Ecological Explainers: Physical Defences

Plants are constantly fighting a battle against critters that want to eat them. We see the result of this battle in the physical defences that plants have evolved over time. Plants make use of different types of defence mechanisms; from tough waxy armour to chemical-laden barbs. These defences may just discourage an enemy from chowing down on the plant or even cause their enemy to have a long and painful death. Whatever it takes to avoid being someone’s dinner. Here I am focusing on the spiky plant parts that we have all hurt ourselves on at some point.

In botany, we class spiky plant parts into 3 major types:

  • Thorns
  • Spines
  • Prickles


Thorns are sharp and pointed branches. They have vascular tissue, can be branched and can have leaves.

Discaria toumatou, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Discaria toumatou, a plant endemic to New Zealand, has branches that have developed into thorns. The giveaway is that they are green which means they have vascular tissue and are photosynthesising. Whilst it is native to New Zealand it can often become weedy because it’s the only plant that survives the munching of sheep thanks to their epic thorns. Mt Iron, Wanaka (C.Simpson-Young)


Spines are modified leaves or parts a leaf. They don’t have vascular tissue and don’t photosynthesise, and tend to be hard and dry. Spines can develop from the little stem that holds the leaf (petiole), main cluster of veins in the leaves (midrib), veins in general or the stipule.

Spines of Citrus australasica or Finger Lime (C.Simpson-Young)

The Finger Lime (Citrus australasica) have what we call Stipular Spines. They have developed from the stipule, which is a little bit of tissue that occurs at the base of the leaf stalk (C.Simpson-Young)

Spines of a Solanaceae (C.Simpson-Young)

The spines of this Solanaceae species follows the veins in the leaves, indicating they develop from the tissue of the veins (C.Simpson-Young)

Pereskia grandifolia Kew 2015 (C. Simpson-Young)

Pereskia grandifolia, a species of Cactus, has spines that grow out of a pale lump of tissue called areole (a highly modified stem). Kew 2015 (C. Simpson-Young).


Prickles are spiky outgrowths from the bark of a plant. They are usually small, and grow from the cortex and epidermis layers of the bark. These layers don’t have vascular tissue, so prickles don’t either.

Rose Prickles (C.Simpson-Young)

The terms spine, thorn and prickle are often used interchangeably outside of botany. For example, rose thorns are actually prickles because they are outgrowths of the epidermal layer of the stem (C.Simpson-Young)

In summary, the three main forms of spiky things found on plants are thorns (spiky stems), spines (spiky leaves and leaf bits) and prickles (spiky outgrowths of the bark). There are some other pricks and piercers like modified roots and trichomes, but I’ll save them for another post.

Armstrong, W.P. (2007) Botany 115 Vegetative Terminology: Modified Roots, Stems and Leaves. Wayne’s Word: Online Textbook of Natural History, accessed Feb 2018  <;

Biology Online Directory (2017), Areole, accessed Feb 2018 <;

Raven, P., Evert, E., Eichhorn, S. (1986) Biology of Plants, Fourth Edition. Worth Publishers: New York.

Missouri Botanical Gardens (2017), Pereskia grandifolia var. grandifolia, accessed Feb 2018 <;


EcoTas2017 – Reflections of a Plant Nerd

What could be better than hanging out with a bunch of cool people also obsessed with how our natural world works? I went away to EcoTas 2017, the joint conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and New Zealand Ecological Society. I came back with a tan, a brain buzzing with new knowledge and (I like to think) some new friends. 45 Sessions, 337 speakers, 81 posters and I feel my brain has at least doubled in size. You will see a definite bias in the presentations represented here. Turns out I really like plants and smaller scale conservation and management issues.


Local Knowledge

9am Monday many of us walked from the onsite accommodation, others drove in from surrounding AirBnBs and hotels to start the conference off with a Welcome to Country. Lorrie Perry from the Wonnarua National Aboriginal Corporation got the ball rolling by introducing us to James Wilson-Miller, a curator from the Powerhouse Museum, for an engaging and moving welcome to country. He was followed by Jamie Ataria, a clearly multi-talented man who has a finger in many pies, from ecotoxicology to Maori business development. He responded thoughtfully and thanked all those ancestors and elders who suffered and paved the way for us.

Leah Talbot was the first keynote speaker. She spoke about her recently completed PhD which was a comparative study of how indigenous knowledge is supported and feeds into conservation management. Being a Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owner, she focused on her people in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and compared their experiences to that of the Sami people in the Laponia World Heritage Area, Sweden. I think the most striking thing about her research was that she developed a new framework she called the Empowering Indigenous Lens and specifically developed a methodology called “walking together” which use indigenous worldviews as a framework for research such as this.  The idea is that the indigenous people are part of the analysis and their views are continually fed back into the research process.

Jamie Ataria was the 2nd Keynote speaker, who noted that a conference on a golf course is an ecotoxicologists dream. His presentation emphasised that the people have to come before the research, otherwise we risk being a “one day mushroom”; come in, get data and disappear again. Doing otherwise is bad for the people researchers are working with and the research itself.

Sunrise at Cypress Lakes, EcoTas 2017 venue (C.Simpson-Young)

Sunrise at Cypress Lakes, EcoTas 2017 venue (C.Simpson-Young)

When, Where and Why do Trees Die?

I started the conference on an uplifting note by attending the Tree Mortality Symposium. Dan Falster began with 5 recommended techniques for modelling tree mortality. I did note these 5 techniques but I don’t think I could do them justice here. So check out his website for more of his work.

On a smaller scale (one I can wrap my head around) Georgia Watson from the University of Wollongong. She studied tree recruitment, growth and mortality in response to burning and logging in Yamballa State Forest. Ultimately she found that there is greater tree mortality in logged sites if exposed to fire, but on the flip side, there is also greater recruitment.

Ecology and Agriculture

I popped over to the Agro-Ecology session and saw Rohan Riley’s talk on his functional traits approach to assessing pant resource economics using automated imaging.

Then Manu Saunders about how ecosystem services are the link between research and policy/management, and studies into this area usually overlook the ecological complexity and have an economics focus. She presented a new ecosystem service typology that works for multifunctional landscapes and includes links between terrestrial and aquatic environments, spatial and temporal factors and social and ecological factors.

Later I went to Katrinka Ruthrof’s talk on work she has done as part of the Mine to Plant Enterprises Project (Mintope) which is a partnership between Murdoch University, Christmas Island Phosphates and the Commonwealth Government. They are trying to establish agriculture on closed mining sites which have low fertility, high heavy metal levels, and don’t have a good soil microbial community. They found through studies with legumes that Potassium was the limiting factor, and with increased potassium in the soil, the heavy metal levels in the plants become safer.

I then did something uncharacteristic and went over to the Insect Ecology Research Chapter session, and saw Jamie Stavert who gave a really interesting talk on the role of exotic flies in pollinating native plants. He planted flowers usually pollinated by flies and bees in areas with varying connectedness with native vegetation. He found that as we move away from native vegetation and into more purely agricultural areas exotic pollinators do more of the heavy lifting.

EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Ecology and People

The afternoon sessions started and I rushed between the Urban Ecology and Conservation Biology sessions. Abbey Camaclang gave a great talk on using density impact models to help prioritise conservation actions on upland peat swamps. Thomas Newsome presented on using body size and range in predicting the extinction of invertebrates and found that smaller species are just as likely to become extinct in some groups of mammals which is important because large vertebrates are usually the focus of conservation efforts.

Katrinka Ruthrof gave Ben Miller’s talk on fire and weed management at King’s Park. I really enjoyed this one as my PhD is looking at urban bushland, and plus I have huge respect for anyone who manages to do burns in urban areas! So I’ll write a bunch more about this in an upcoming post.

My excitement about Melinda Cook’s talk is evident in the fact that I wrote significantly more notes for it than other talks of this length. Mistletoes play an important ecological role as they drop their leaves without reabsorbing the nutrients creating nutrient-rich leaf litter, as well as providing nesting and food resources for animals. Her study is looking at whether they increase animal diversity if re-established in urban areas. They planted 864 seeds on 27 trees, the method of which is fascinating as it is. I think there is a whole blog post in that!

The evening saw a wonderful poster session. It was an opportunity to learn more about people’s research and to make new friends!

