When an incredibly rare native tree – the Bartlett’s rātā – flowered for the first time in a quarter-century, Botany curator Carlos Lehnebach was ready with his tweezers.
Bartlett’s rātā is one of the most threatened trees in New Zealand. It’s also one of our rarest species, with only 13 trees left in the wild – mostly on private land. There are many in cultivation, but they’re mostly clones from a single tree.
The tree is found naturally only in the far-north, near Piwhane/Spirits Bay on the Aupouri Peninsula. Only three tiny populations exist in the wild there.
The main threat to the tree is possum browsing and habitat destruction/loss. It is also, along with other species of the myrtle family, under immediate threat by myrtle rust. This fungal disease has reached New Zealand shores and it attacks new leaves, flowers, and fruits. Repeated infection can kill the plant.
A cutting from one of these trees from Spirits Bay is in Otari Wilton’s Bush, and this year against expectation it has flowered. The tree has been at Otari since 1992 and in the past 25 years no one has ever seen it flowering.
One hypothesis as to why it is only flowering now is because the tree is simply fussy and takes time to reach full maturity and the right conditions for flowering to occur. Normally, a plant originating from a cutting would flower faster than that – generally within two years.
This is not an isolated flowering either: trees in the Auckland Botanical Gardens (a cutting from the same tree that resulted in the one at Otari Wilton’s Bush) and Auckland University (a genetically different tree) are also in bloom.
Using the opportunity that these flowerings provides, Carlos Lehnebach, Curator Botany is conducting a pollination study at Otari Wilton’s Bush in collaboration with Karin van der Walt, Conservation & Science Advisor at Otari.
The study hopes to uncover whether the tree needs pollen from a different individual to form viable seed, or whether it is happy using its own.
The pair are using pollen from the tree at Auckland University for the cross-pollination experiments in the hope of getting genetically variable seed, which will produce fitter, robust seedlings.
“Usually flowers would fall off if they are not fertilised,” says Carlos. “The ones we pollinated are still in place and looking healthy, so fingers crossed.”
Aiding reproduction with peroxide and emasculation
“The time frame of when the stigma [the female reproductive part of a flower] is receptive for pollen is an important consideration for effective hand pollination,” says Karin of the work they’re doing. “To determine this in Bartlett’s rātā, stigmas were submersed in 3% hydrogen peroxide. The presence of bubbles on the stigma coupled with a blue/purple discoloration indicate that the stigma is receptive”.
“The testing was conducted every 24 hours from when flowers began to open (Stage 2), through to when they were wide open (Stage 6). Based on this information we can now ensure that hand pollination is done during the floral stages when stigmas are most receptive.”
In addition to using chemicals, emasculation is used to aid cross-pollination.
“We use tweezers to remove the male parts of the flowers,” says Carlos. “This is to prevent interference of the tree’s own pollen, so if we have seeds in the end we are confident it is from the pollen we have placed on the stigma, and sourced from a distinct individual – in our case the tree from Auckland.”
If pollination experiments are successful, the tree should bear fruit in about four months, then seed germination will take a month or so.
The study will take over a year to complete.
— Botany Curator (@CarlosLehnebach) November 14, 2017
A late developer
“The description of Bartlett’s rātā as a new species was put on hold for more than 10 years after its discovery in 1975,” says Carlos. “Flowers, which are important to confirm the distinctiveness of this species, were not seen until 1984.
“In the herbarium collection at Te Papa we have some of the very first collections of Bartlett’s rātā. Some of these specimens were collected by John Bartlett himself and used in its description. Only four specimens were collected in flower, from 1984 and a later collection in 1991.”
About Bartlett’s rātā
- Only found in New Zealand
- Current conservation status is Threatened – Nationally Critical
- Grows to a height of 30m, with a trunk diameter of up to 1.5m
- Discovered in 1975 by Auckland school teacher John Bartlett
- Numbers peaked in 1992 with 34 trees but have fallen due to possums
- one of the few species with white flowers in an otherwise red-flowered genus (Metrosideros, the same genus as the pōhutukawa).