not a good match for the Mitchell River plants. Further, the ‘genuine’ Olearia tenuifolia looked suspiciously like a Victorian rarity Olearia adenophora, which we had previously collected,. Through some sleuthing among herbarium collections from the ranges of O. tenuifolia and O. adenophora, original descriptions, and finally, type specimens held at the Geneva herbarium, it became clear that Victorian plants previously known as Olearia tenuifolia required a new name, and that O. adenophora was really synonymous with O. tenuifolia – the earlier and therefore correct name. So, the value of seedbanking, not only to plant conservation, but also more generally to taxonomy and the understanding of biodiversity, should not be underestimated.

The Mitchell River plants are now known as Olearia curticoma, named for the unusually short tuft of hairs (the ‘coma’) on the seeds (Walsh 2014). A healthy collection now resides in the Victorian Conservation Seedbank and a duplicate batch awaits shipment to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.

Bushfires of the summer of 2013/2014 came very close to eliminating the only population of O. curticoma, and while we didn’t want to demonstrate the value of seedbanking quite so soon, a wind change could have made the species, at least temporarily, extinct in the wild. --- Neville Walsh, National Herbarium of Victoria, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

Reference: Walsh, NG (2014) Notes on Olearia (Asteraceae: Astereae) in south-east Australia: O. tenuifolia, O. adenophora and description of a new species endemic to eastern Victoria. Muelleria 32:34-38.

The full paper can be found at this link: http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/documents/MuelleriaVol_32_-_p34_Walsh_Olearia.pdf.

Photo: Olearia tenuifolia (Neville Walsh, RBGMel)