EcoTas2017 Poster Session (C.Simpson-Young)

EcoTas2017 Poster Session (C.Simpson-Young)


Bernat Bramon Mora and Matthias Dehling both from the Stouffer Lab spoke about functional traits and diversity in communities with a focus on bird-plant interactions. Matthias’ made me think, and I will definitely be downloading that paper.

Yohay Carmel spoke about ecological ideas that keep returning despite increasing evidence that they don’t hold. He spoke about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis and optimal foraging, but his main focus was the competitive exclusion principle. He concluded by saying that we keep creating and maintaining these paradigms because we try to make simple models in the style of the discipline of physics for the complex natural world.


I did some serious note taking during Nick Shultz’s  presentation as a part of my PhD takes a similar approach as Nick. He is taking a traits-based approach to studying post-mining revegetation. I, of course, both loved and felt very intimidated by the presentation. The striking findings was how C4 plant thrive where C3 didn’t (*scrambles to add photosynthetic pathways to traits list for my study*).

I ran over to the community ecology session. Sadly I missed John Morgan but made it in time for Tanya Mason which was cool because I have seen the experiments in the UNSW glasshouse. They are looking at the impact of underground mining on upland swamps. It’s very clear that as the underground mining disrupts the underground water situation the plant communities suffer.

The afternoon was jam-packed full of other fantastic looking talks, but I needed to tap out and have a break.

EcoTas2017 Delegates (C.Simpson-Young)

EcoTas2017 Delegates (C.Simpson-Young)


Wednesday started with an excellent address by ESA president Don Driscoll. There’ll be more on the address in the following post.


Following Don was a bunch of impressive talks by ESA Award and Scholarship winners. Rowena Hamer winner of the 2016 TNC Applied Conservation Award presented her work on the effectiveness of habitat restoration for native wildlife in the Midlands of Tasmania.

Samantha McCann presented her work so far in ways of managing cane toad populations by manipulating signalling chemicals. There are 3 chemical cues used by cane toads, attraction cues, suppression cues and alarm cues (the last of which she didn’t cover in this presentation). Attractions cues are released and trigger the tadpoles to eat other cane toad eggs when the population density increases too much. We can mimic these cues to reduce the number of eggs in a water body. Adult cane toads can release suppression chemical cues that suppress tadpole growth. Sam tested how mimicking these cues would work in the field, specifically would changing the density in discrete water bodies increase the fitness of the tadpoles that remain. Just trapping and removing tadpoles meant that the ones left behind had the resources to grow larger meaning they are better at escaping predators. However, suppression meant the there was the same density of tadpoles but after a period a proportion die.

Joshua Thia, winner of the 2016 Wiley Fundamental Ecology Award, is studying intertidal systems and patch limited movements in Bathygobius cocosensis. He studied genetic structure of 3 populations over 3 years, finding that there was high dispersal and connectivity as they travel long distances, but there are various post settlement processes that reduce connectivity.

Rylea McGlusky who won the 2017 Applied Forest Ecology Presentation Award did a great presentation on long-term land use changes and structural habitat for gliders in state forests in SE Queensland. She carried out studies on two types of vegetation; one that had been logged in the last 20 years and one logged more than 20 years ago.  She measured DBH, stumps and hollows, and carried out nocturnal surveys. Despite a history of logging “there were some juicy looking hollows”.

 Effectiveness monitoring

Sarah Munks started off the Effectiveness Monitoring Session with an interesting talk based on a trip with her colleagues to see how conservation monitoring was done in the US, I had a lot of notes from this one, so I’ll write some more about it in the next blog post!

Brad Law from Forest Science Unit at NSW focused his talk on monitoring of bats on and off flyways in the Pilliga. The monitoring program (which was run between 2013-2016 by forestry NSW) used remote recording devices like song meters and camera traps.

Later I went to Sacha Jellinek’s talk on restoration planting survival. Again, more on that later.

Mike Bowie presented results from their pilot restoration study implemented on Licoln Universities’ dairy farm. There is less than 0.5% of original vegetation cover left in Canterbury, and the New Zealand farming landscape once had shelterbelts and pine plantations which have been lost to clearing as the price of dairy dropped. They planted 38 native plant species in corner plantings and double fence line plantings in an attempt to bring back invertebrates. Invertebrate species richness increased in the plantings compared to the grass. Hopefully planting like this can improve insect movement into the paddocks and allow bird movements across landscapes.

Mike Bowie EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

A visual representation of the impact of farming in the New Zealand Landscape from Mike Bowie’s presentation at EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Speed Talks

After lunch, Richard Fuller gave an excellent presentation as the winner of the Australian Ecology Research Award (more on this in a later post). This year EcoTas introduced speed talks, and they featured some. Laura Fernandez spoke about management of Myrtle Rust. Lindall Kidd explained the need for behaviour change theory and evaluation for strategic communication. Adrienne Nicotra argued that we need to include species adaptive capacity when modelling of species movement in response to climate change. We should also study species on the ecological edges and make use of structured Expert Elicitation. Finally, Ayesha Tulloch demonstrated how we can model likely responses to threat management of all 88 Box Woodland bird species from partial information on only 37 species.

Laura Fernandez, Lindall Kidd, Adrienne Nicotra, Ayesha Tulloch. EcoTas 2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Laura Fernandez, Lindall Kidd, Adrienne Nicotra, Ayesha Tulloch EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

After morning tea I went to the Novel Management Interventions for Threatened Species Symposium. I really enjoyed it so wanted to give it a little more space, so I’ll cover that in the next post. I then flitted around and saw Decky Junaedi who carried out a framework based risk assessment of plant species in Indonesian botanic gardens spreading into the native vegetation. His study showed that 24 had escaped, and when modelled showed that there was a strong correlation between spread and Specific Leaf Area and then time since arrived at the gardens. Dispersal method or height were not strongly correlated. Then I went to Rachel Gallagher’s talk on “what happens to plants when you are very mean to them”, i.e. a species vulnerability and adaptive capacity to determine their safety margin to heat/dryness with climate change.

Rachael Gallagher and Decky Junaedi at EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Rachael Gallagher and Decky Junaedi at EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)


The Thursday morning keynote speakers gave excellent presentations of New Zealand’s latest large-scale biodiversity study, and successful conservation and restoration programs. More on these talks to come in the next post. I spent the morning ducking between the Forest Ecology and Conservation Biology Sessions.

Mark Ooi presented his comparative study of the threatened Leucopogon exolasius and two more common Leucopogon species and their response to fire. He started this study during his honours in 2000/2011, and it was 16 years later when he started to have “his own new cohort” that he revisited the work. Leucopogon exolasius had a very long juvenile period compared to the other species, which means that too frequent burning could mean that the species doesn’t get a chance to reproduce before the next fire. Mark also found that fire season also impacted the species. Out of season burns increases juvenile period which puts the species at even greater risk.

Tyler Coverdale presented his initial PhD results on the associational refuge that spiny Acacia provide for the plants that live beneath them in the African Savannah. He found that plant living beneath spiny acacias have 3-4 times fewer spines themselves compared to individuals living in the open. To confirm that it was an effect of herbivory they removed branches from one side of an Acacia and measured herbivory on the plants below. Those still under the Acacia branches had less herbivory, while those now exposed had more. This pattern is consistent across different species and supported by clipping experiments which induced a 25% increase in defences within a month.

Yanbin Deng is an ecologist with Waikato Regional Council in New Zealand who has been monitoring and planning the restoration of Kahikatea forests in the Waikato area. Kahikatea forests are at 0.67% of its original extent, and only 1.5 hectares remain over 867 fragments. Many of the remnants are on private land, are exposed to high edge effect, weeds and changes in hydrology. She outlined how a restoration plan will be created and implemented making use of maps, photos, and SERA evaluation-wheel tool.

Sjirk Geerts investigated whether the plant species pollinated by the Malachite Sunbird in South Africa are suffering because of the birds’ dislike of urban areas. A study of a particular plant species which relies solely on the Malachite Sunbird found that although flowers are visited by a species of short-billed sunbirds, this results in lower seed production than when visited by the long-billed Malachite Sunbird. Sjirk used population projection analyses to show that there could be significant population decline in plant species pollinated by the Malachite Sunbird.

