A rare plant near where a botanist lives

Tetratheca stenocarpa is a slender, almost leafless shrub which grows to a metre tall and has sprays of pale purple, pink or white flowers along erect stems.  It grows in damp forests with tall trees and a dense, species-rich understory of small-leafed shrubs, herbs, grasses and sedges.   Most of the sites supporting Tetratheca are in conservation reserves and support few if any non-native species.  It is a species that appears to respond quite well to physical disturbance of the landscape, with large numbers often growing along exposed road cuttings.  Its natural distribution is restricted to a relatively small geographic area in hilly country to the east of Melbourne, French Island and an isolated population near Gisborne.  It is classified as rare in Victoria.

James Hamlyn Willis discovered Tetratheca stenocarpa in 1952 while he was living and working as a young forester in Gembrook, east of Melbourne, and it was he who wrote the first formal description of the species five years later.  Jim WIllis was not an ordinary forester, he was a gifted field naturalist and became the most outstanding Victorian botanist of the second half of the 20th century.  He wrote the Handbook to Plants in Victoria over twelve years in 1962-73 and was probably the last person capable of undertaking such as task alone.  The Handbook's successor, the Flora of Victoria, was written over seven years (1993-1999) and had more than 50 authors.

Tetratheca stenocarpa - Long Pink-bells : Rare in Victoria : Found only in Victoria 
Tetratheca stenocarpa
© Paul Gullan/Viridans Images 

Jim Willis described more than 40 new plant species in his career, and discovered the first locations for many more, but his most fruitful period was that spent while he was living in the bush, in and around Gembrook.  Jim was the first to accurately locate populations of the shrub Grevillea barklyana (the location of an earlier collection from Ferdinand von Mueller was very vague), he discovered and named the large lily, Astelia australiana (originally thought to be Astelia nervosa which is known only from New Zealand) and his was the first confirmed record for the large sedge Gahnia grandis in Victoria (a widespread plant in Tasmania).  All of these species are currently listed as rare or threatened in Victoria and two are known only from this state, in addition, there are 40 other rare or threatened species recorded within bicycle-riding distance from Gembrook (Jim Willis never learnt to drive and most of his early explorations were on foot or bicycle).  Having an energetic botanist living in an area surrounded by bush is perhaps the best way to find rare and threatened plant species.

While the example of Jim Willis is an extraordinary one it is not a unique, there are many sites around Victoria where the presence of botanist living in an area and simply wandering around looking for things, has generated locations for new species. Howard Brown, from Red Cliffs, in north-western Victoria, is the source of many records for rare and threatened plant species in the mallee.  Jean Galbraith, from the Gippsland town of Tyers, a similarly energetic botanist who turned up a wide range of new records in her home territory and who was honoured by the naming of the local endemic species, Boronia galbraithiae.  But for sheer numbers of records nobody can compare to Cliff Beauglehole, a potato farmer and self-taught botanist from the tiny town of Gorae West in south-western Victoria.  Cliff was the most prolific collector of plant specimens of any Victorian botanist and his wanderings between Gorae West and the rural city of Portland has generated one of the richest sources of records for rare and threatened species in the state.

© Paul Gullan, Viridans Biological Databases