Botanical field work with students

Botanical field work with students

Field work is a key aspect of biodiversity research to locate and collect new specimens to study. Botany Researcher Heidi Meudt took two South Island field trips in Dec 2018 and Jan 2019 with two university students in tow. Combining research and training is often a great way to get scientific research done – but was it successful this time?

Meet the students

Weixuan and Justin at a hut in the Richmond Range. Dec 2018. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Weixuan and Justin at a hut in the Richmond Range, Dec 2018. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

In December 2018, undergraduate student Justin Liu received a 2018/2019 VUW Summer Scholarship to work as an intern at Te Papa. His project on native New Zealand forget-me-nots (Myosotis) was twofold: to digitise the entire forget-me-not collection at Te Papa, and to assist with collecting new specimens in the field. Both of these things would be new experiences for Justin.

At the same time, Weixuan Ning was just starting his PhD studies at Massey University, co-supervised by Jennifer Tate and myself. Weixuan’s project is on the evolution of native New Zealand species of Azorella, a genus in the carrot family. Weixuan had previously studied and conducted research in China, Finland, and Germany. His experience up to then was mostly in the lab, and he had not yet done any field work in New Zealand. But he needed to start collecting samples of Azorella for his PhD research project, so he joined our first trip.

The first trip – many new experiences

Our first trip was to the Richmond Range and Mt Starveall in the northern part of the South Island. On this trip was Weixuan, Justin, Sam Rowland (Department of Conservation), and myself.

Four people standing on a dirt track in front of bushes.
Weixuan Ning, Justin Liu, Sam Rowland and Heidi Meudt ready at the start of our field trip, Dec 2018. Photo courtesy of Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

To get to the locations where the Myosotis and Azorella plants were likely to be found, we had to backpack with all our food and gear for several days, staying in huts in the evenings.

Three people descending a rocky path in the hills
Tramping in the Richmond Range, Dec 2018. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

It was physically very demanding to tramp several kilometres each day, searching for difficult-to-find plants. And of course there were no showers, flush toilets, restaurants, or internet, but each morning we woke up immersed in New Zealand mountains and nature. Justin and Weixuan quickly gained experience collecting plant specimens, and also learned a great deal firsthand about the plants and birds around them, back country tramping, maps and navigation, and team work.

Three people looking at plants in a bush-laden track with mist in the background.
Botanising along the trail in the Richmond Range, Dec 2018. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

We relied on each other 24/7 for safety, gear, conversation, encouragement, and getting the work done. One day, we all had to link our arms to safely cross a river, together. This image embodies the strong bond that was formed among all the team members, which is perhaps just as important as the collections we made. Weixuan and Justin overcame tiredness, difficult terrain, long days, soggy boots, and several other challenges with a remarkably positive attitude.

The best part was witnessing Weixuan’s joy as he masterfully collected his first ever specimen of Azorella!

A man standing on a dirt track smiling at the camera. He has a backpack beside him and is holding a small plastic bag and a pencil
A happy botanist making his first collection of Azorella in New Zealand! Dec 2018. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

The second trip – high into the mountains

Two people crouched on the side of a mountain with pencils, bags and hard hats looking at the shale.
Justin and Sam collecting forget-me-nots in Westland National Park, Jan 2019. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

The following month, in January 2019, we took a second trip to high alpine areas of Westland, Arthurs Pass and Mt Cook National Parks.

A glacier coming down the side of a mountain with a cream hut and a red roof in the foreground
Spectacular accommodation at Castle Rocks Hut in Westland National Park, Jan 2019. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Justin, Sam and I definitely benefited from the fitness acquired on the first trip. We had several long but successful days of tramping and collecting in all three national parks with local botanists.

Close up photo of a flowering plant in the sun with rocks in the background
Myosotis macrantha in Mt Cook National Park (SP107485). Jan 2019. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

There was also a special treat or two in store for Justin on this trip: using helicopters to fly in to some remote sites, and experiencing alpine snow.

Head and shoulders shot of three people in the sun with a snowy mountain in the background.
Alpine selfie: Heidi, Sam and Justin with the stunning snowy backdrop of the Southern Alps of Westland National Park, Jan 2019. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Both Justin and Weixuan helped us make many new collections on their first botanical field trips in the New Zealand mountains. In return, they gained experience, skills, self-confidence, and new friendships.

A man shuffling down the side of a rocky piece of land on a mountain.
Field work often requires learning skills to navigate difficult terrain, Jan 2019. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Since then, Justin has successfully completed the rest of his Summer Scholarship project. He also graduated from VUW – with a double major in Marine Biology and Mathematics, of all things.

Weixuan has recently successfully completed his Confirmation of Registration at Massey University. I am also pleased to report that he has since organised and undertaken several of his own field trips!


Many thanks to the Department of Conservation for supporting this work, to Justin Liu and Weixuan Ning for their hard work, and to the colleagues who accompanied us: Sam Rowland, Jane Gosden, Chris Ecroyd, Phil Garnock-Jones, Jessie Prebble, Alex Fergus, Chris Morse, John Barkla and Kerry Ford.


  1. This takes me back to my student days on field trips with the AU botany dept back in the 60s. From an alpine perspective the stand-out was to Ruapehu, where our then Prof.Dr Rattenbury of the Botany dept., introduced us to the complexities of introgressive hybridizaition among some of the Coprosma spp. Of course we had to learn the names of all the alpine and subalpine plants we encountered. I would have to say the idea of scrambling over alpine screes such as shown above would have been heart-in-mouth stuff for me as i do not have a great fondness for heights with precarious footing. Where was the shot taken of your visit to the Richmond Range: I do doc volunteer work at Pelorus Bridge Reserve. Cheers, Don

    1. Author

      Hi Don,
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your connection with previous botany field trips in NZ. The photos from the Richmond Range shown in this blog were taken along the track between Hunters Hut and Porters Hut. This is now part of the Te Araroa Trail. All the best with your DOC volunteer work!

  2. Interesting to see further research on Azorella. The study by Nicolas and Plunkett (2012) supported three main clades that are largely allopatric. The distribution is consistent with
    and ancestral circum-Pacific/Southern Ocean distribution that was fragmented by main breaks in the Tasman – Patagonia region followed by limited range overlap. Which means, of course, that Azorella was part of New Zealand’s Gondwanic biota before the region tectonically fragmented.

    1. Author

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your interest and comment. We are looking forward to finding out more about the evolution of polyploidy in New Zealand Azorella through Weixuan’s PhD research as he progresses.

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