Mark Ooi, Tyler Coverdale, Yanbin Deng and Sjirk Geerts. EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Mark Ooi, Tyler Coverdale, Yanbin Deng and Sjirk Geerts. EcoTas2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

We had our last lunch together trying super hard to stay out of the sun. Martin Westgate gave a great presentation which I’ll write more about later, and awards were given to the winners of various prizes, including best ecological fashion. Keep an eye out for the next post on EcoTas2017.

Thursday Lunch at EcoTas 2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Thursday Lunch at EcoTas 2017 (C.Simpson-Young)

Dunns Swamp: By the Water

This year for my birthday I convinced my family to take a Friday off work to relive our childhood camping trips to Dunns Swamp (or Gangaddy) in Wollemi National Park. I was in botanical heaven!

Around the campsite alone there are several vegetation types. Dunns Swamp or Ganguddy (the Wiradjuri name) is on the Cudgegong River in Wollemi National Park. The River was dammed in 1920s when Kandos Weir was built to provide water to the Cement Works in Kandos. Shrubs, grasses and sedges grow in the moist, sandy-peaty soil along the waterways. The campsites are set up amongst low woodland on shallow sandy soil. Finally, organic matter fills up little hollows in the large rock formations and little heath communities spring up. This is one of three blog posts about the flora of Dunns Swamp. I will be starting with the plants by the water’s edge.

Acacia filicifolia or Fern-leaved Wattle, is a common species throughout New South Wales. It has the standard fluffy yellow flowers of an Acacia. The feathery looking compound leaves have inspired the species name; filici  comes from the Latin for fern, while folium means leaf … giving us ‘fern-leaved wattle’.

Acacia filicifolia, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Acacia filicifolia, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Calytrix tetragona or Common Fringe Myrtle have the most beautiful flowers. Once they develop into fruit and fall away they leave their bright red calyx behind. A calyx is the ring of leaf-like structures surrounding a flower. Caly is for the stunning calyx (calyx comes from the Greek for cup) and thrix (hair) for the hair-like calyces.  Tetragona means four angles and refers the leaf shape.

Calytrix tetragona Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Calytrix tetragona, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Eleocharis sphlacelata or Giant Spike Rush grows in deep still water in dense swards, creating large areas of important habitat. It provides shelter and food for insects, birds and fish. Some insects drill through the stem to access the oxygen within the hollow, cylindrical stem. Even algae benefits as the stalks provide a surface to colonise on. The scientific name is a little oxymoronic; Eleocharis means “marsh beauty” while sphacelata means “diseased” referring to the weird looking flowering spike.

Eleocharis sphlacelata, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: P. Simpson-Young)

Eleocharis sphlacelata, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: P. Simpson-Young)

Exocarpos strictus, Dwarf Cherry or Pale-fruit Ballart is a hemiparasitic shrub that flowers all year round. A hemiparasite gets some of its food through parasitism and some through the standard method of photosynthesis. The Dwarf Cherry sucks nutrients from the roots of other plants with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. The tiny flowers turn into black fruit with swollen red or white stems which are popular with birds. They can grow in all sorts of environments, from heathland to dense woodland.

Exocarpos strictus Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Exocarpos strictus with tiny yellow flowers. Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Patersonia sericea, Purple Flag or Native Iris, has grass-like leaves and stunning bright purple petals. The species name ‘sericea’ comes from the latin sericated meaning ‘clothed in silk’, because of the silky hairs at the base of young leaves. As you probably know showy flowers exist to help plants reproduce by attracting critters to help move pollen from one flower to another. The male organ (called a stamen) releases pollen and the female organ (stigma) receives the pollen. You may be able to see in the picture that Patersonia sericea has several stamens that have fused together to make a tube around the stigma.

Patersonia sericea, Dunns Swamp Sep 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Patersonia sericea, Dunns Swamp Sep 2017 (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Psilotum nudum or the Skeleton Fork Fern is a strange plant that doesn’t have the organs that normal plants do. For example, it doesn’t have proper roots, just a stem that grows undergound. This is how it got a Latin name that means ‘bear naked’. Plant life started with organisms like algae and moss. They didn’t have any vessels to move water and nutrients, so they can never stray far from the water or grow tall. The next step in the evolution of plants was to develop vessels for water and nutrient transport, and these primitive plants would have looked a lot like Psilotum nudum.

Psilotum nudum, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Imagge: C. Simpson-Young)

Psilotum nudum, Dunns Swamp Sept 2017 (Imagge: C. Simpson-Young)


Australian National Botanic Gardens, Calytrix tetragona

Australian Native Plant Society Sutherland, Patersonia sericea

Berkeley University, Introduction to Psilotales

Friends of Lane Cove National Park, Patersonia sericea

Mieke M. Kapa & Bruce D. Clarkson (2009) Biological flora of New Zealand 11.
Eleocharis sphacelata, kuta, paopao, bamboo spike sedge, New Zealand Journal of Botany, 47:1,
43-52, <>

Nathan Baily, An universal etymological English dictionary, Volume 2

New Zealand Plant Conservation Network, Eleocharis sphacelata

OEH (2016), Ganguddy Visitor Guide.

Understory Network, Exocarpos strictus

Watson, D. McGregor, H., Spooner, P. Hemiparasitic shrubs increase resource availability and multi-trophic diversity of eucalypt forest birds, Functional Ecology, 2009, 150, 889–899 <>

Plants of Mt Iron, Wanaka, New Zealand

October last year I dragged my new husband up Mt Iron in Wanaka. He would have rather been back in town chilling … because “it’s our honeymoon!”. But I said, “marriage is about compromise … just let me get a few photos of plants”. And in an act of incredible husband-ing, he helped me trawl through websites trying to identify the plants! This was surprisingly hard, so I decided to write a post about the plants of Mt Iron in the hope that others won’t have to repeat all our hard work.

Mt Iron just outside Wanaka in the South Island of New Zealand, is a ‘roche mountonee’ or ‘sheepback’; a rounded knob of bedrock exposed by a glacier. The upstream side of the knob is gently sloped from the polishing action of the glacier, while the downstream side is steeper and more jagged. The Wanaka area was used by Maori for summer camps, and white settlers started farming in the area in the 1850s, being more densely settled later as it became more popular with tourists. The result of this geology and history is a mountain with several native vegetation types and a fair few weeds.


Discaria toumatou 

I started calling Discaria toumatou the “f**k off plant” (look at those thorns!) but the common name is actually matagouri. The Maori called the plant matakoura, but the English settlers on of the South Island misheard it as matagouri, and so that is what the settlers stuck with. Botanically speaking there are different types of spiky defensive structures on plants. In this case, we have thorns, which are branches or branchlets that have turned over to the dark side. Matagouri has a symbiotic relationship with a group of fungi allowing it to pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil.

Discaria toumatou, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Discaria toumatou, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Raoulia australis

This is a great little plant! It has some fantastic common names including sheep plant, vegetable sheep and golden scabweed! It is from the daisy family. It’s common on gravelly soil of mountains in both the North and South Islands of New Zealand. As you can see from the picture it grows as a dense mat and has yellow flowers.

Raoulia australis, Mt Iron Nov 2016 (Image: C Simpson-Young)

Raoulia australis, Mt Iron Nov 2016 (Image: C Simpson-Young)

Olearis fragrantissima/hectorii 

I couldn’t tell which of these two species this plant was. Both are rare and part of the Small-leaved Tree Daisy National Recovery Plan. Both species have small populations: 10 000 plants and 4 500 respectively. Their numbers are small because of habitat loss, animal browsing, fragmentation of habitat, weeds, messing up of natural disturbance regimes. The NZ government is calling on New Zealanders to let them know if they find new populations, and encourage their survival if found on their own property.

Olearis fragrantissima/hectorii Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Olearis fragrantissima/hectorii Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Carmichaelia petriei 

Or desert broom. Across the world, you will come across a lot of species called the ‘so-and-so’ broom. Broom is a common name given to plants in the Fabaceae (or pea) family. It comes from the Old English bróm, which meant ‘thorny shrub’. The word broom for a thing that sweeps stuff up comes from the fact that branches from ‘broom’ plants were used for that purpose. In NZ the name broom is given to the native genus of Carmichaelia.

