Search finds rare subalpine plants survived Australia’s bushfires

By AG STAFF 17 June 2022
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A search for rare plants in Australia’s subalpine region has found small populations of all five target species.

It’s a huge relief after fears the devastating 2019/20 bushfires might have wiped out some species when parts of Namadgi National Park in the ACT, Kosciuszko National Park in NSW and Alpine National Park in Victoria were heavily impacted.

Such a near miss gave rise to the Survive and Thrive project, which aims to conserve these plants for future generations.

“Australia’s Alps are home to some amazing, rare plants, found nowhere else in the world, but for many we had no seeds stored or specimens growing in a nursery,” says National Parks Conservation Trust spokesperson Dr Judy West.

“Now, through Survive and Thrive, we are locating surviving plants, collecting seeds, taking cuttings and studying how to propagate these species so that we can establish insurance populations,” she says.

The new collections and methods being developed will mean that nursery grown plants could in the future be used to bolster wild populations. Climate change may necessitate such an intervention because extreme bushfire conditions are becoming more frequent threatening the survival of rare native plants. 

Survive and Thrive is a partnership between the National Parks Conservation Trust, the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, the Australian Alps National Parks Cooperative Management Program, the ACT Government, the NSW Government Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, ActewAGL and National Parks Association of the ACT.

The first five species to be supported are the Namadgi tea tree (Leptospermum namadgiense), the slender parrot pea (Almaleea capitata), the dwarf violet (Viola improcera), daisy bush (Olearia sp. Rhizomatica (I.R.Telford 11549)), and the shiny phebalium (Leionema lamprophyllum subsp. obovatum).

Dwarf violet (Viola improcera)

It was estimated 100 per cent of the ACT populations of the Namadgi tea tree, dwarf violet, and daisy bush were burned. For the shiny phebalium it was 70 per cent, and the slender parrot pea 60 per cent.

“To find all five target species is wonderful news. The icing on the cake is these surviving populations were sufficiently healthy for the team to collect some seeds or cuttings,” says Judy.

Patrick Giumelli, Rewilding Program Ecologist, WWF-Australia, said if these species were outside national parks they might have been cleared by now.

“We have an opportunity to save these species because they were in a protected area. That’s why Australia should sign on to the ’30 by 30’ goal as part of Biodiversity COP,” Patrick says.

“That means protecting at least 30% of every ecosystem on land by 2030 and effectively managing existing protected areas so we can Regenerate Australia.”

Australian National Botanic Gardens manager Peter Byron said the hard work to secure the five species is underway.

“These plants are still largely a mystery,” Peter says. “We need to learn which specific temperature and humidity conditions are best to keep the seeds viable in long term storage.

“We also need to discover if they require certain cues from the environment to germinate such as fire, smoke, or a change in temperature or moisture.”

Small numbers of all five target species are now being grown in the Australian National Botanical Gardens nursery with some early success propagating all five target species.

WWF staff Georgia Davis (pictured) joined other volunteers searching for rare subalpine plants in Namadgi National Park, ACT in March 2022 after the 2019/2020 bushfires raised concerns some species of rare plants were pushed closer to extinction.

The Survive and Thrive project is thankful for help from volunteers and also citizen scientists who are pinpointing the locations of other populations of these vulnerable species through NatureMapr.

In March, two Canberra-based WWF staff, Rebecca Lyngdoh-Reye and Georgia Davis, joined other volunteers in a seed collecting expedition and marvelled at the knowledge of experts from the Australian National Botanical Gardens.

On that day the search focused on a wetland in Namadgi National Park that is also the largest intact bog and fen community in the Australian Alps. More expeditions are planned to sustainably collect enough seeds to allow for research and to stock The National Seed Bank at the Australian National Botanical Gardens for long-term conservation of the species.

About Regenerate Australia

Launched by WWF-Australia in October 2020, the multi-year program will rehabilitate, repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the 2019/20 bushfires, and help to future-proof Australia against the impacts of a changing climate. You can support and help Regenerate Australia here.