Carmichaelia petriei, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Carmichaelia petriei, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Coriaria sarmentosa 

Found growing in big patches on stony ground, this cool looking plant has fleshy berries that entice animals to distribute the seeds. Many different parts of the plant were used by the Maori for medicinal purposes, for example, the berry juice was fermented with seaweed and used against constipation. The berries are usually poisonous to us but careful separation of the flesh from the seed made a drinkable juice, and when boiled with seaweed made an (apparently) fairly tasty jelly.

Coriaria sarmentosa, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Coriaria sarmentosa, Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Kunzea ericoides 

Here is a native that could give some introduced species a run for their money. It grows in dense thickets, dropping leaves making an environment unappealing to understory plants. It can also quickly colonise disturbed ground, making it useful in the fight against weeds. But this can also be useful in providing a place for young natives to establish, making it what we call a “nurse species”. It looks similar to Manuka (the source of the famous Manuka Honey), but there is a difference in the foliage and flower size. Usually the bark and wood look quite white … but not in this photo; there was a fire at this site.

Kunzea ericoides Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Kunzea ericoides, Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Montia australasica 

This lovely little plant is found in the southern parts of New Zealand and Australia. The species name australascia is from the Latin for South. They are creeping plants growing mostly in Alpine areas, but hardy enough to deal with scree slopes to shallow water. The genus Montia are often called miner’s lettuce because a North American relative was used in the salads of Californian Gold Rush miners.

Montia australasica Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Montia australasica, Mt Iron (CSY)


Crataegus monogyna 

A European/Western Asia native, the cold winters in NZ are perfect for Hawthorn. It thrives, forming dense colonies and stopping native plants establishing. They are very successful weeds thanks to their ability to put up with a huge variety of climatic conditions, soil types, even frost and salt. Their white flowers are pollinated my midges, while birds and the invasive possums (as an Australian I would like to apologise about the possums) spread the dark red fruit they produce. Their berries are edible for us, as are the petals and leaves. Of course, that is assuming you are able to get past the thorns.

Crataegus monogyna Mr Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Crataegus monogyna, Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Myosotis sylvatica 

You will have heard of this one … forget-me-not. Another exotic introduced from Europe/Western Asia. If you look closely at the flowers you can see a raised yellow circles around the centre. That protects the nectar from washing away with the rain. It also is a visual beacon to pollinating insects.

Myosotis sylvatica Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Myosotis sylvatica, Mt Iron (CSY)

Rosa rubiginosa 

The Briar Rose is an attractive and lovely smelling plant brought over from Europe to be planted in New Zealand gardens. And as we so often see … now it is a problematic weed. It’s the source of Rosehip tea, and during WWII rosehips (the fruit) were collected in the Otago area to be made into rosehip syrup which was given to babies as a source of vitamin C. Like Hawthorn it grows in dense thickets suppressing the growth of native plants. It can get so thick that if growing in waterways it can influence flow and cause flooding.

Rosa rubiginosa Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Rosa rubiginosa, Mt Iron (C. Simpson-Young)

Anagallis arvensis 

A rather pretty exotic, with the common name scarlet pimpernel. Originally from Europe, West Asia and North Africa, it’s a common weed in both disturbed areas and natural vegetation. It can be problematic for farmers because it’s poisonous to livestock, but apparently, it tastes pretty crap so livestock will only eat it if they are desperate (like in an area that has been overgrazed). The coolest thing about the scarlet pimpernel is that they open their flowers when the sun hits them. They will also close up when the atmospheric pressure decreases (i.e. some bad weather on the way). This has earnt them the name ‘poor man’s weatherglass’.


Anagallis arvensis, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)

Anagallis arvensis, Mt Iron (C.Simpson-Young)



Anagallis arvensis (2005), International Environmental Weed Foundation <;

Anagallis arvensis subsp. arvensis var arvensis (2010), New Zealand Plant Conservation Network <;

Anagallis arvensis (Scarlet Pimpernel) (2017), T.E.R:R.A.I.N. <;

Carmichaelia (1980), Encyclopedia of Life <;

Carmichaelia petriei (Desert broom) (2014), T.E.R:R.A.I.N. <;

Coriaria sarmentosa (2014) New Zealand Plant Conservation Network <;

Coriaria sarmentosa (2011) The Alpine Garden Society  <;

Coriaria arborea. C. sarmentosa. Tutu. (2017), Maori Plant Use: Landcare Research <;

Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn) (2017), T.E.R:R.A.I.N. <;

Dawson, J. & Henshaw, D. (1988), Chapter 8: alpine plants. Forest vines to snow tussocks: the story of new zealand plants. Accessed via <;

Harper, D. (2017) Broom. Online Etymology Dictionary <;

Montia australasica (2011), The Alpine Garden Society <;

Mount Iron and Mount Roy (2016), Pure New Zealand <;

Myosotis sylvatica (2016), Weeds of Australia <;

Myosotis sylvatica (2014), New Zealand Plant Conservation Network <;

Olearia Factsheets (2007), Department of Conservation <>

Raoulia australis (2011), The Alpine Garden Society <;

Raoulia australis Hook.f. ex Raoul (2014), NZ Flora <;

Rosa rubiginosa (Sweet Briar)(2017), T.E.R:R.A.I.N. <;

Wanaka History Facts and Timeline (2015), World Guides <;

Buds and the Bees: Sexual Deception in Orchids

Sexual deception is probably the weirdest and most wonderful methods used by plants to attract pollinators. Many plants use deceit of some kind to get little critters to spread their pollen to another flower, whether that is one plant species mimicking the petal arrangement of another, or a flower smelling like rotten flesh to attract pollinating flies. However, not many species use sexual deceit to attract pollinators. True sexual deception has only been described in the family Orchidaceae (and to a lesser extent, in a species of daisy, Gorteria diffusia).

Paracaleana minor or the Small Duck Orchid can be found on rocky slopes and gravelly soils in sclerophyll shrublands, woodlands, grasslands and forests across the Australian South East.

Paracaleana minor (Photo: Casey Gibson)

Paracaleana minor (Photo: Casey Gibson)

Sexual deception is what it sounds like. Some orchids have evolved to look and smell like a female insect and send out a silent “come hither” to the male insect who thinks he is about to get lucky. He tries to get it on with the flower, while the flower plops a sac of pollen (called pollinia) on the head of the foolish insect. He flies away and finds himself falling for the orchid’s trick again, and leaves the pollen sack behind on the second flower.

Calochilus campestris or Copper Bearded Orchid can be found in moist sclerophyll forest on the East Coast of Australia and in Tasmania. Their flowers are pollinated by the male scoliid wasp (genus Campsomeris). You can see that the labellum has evolved to resemble a wasp, with colourful hairs and even some glands that look like eyes.

Calochilus campestris (Photo: Justin Chan)

Calochilus campestris (Photo: Justin Chan)

These orchids are exploiting the mate-seeking behaviour of male insects, usually Hymenoptera, a large insect order that includes bees, ants and wasps. The orchids exude a chemical that smells like the mating pheromones of the female of the pollinating species. This cross-species communication is made possible because both insects and plants use the same chemical compounds in their cuticle wax layers to reduce water evaporation. Insects use these chemicals for communication, and some orchids have evolved the ability to co-opt the compounds in their own protective waxy coating for producing insect pheromone-like smells. In addition to this sneaky smelly trick, the bottom petal structures (labellum) will often mimic the shape, colour and texture of the female. The result is flowers that look super weird and often very beautiful.

Sexual deceit has evolved independently across the world in unrelated orchid genera. About 400 sexually deceptive species can be found in Australia, Europe (one genera, Ophrys), the Mediterranean basin, South Africa (2 species from the genus Disa), and in South and Central America. However, it is likely that there are species that are yet to be described.

Caleana major or the Flying Duck Orchid is pollinated by male sawflies (and will resprout from tubers as a backup). The sawfly lands on the labellum which spring shut and forces the sawfly against the column of the flower transferring pollen. They can be found across the East and South of Australia on sandy or gravelly soil in sclerophyll forest, shrubland and heathland.

Caleana major (Photo: Casey Gibson)

Caleana major (Photo: Casey Gibson)

Giant thanks to Casey Gibson and Justin Chan for letting me use their photos. Check out their Instagram: Casey and Justin

There are loads of wonderful resources out there on this topic, with examples from across the world. Below are a few.

Sexual deception in orchids by Alun Salt on the AoB Blog

Deceptive orchids: luring wasps for pollination by Emma Young for Australian Geographic

The deceptive sex lives of orchids by Danielle Clode and Sue Double for Ockham’s Razor, Radio National





Benitez-Vieyra, S., Medina, A.M. and Cocucci, A.A. (2009) Variable selection patterns on the labellum shape of Geoblasta pennicillata, a sexually deceptive orchid. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 22 (11): 2354-2362

Cozzolino, S. and Widmer, A. (2005) Orchid Diversity: and evolutionary consequence of deception? Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 20 (9): 487- 492.

Davis, L. (2016) The Ducks. Native Orchid Society of South Australia <;

Ellis, A. and Johnson, D. (2010) Floral mimicry enhances pollen export: the evolution of pollination by sexual deceit outside of the Orchidaceae. American  Naturalist. 176(5): 43-51.

Jersáková, J. and Johnson S. and Kindlmann, P. (2006). Mechanisms and evolution of deceptive pollination in orchids. Biological Reviews. 81: 219-235.

Johnson, S. and Nilsson, L. (1999) Pollen carryover, geitonogamy, and the evolution of deceptive pollination systems in orchids. Ecology. 80:2607–2619.

Schiestl, F. and Cozzolino, S. (2008) Evolution of sexual mimicry in the orchid subtribe orchidinae: the role of preadaptations in the attraction of male bees as pollinators. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 8(27):1-10

Schiestl, F. (2005) On the success of a swindle: pollination by deception in orchids, Naturwissenschaften. 92 (6): 255-264.

Smithson, A, and Gigord, L. (2001) Are there fitness advantages in being a rewardless orchid? Reward supplementation experiments with Barlia robertiana. Biological Sciences 268 (1475): 1435-1441.

Herbs and Sub-Shrubs of Livingstone National Park

I know all my lovely readers have been waiting with bated breath for the next instalment of the plants of Livingstone National Park. Ok…my one reader…my mother…and her breaths weren’t really bated (fun fact: Shakespeare seems to have been the first to use the phrase ‘bated breath’).

Previously on The Little Things Blog … I recently went for a walk with friends in Livingstone National Park. It protects 2522 ha of temperate woodland and is one of the few large tracts of woodland in the mostly agricultural Riverina and South West Slopes. Being February there wasn’t much flowering, but these are some of the plants we came across! You can find the post of the shrubs and trees of Livingstone National Park here.

Xerochrysum viscosum: These were the stars of the walk for me, even though they were starting to go to seed. They were scattered across the woodland understory; little gold sparks between the trees. This herb’s common name is Sticky Everlasting. The ‘sticky’ is because the leaves feel almost sticky because of the tiny prickles covering them. Their showy displays last a long time because of the tough papery bracts which are the bright yellow petal-like structures you see in the photo.Within those bracts are a group of dark coloured boring looking flowers. The showy bracts help attract insect pollinators including butterflies (a similar flower structure to that of the Flannel Flower).

The scientific name also describes these characteristics. Xerochrysum (Greek) means ‘dry gold’ and viscosus is derived from the latin for sticky.

Xerochrysum viscosum at Livingston National Park (Image: C.Simpson-Young)

Xerochrysum viscosum at Livingston National Park (Image: C.Simpson-Young)

Pomax umbellata: I love these little shrubs. They are very common all across Australia but grow up to about 20cm and so often overlooked. But they deserve our attention! Look at those fantastic circular patterns! These are what are left of the flower heads arranged in what we call an umbel (all the little flowers grow from a single point. The Flannel Flower is also an umbel, but much more tightly packed). This individual has flowered and already dropped its seeds. What is left is a ring of cup-shaped calyces. A calyx is the ring of leaf-like structures surrounding a flower. Technically what is happening in Pomax is each stalk held several flowers and all their associated calyces have fused to make a larger cup-like calyx. These stick around long after the fruit have left the plant and is likely what you are going to see when you are walking around in the bush. The genus name is derived from poma the Greek for ‘cover’ and axon for ‘axis’. This refers to the little roof that the calyx has to protect the fruit. You may have already guessed that the species name refers to the umbel inflorescence (umbella meaning small shadow … same origin as umbrella).

Pomax umbellata at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Pomax umbellata at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Opercularia varia: this little guy has the flattering common name Variable Stinkweed because of the stinkiness of the leaves when you crush them and give them a sniff. As you can see in the picture they had well and truly gone to seed. Left behind was the off-white capsules.

If you look closely you can see that the leaves sit opposite each other on the stem and seem to be linked by some brownish tissue. These are stipules that have fused to the bottom of the leaves forming what we call a sheath. Stipules are versatile little organs that grow on either side of the base of the leaf. They can develop into all sorts of things depending on the evolution of the plant species. In this case, they are forming a sheath, but they can also form spines, glands, leaf-like structures or not be there at all! The sheath is probably there to protect the growing point below from damage by herbivores and being bashed by botanically minded bushwalkers.

The genus name Opercularia refers to the fact that the fruit of the genus have opercula. In botany, opercula are lid or cap structures, and in this genus the fruit have lid-like valves which open to let the seeds out into the world.

Opercularia varia Livingstone National Park (C Simpson-Young)

Opercularia varia, Livingstone National Park (Image: C Simpson-Young)

Briza maxima: This cutie is actually an exotic grass from the Mediterranean, but I have included it because I think it looks cool. Its common names include Quaking Grass and Giant Shivery Grass, which make perfect sense when you see the fruit quivering with the slightest breeze.

Briza maxima at Livingstone National Park Near Wagga Wagga Feb 2017

Briza maxima at Livingstone NP (Image: C Simpson-Young)

These are some of the awesome things you can see when you look down on your bushwalk!


Florabank (1999). Greening Australia, CSIRO Forestry and   Australian Government.

Harrington, HD (1957) How to Identify Plants. Swallow Press, Athens.

PlantNET  (The NSW Plant Information Network System). Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Sydney.

Robinson, L. (1991) Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney. 3rd Edition, Simon and Schuster, Sydney.

Wapstra, M, Wapstra A, Wapstra, H, (2010) Tasmanian Plant Names Unravelled. Fullers Bookshop, Launceston.

Other interesting resources

Birdwatching in Wagga Wagga:

The Flora of Wagga Wagga (Charles Sturt University):

Scents of Importance by Alan Gray:

Shrubs and Trees of Livingstone National Park

I recently went for a walk with friends in Livingstone National Park. It protects 2522 ha of temperate woodland and is one of the few large tracts of woodland in the mostly agricultural Riverina and South West Slopes. Being February there wasn’t much flowering, but these are some of the plants we came across!

Acacia paradoxa: Kangaroo thorn (named this for obvious reasons!) is common along the first part of the track and was a good deterrent of straying from the trail. The ‘leaves’ hug the stem and the spines surround them (the inverted commas around leaves is because they aren’t technically leaves but phyllodes, which are flattened leaf stalks). The spines are stipules (little structures at the base of the leaf that can evolve into many different things) and are to discourage grazing by animals. While they weren’t out when we were there, this plant has yellow fluffy spherical flowers standard of the Acacia genus. This species can grow to a rather intimidating 4 meters.  It is fairly common across much of Australia and has become a bit of a problem as a weed in Tasmania, Western Australia and California.

It is unclear why paradoxa was chosen as the species name, but it means ‘paradoxical’ or unexpected. It may refer to the fact that in this species the stipules form spines when usually Acacia stipules are small and unassuming. This is actually a very interesting species so if you want more click here.

Acacia paradoxa at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Acacia paradoxa at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Acacia buxifolia: Box-leaf Wattle is common along the east coast of Australia. As you can see from the photo it has lovely greyish green leaves. These aren’t in flower but again they have the deep yellow fluffy spherical inflorescences.

Buxifolia comes from the Greek for “box leaves”, and you can see in the photo that the leaves are quite wide but quite short in length (particularly compared to other Acacia species).

Acacia buxifolia at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Acacia buxifolia at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Acacia genistifolia: Another spiky Acacia to avoid running into unawares! The flowers are a lighter yellow than the other Acacias we came across on this walk. Its common name is Early Wattle because it is one of the first wattles to flowers in spring. In this species, the phyllodes (‘leaves’) are thick spikes with sharp ends. In this picture, you can see the dried mature seed pods, with the seeds already sent off into the world. There is more about seed dispersal in Acacia here.

The species name gentistifolia refers to another genus in the Fabeaceae family called Genista, which contains some species with spiky leaves as well.

Acacia genistifolia at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Acacia genistifolia at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Eucalyptus rossii: Also called the Inland Scribbly Gum or White Gum (both in reference to the striking bark). You’ll notice the scribbles in the bark … the story behind them is pretty cool. Scribbly Bark Moth larvae drill down into the tree. They then start chomping their way back and forth and up and down, always staying below the surface. All the while the tree is growing outwards and trying to repair the damage left in the caterpillar’s wake. Once the caterpillar reaches a certain size it turns around and starts retracing its steps and eating the new scar tissue that the tree has laid down. This new scar tissue is highly nutritious and allows the caterpillar to grow super fast. They then bore their way out of the bark, drop to the ground, make a cocoon and get down to the important business of becoming a moth. More info here.

Eucalyptus rossii at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Eucalyptus rossii at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Brachyloma daphnoides: Daphne Heath was quite common along the track, and is often seen in open forests, woodland and heath in Australia’s south-east.

Brachyloma comes from the Greek for brachys meaning short, and loma meaning a fringe (refers to the fringe of little hairs in the flower). Daphnoides means ‘like Daphne’. Daphne is a genus of plants which looks nothing like our Brachyloma daphnoides … but apparently, they smell similar!

Brachyloma daphnoides at Livingston National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Brachyloma daphnoides at Livingston National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Callitris endlicher: We walked through a Callitris woodland which was a first for me! It was a bit surreal because I’m not used to being surrounded by conifers unless it is a pine plantation. But the Cypress Pine is native and pretty common in the east of New South Wales. This species has spherical cones that stick around on the tree for a while, open and then release seeds onto the wind. These guys don’t deal with fire very well, but they can withstand a degree of drought and frost.

Calli is the Greek for beautiful, but it is not clear why tris was added. Endlicher is for the Viennese botanist Stephan Endlicher who was around in the first half of the 1800s.

Callitris endlicher at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Callitris endlicher at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Grevillea floribunda: this was one of my favourites from the walk, and when I saw the common name I knew exactly which of the plants it belonged to. It is called the Rusty Spider-flower. Unlike a real spider, it invited touching with its felty leaves. It can flower all year, and you can see in my picture that ours weren’t fully developed yet. Honeyeaters love to slurp up the nectar from the flowers on these approximately 1.5m tall plants.

The genus name Grevillea comes from the Scottish botanist Charles F. Greville. Floribunda is from the Latin for ‘copious flowering’ and refers to the fact that the species has many densely clustered flowers.

Grevillea floribunda at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Grevillea floribunda at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Lissanthe strigosa: the Peach Heath is part of the heath family. They have lovely white-pink flowers and develop little pale green fruit. Because it grows close to the ground and is prickly it is a great habitat for little critters like lizards.

The Peach Heath fruit is edible and is said to have a honey flavour. But apparently, it is hard to find mature fruit to eat.

Lissanthe strigosa at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Lissanthe strigosa at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)


Calytrix tetragona: I love Common Fringe  Myrtles. They have the most beautiful flowers. And once they develop into fruit and fall away they leave the bright red calyx behind (like in the pictures on the right). A calyx is the ring of leaf-like structures surrounding a flower. You can see from the pictures that the calyx taper to a point, making a star-like shape.

I also love the name. Caly is for the stunning calyx (calyx comes from the Greek for cup) and thrix (hair) for the hair-like calyces.  Tetragona means four angles and refers the leaf shape.


Calytrix tetragona at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Calytrix tetragona at Livingston NP (on left) and from Ku-ring-gai NP (right)


Eucalyptus sideroxylon: Mugga Ironbark or Red Ironbark was very common in the park and their dark bark was very dramatic in contrast to that of the Scribbly Gum. One of the major ways of classifying and identifying Eucs is by their bark. This species is classified as an ‘Iron Bark’. These are Eucalypts with bark all the way up the trunk and on the large branches. The bark is dark in colour, very hard and has deep fissures running up and down the trunk. Like all things in the natural world there are variations on these rules, but knowing them does definitely help with identification.

Eucalyptus sideroxylon at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Eucalyptus sideroxylon at Livingstone NP (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Xanthorrhoea glauca: The Grass Tree isn’t capable of producing wood, but they have a little trick for growing a trunk-like structure. As they grow and shed their leaves the leaf-base stays behind. This scale-like layer surrounds the softer inner tissue and provides structural integrity for the plants to grow upwards.

The right-most picture is of the Grass Tree inflorescence. They grow on giant spikes. These spikes were used to make spears by Aboriginal people and the flowers were steeped in water to make a sweet drink.

The Greek xanthos means yellow, while rheo means to flow. Xanthorrhoea was given its name for the yellow resin that you find in the trunk of some Xanthorrhoea species. Glauca is derived from the Greek glaukos meaning blue-green or blue-grey, and is given to the species for their blue-grey leaves.

Xanthorrhoea glauca at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Xanthorrhoea glauca at Livingstone National Park (Image: C. Simpson-Young)




Florabank (1999). Greening Australia, CSIRO Forestry and   Australian Government.

Harrington, HD (1957) How to Identify Plants. Swallow Press, Athens.

PlantNET  (The NSW Plant Information Network System). Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, Sydney.

Robinson, L. (1991) Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney. 3rd Edition, Simon and Schuster, Sydney.

Wapstra, M, Wapstra A, Wapstra, H, (2010) Tasmanian Plant Names Unravelled. Fullers Bookshop, Launceston.

Other interesting resources

Birdwatching in Wagga Wagga:

The Flora of Wagga Wagga (Charles Sturt University):

Actinotus helianthi – The Flannel Flower

The Flannel Flower (Actinotus helianthi) is one of my favourite flowers! When I was about 6 years old I was walking with my Grandad in some bushland out the back of my grandparents’ holiday house on the Central Coast (north of Sydney). We came across a flannel flower and I loved its fluffiness so I asked my Grandad what it was. Unfortunately Grandad didn’t have any botanical knowledge to instil in his eager granddaughter…but he did look it up later.

I got married last year, in April…which isn’t flannel flower season at the flower markets, but my Mother-in-law, knowing how much I love them, ordered some especially from a glasshouse grower to put into my bouquet.

actinotus-helianthi-pit-sta-sept-2016-no-4The Flannel Flower

These elegant plants are short-lived herbs that can grow up to 90cm and generally found around sandstone ridges on the east coast of New South Wales and southern Queensland. They flower all year round, but most commonly between November and May.


What we see as a single flower is actually a group of tiny flowers making up an inflorescence. The individual flowers are arranged in what we call an umbel. This is an inflorescence in which all the little flowers grow from a single point. In the case of the Flannel Flower the umbel of little flowers is so tight that they come together to look like a single flower.

What we would think are petals are actually bracts (modified leaves that occur near the flower). The bracts are creamy white, with a little green at the tip. The lovely wooly feel comes from the mat of little hairs covering the leaf surface (we call a surface with this texture tomentose).


The picture on the left shows the cluster of flowers that make up the center of the ‘flower’. On the right is the tip of the bract. You can see the mat of fine hairs that give the Flannel Flower its lovely feel (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Actinotus helianthi or Flannel Flower under microscope (Image: C. Simpson-Young)

Image: C. Simpson-Young

Coming back to the cluster of flowers that make up the umbel inflorescence…the individual flowers are also greenish-white, and the ones around the outside of the umbel are male, and the ones towards the middle are bisexual. This picture is of a single flower separated from the umbel. The little pink structure is the anther (part of the male organ) that releases pollen .


The leaves are light grey-green and are highly lobed (as you can see in the picture below). Like the flower, the leaves are tomentose. The little hairs covering the plant have probably evolved to help conserve water by increasing the humidity at the surface of the plant, which then reduces evaporation of valuable water from inside the plant.

Fruit & Seeds

The fruit has silky hair which allows them to be spread on the wind. The seed can stay viable in the soil for years and can germinate quickly after a disturbance like fire or clearing.

And that is my favourite flower!



Cunninghamia 3(2) p372 1993

Fairley, A. & Moore, P. (2010) Native Plant of the Sydney Region. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Harrington, H.D. (1985) How to Identify Plants. Athens, Georgia: Ohio University Press.


And thanks to Roger for pointing me towards the Cunninghamia publication.

Ecological Explainer: Head Inflorescences

Flowers come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes a bunch of flowers grow so close together that they trick you into thinking they are one flower.
 The Birds and Bees
 So I probably don’t need to tell you that a flower is the part on the plant that holds the reproductive organs. In their simplest form you have the female organ (which includes an ovary and a landing pad for pollen) and the male organ (a little capsule that flaps around in the wind letting pollen out into the world). There are pretty petals fringing out around all this hardware. Their job is to lure the animals that are going to spread the pollen between flowers. Plant sex happens when the pollen from a male organ lands on a female landing pad, male sex cells go down into the female ovary and…BAM….fertilisation. The flower turns into a fruit and the merged sex cells turn into seeds.

 A Bouquet
 The flower I have just described is a super simplistic one. Think of a lily. But there are an infinite number of variation on this theme! We have all seen the amazing variety of colours that flowers come in. Think about the different shapes. From orchids to tulips. Some flowers are both male and female, some are either male or female. We don’t think much about it but grass has flowers. The wheat we are the fruits that develop from the very plain flowers (their pollen spreads on the wind so they don’t need to impress anyone). The flowers on a plant can be arranged in loads of different ways. When there are a bunch of flowers sitting on a stem close together it is called an inflorescence. These also come in many different forms. Today I want to talk about a type of inflorescence called a head.
 Heads Up
 For my birthday I got a microscope. One of the first things I did was pull apart a daisy ‘flower’ into its parts. So based on all the above, it may not come to you as a surprise when I tell you daisies are not a single flower, but a number of flowers arranged to look like a single larger flower. This is called a head. Each of the individual flowers is very squat and they all sit very close together. The most common group of plants with this arrangement is the daisy family (or the Asteraceae family). In this family you have 2 types of flowers that make up the head inflorescence: 1) disk flowers and 2) ray flowers. The petals we see are single petals on the ray flowers which ring around the outside of the inflorescence. Making up the middle of the head inflorescence is lots of disk flowers.


On the left a disk flower and on the right a ray flower.


And this is what it looks like when you put it all together! The curly structures sticking up out of the flowers are the female reproductive structures (called a pistil)

Reflections on the Restore Regenerate Revegetate Conference

Day 1

The conference was started with a welcome drink (with generous amounts of drink). There was a good vibe with everyone smiling at each other as they passed. Unsurprisingly a lot of people knew each other, but newbies like me could easily introduce ourselves to someone and get into a conversation. I was in heaven! Everywhere I turned there was a conversation about restoration in one of its many forms. I wanted to join every conversation I heard snippets of as I passed!

As we were nibbling on the canapés and drinking our generous amounts of alcohol, we participated in environmental street theatre performed by local high school drama students. We were guided around the central courtyard and stopped to admire short vignettes addressing various issues our environment and society are facing. There were other artistic and musical displays and performances during the conference, which I think created a more congenial and inclusive atmosphere.

Day 2

The day opened with excerpts of God’s Drawing Board by Ralph Steadman and Elena Kats-Chernin performed by local musicians and accompanied by a dance film. I adored the music and of course loved the theme of environmental degradation and then renewal.

Kicking off the plenary presentations was Thomas Jones from the USDA Agricultural Research Service Utah with an overview of recent advances in restoration theory and practice. Some of the things that I came away with:

  • The developing understanding of plant-soil feedbacks and the influence of initial colonising species and soil inoculations to influence the trajectory of a newly revegetated community;
  • genetics use in assisting evolution (the area in which he works) to help better restoration outcomes;
  • The recent developments in plant provenance for restoration;
  • The benefits of using “islands” of restored or remnant vegetation when project resources are limited, as they can provide microenvironments better for species establishment, connectivity and a seed source for further revegetation;
  • The promise of functional traits in restoration (which excited me as this is what my PhD is on) and
  • the ever more prominent concern for fauna, particularly insects with the loss of bees and monarch butterflies.


The second plenary for the morning was by University of New England’s Caroline Gross talking about Pollination services and restoration. This was the beginning of what was to become a theme for me on Day 2….fauna. I had never really given much thought to fauna, but Caroline’s talk was one of many today that has convinced me to incorporate them into my studies. Ultimately her message was that pollinators should be considered in restoration projects, including during the plant species selection process. For example, choosing species that flower for long periods and contain a lot of nectar can encourage healthy insect populations. She was encouraging us to consider the dynamic nature of pollinator-plant relationships. For example, some pollinating insects will feed on one plant, but live on another, so both plants need to be present to support the insect population. Some plant species will have better pollination rates if other plant species that flower earlier in the season and attract the same pollinators are present nearby. Finally, and more depressingly, she demonstrated the importance of understanding pollinator-plant relationships with the example of the Bitou bush. The Bitou seed beetle was introduced to eat the bitou bush seeds in an attempt to control their booming population. What they hadn’t considered was that they are also pollinators for the bitou bush, and their role as pollinator did more to build up the strength of the bitou bush population than their role as seed predator did to reduce the population.

The first session I attended was the Invasive Species and Agri-ecosystem Restoration. I learnt something new straight away: ‘agri-ecosystems’ are those systems influenced by agriculture currently or in the past. The main take-homes for me were: don’t concentrate on the invasive species, concentrate on their impacts (Peter Fleming from NSW DPI and UNE); new studies suggest that there are between 2.1-6.3 million feral cats roaming Australia (Frances Zewe from UNE); and getting to Maquarie Island can be a b***h, but there have been some incredible results in native plant rehabilitation with the removal of rabbits and invasive plant species (Brian Sindel from UNE).

agri-ecosystems: those systems influenced by agriculture currently or in the past

For the rest of the day I ran between sessions in the 34 degree heat. I learnt that:

  • nest boxes have significantly greater fluctuations in temperatures compared to tree hollows and the highs are so high that they can lead to embryo death, meaning nest boxes are not a 1 for 1 trade for tree hollows (Phil Conacher from Conacher Consulting);
  • Figs not only attract birds that eat their yummy fruit, but attract a large number of insectivorous birds. They come for the tiny wasps that pollinate the fig flowers, and the bird numbers peak when the young wasps hatch inside the fruit and emerge into the big bad world (David Mackay from UNE);
  • And that at a Western Sydney restoration site mulching woody weeds growing in forests and woodlands and distributing that mulch over the site reduces other invasive weed establishment, and resulted in a 90% reduction of exotic cover (David Brennan from Eco Logical Australia).

Another theme emerging today was that it is relatively easy to remove 80% of an invasive species; it is the last 20% that is hard. That last 20% requires us to really step up and take a more dynamic approach than we are currently using. We should use “integrated technologies” and incorporate more than one species because they interact.

In the evening there was a poster session with posters on a range of projects, from using lasers to map vegetation structure to seeding versus planting to the Slopes2Summit Bushlinks project. We all enjoyed a BBQ and some music while sitting at long tables set up in the courtyard. The night ended with several servings of chocolate mousse and the launch of Dazed by Dieback comic book by Dr David Curtis.


Day 3

I really enjoyed the mornings’ plenary talks. First was Andrew Campbell from the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research, who gave us an enjoyable history of trees on farms. He started with the 1950s during which there were some improvements in the productive landscape with the adoption of clover to fix nitrogen, myxo reducing rabbit numbers and high wool prices. By the 80s the value of farm trees was starting to be recognised, there were calls to reduce land clearing and a rise in community environment groups. Unfortunately there was also large-scale land clearing and tree plantings were not established with conservation outcomes in mind. Campbell quoted others who called the approach “landscape decorating” and “garnish”. During the 90s Landcare was becoming more established, and lots of other conservation organisations and community groups were starting. There was also a small amount of high quality research into the environmental and production benefit of farm trees. From 2000 to 2015 there were very large and expensive national programs being implemented, and there were loads of policies and plans being set up in response to the drought. In addition, private land conservation was really taking off. Campbell sees the following as challenges we are currently facing: the need to scale up farm tree planting, creating an industry around seed production and revegetation, and the development of products from native flora. He called for more investment in the form of finances, time and skills, and greater research and extension.

Campbell quoted others who called the approach “landscape decorating” and “garnish”.

Campbell addresses the major idea that I came away with today: the fact that we have not yet learnt to live in Australia. We do not use the native plant resources, and we don’t tailor farming methods to the Australian conditions. We are always trying to squeeze Australia into a European mould. He quoted a farmer: “If we had discovered and colonised England, do you think we’d have grazed it with Kangaroos?”

“If we had discovered and colonised England, do you think we’d have grazed it with Kangaroos?”

The second plenary was given by David Norton from the University of Christchurch in New Zealand. He spoke about scaling up restoration in New Zealand by managing remnant vegetation and restoring vegetation on private land. This would significantly increase the area of native vegetation and dramatically increase the connectivity of already protected vegetation managed by the Department Of Conservation. I found it very interesting that thanks to New Zealand’s mesic environment the focus there is on removing livestock and feral animals which allows the native vegetation to naturally regenerate. The gorse bush (that so disturbed me when I was in the South Island on my honeymoon last year) is left because they have found if grazing is removed, the native forest will eventually outcompete the gorse.

After morning tea I attended the broad-acre revegetation strategies and techniques symposium.  A common message in this symposium reflected that of Andrew Campbell’s: we need to build market demand for native species to be able to carry out large-scale projects. To do this David Freudenberger from the Australian National University recommended internalising the cost of food production to create a funding source and establishing offset programs and payments for carbon-sequestration.

After morning tea I attended Sustainable revegetation in a changing world: planning and design issues. In this session were talks on the impact of planting arrangement on species reproduction, choosing species in preparation for climate change, and how to make cross-property restoration work.

During the lunch break I went on a tour of the N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium with the Curator Dr Ian Telford and Directory Jeremy Bruhl. They showed us herbarium specimens from all around the world of everlasting daisies brought together at the herbarium for a study their taxonomy. Ian explained that many of the everlasting daisies in front of us had been identified as the same species, but their morphology, physiology and distributions suggest otherwise. I had spent time in herbariums before, but hadn’t ever really thought about the challenges facing those working in them recording our natural environment and assisting others with their identification. The N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium really has an incredible set up producing important and influential work, especially considering that they run on no money and rely on volunteers of varying skills and experience to run the place and carry out research.


I had initially planned to go to the next instalment of the Sustainable revegetation in a changing world: planning and design issues symposium….but I decided to go to soils and restoration because there was air conditioning in that room. I do not regret that decision. Not only because I finally got a chance to cool down, but because I learnt a huge amount about soils; things that I will be integrating into my own PhD projects. Brian Wilson from UNE gave a nice overview of restoration and soil, and Stuart MacDonald from UTas gave a great presentation of work he was doing for his PhD comparing soil composition in cropped land, restored vegetation and remnant vegetation. He found that the soil of restored pastures was not significantly different from that on pasture land, and was not quickly transforming to soil seen in remnant vegetation.

Day 4

The day started with rallying call from Paul Gibson-Roy from Greening Australia and University of Western Sydney. In his plenary speech he argued that we can dramatically increase our restoration (of grasslands in particular) by believing that we can, gaining access to land and the creation of markets for restoration and native seeds. We can draw from the American experience where farming bills encouraged farmers to plant native grasses, and other legislation to encourage the planting of native grasses and forbs along roadsides. The result is the creation of a market that has driven the industrial scale production of native grass seeds. They even produce mixes of seed for different purposes, such as deer mixes, butterfly mixes and erosion mixes.

Kristin Williams from CSIRO was the next plenary speaker and presented on how to restore with climate change in mind. She argued that to prepare our native environment for climate change we should:

  • restore in a way that optimises ecological processes (like nutrient cycling, connectivity and reducing salinity);
  • maximise the evolutionary character of Australia, such as deal with exotics so that there are resources for natives maintaining process that have led to the evolution of our native fauna and flora, such as fire and low soil nutrient levels;
  • maintain the unique regional character of our plant and animals at a smaller scale, for example by revegetation with plants from nearer by than further away;
  • And minimise species loss nationally by actions such as conserving communities that are currently under represented in the reserve system.

Something that came out of both Paul and Kristin’s talks was the need to use the legislative process to facilitate all these changes. Getting legislation to change will require us to get off our behinds and take action.


Some flowers from the urban restoration sites.

Field trip time! I put my name down for the Rivercare and Urban Bushland Restoration Excursion. We set off in two buses and were taken to Snow Gums Bushland Reserve which has been the focus of a local restoration group since 1975. An attendee asked what the fire regime for the reserve was. Kate Boyd immediately responded: “arson”. A nice example of some of the challenges facing urban restoration projects.  From there we went to Armidale Arboretum and had a wander around the 1.5 ha (mostly) native grassland. After a lunch at the Armidale Tree Group nursery, we wandered along Dumaresq Creek and heard stories about its rehabilitation.

An attendee asked what the fire regime for the reserve was. Kate Boyd immediately responded: “arson”.

Day 5

I’ll admit that by this point I was buzzing with ideas for my PhD and was not paying as much attention to the plenaries as usual. I was scribbling graphs and lists in my notebook instead. But the day started with a Skype call with the very charming Joel Brown with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service in New Mexico. He spoke about better tools and models for rangeland restoration. He was followed by a recorded presentation from Kingsley Dixon from Curtin Uni in Perth on restoration in Australia and a little about the SERA National Standards in anticipation of Tein McDonald’s talk later in the day. It was wonderful to be able to have Joel and Kingsley join us from their respective parts of the world. And thanks to the wonders of technology the audience was able to ask questions of both speakers.

After morning tea I went to the Connectivity for biodiversity conservation in fragmented landscapes symposium. Veronica Doerr from CSIRO asked the question: do we have the right science to making ecosystem connectivity work? She argued that there are two major knowledge gaps when it comes to creating connectivity across landscapes for native flora and fauna. Firstly, how much vegetation is needed to ensure that a species survives in a matrix of rural or urban land? Secondly, what kind of connectivity will allow species to move across landscapes? She also demonstrated just how difficult it can be to make this work at the human end. She showed that to just create a corridor across a relatively short stretch of land would require 100 landowners to give the project the thumbs up. We need to examine the social and economic mechanisms that will allow us to achieve scale.

Michael Drielsma from OEH talked about the term ecological integrity; what it is, its use in legislation, and its role in conservation. Andrew Baker from NPWS talked about some of the restoration work being done on their land. Sebastian Burgess talked about connectivity in the Midlands of Tasmania, and some of the exciting work being done down there. I then popped over to the Restoration and Indigenous NRM session. I was super impressed with the Aboriginal Riverkeeper project being run by Vanessa Cavanagh at Eco Logical Australia. This project employs and trains a small group of Aboriginal people in natural resource management and cultural practices in the Georges River area.

After lunch we came together again for the two last pleneries. The tireless Tein McDonald, spoke about the history of restoration in Australia and the new Standards developed by SERA and adopted by SER International. We ended on a high and humorous note with great Richard Hobbs from the University of Western Australia. Whilst acknowledging the need to carefully consider our priorities as we continue to conserve our native species and ecosystem process, he encouraged us all to keep our heads up.

Unfortunately I had to rush off to get my flight before the student prizes and final remarks. But the good vibe continued at the airport where a bunch of delegates sat around (exhausted) discussing what they learnt and their future plans.


I was truly inspired by the people and stories at the Restore, Regenerate, Revegetate Conference, and grateful to all the people who imparted their wisdom (and didn’t rip apart my PhD project). The main message I came away with was that we need to live in Australia in a way that embraces our natural heritage. There are gains for our economy in integrating our natural and productive landscapes. There are markets for native seed stock and native plant products to be developed. And finally, we will be able to cope with climate change better if we conserve and prepare our natural environment.

Restore Regenerate Revegetate: A Conference on Restoring Ecological Processes, Ecosystems and Landscapes in a Changing World was organised and held by the University of New England in February 2017 with the help of the Northern Tablelands Local Land Services, North West Local Land Services and Brigalow-Nandewar Biolinks Steering Committee.