Extreme botany: Southern summer is not for the faint of heart

Extreme botany: Southern summer is not for the faint of heart

Neither snow nor rain nor wind nor gloom of night stays these botanists. On a field trip to the South Island in January 2021, botanists Heidi Meudt and Antony Kusabs went to some extreme measures to collect forget-me-nots and other plants for our research and collections.

Extreme summer weather – snow and wind

We knew that a cold front had recently come through Otago, but we weren’t sure how low snow had fallen in the mountains. We took a chance and flew in a helicopter to our designated site in the Harris Mountains, near End Peak… Only to find we had entered a winter wonderland – in January!

Heidi and David unloading our gear from the helicopter in the snowy Harris Mountains, Jan 2021. Photo by Antony Kusabs @ Te Papa.
Heidi and David unloading our gear from the helicopter in the snowy Harris Mountains. Photo by Antony Kusabs. Te Papa
Antony Kusabs and David Lyttle tramping in the snow near End Peak. Jan 2021, Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Antony Kusabs and David Lyttle tramping in the snow near End Peak. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

We can now tick “botanical field work in the snow” off our bucket list. It’s certainly not the ideal way to collect plants, as most of them were buried. Nevertheless, we managed to make several collections for the Te Papa herbarium.

Antony Kusabs and David Lyttle pressing plants in the snow near End Peak. Jan 2021, Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Antony Kusabs and David Lyttle pressing plants in the snow near End Peak. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

We also encountered some extreme winds on this trip, particularly in the Dunstan Mountains.

Heidi Meudt and Ant Kusabs huddle around a laptop hotspotting to a phone to log in to Te Papa's collection database in the Dunstan Mountains. Photo by Cara-Lisa Schloots, Jan 2021.
Heidi Meudt and Ant Kusabs huddle in the wind around a laptop hotspotting to a phone to log in to Te Papa’s collection database in the Dunstan Mountains. Photo by Cara-Lisa Schloots

It’s hard to tell from photos just how windy it was. So check out this short video, where you can watch a group of us on Dunstan Peak attempting to botanize in a very strong wind:

And here is a short video of Antony Kusabs doing a stellar job collecting leaf samples from Myosotis oreophila in the Dunstan Mountains in a gale. These leaves will be used for DNA analysis. Ka rawe, Ant! Excellent!

Getting extremely stuck on a 4WD track

To reach some of our collecting sites this year, we used 4WD vehicles. Most of the tracks we used were dry and in good condition, which meant for relatively straightforward travel.

Following the 4WD track in the Dunstan Mountains, Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Following the 4WD track in the Dunstan Mountains. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

However, one of our vehicles got stuck during a stream crossing! It was the perfect opportunity to put our 4WD vehicle recovery training into practice. After a bit of digging, ramp-building, and teamwork, we were back on track.

Ant Kusabs and David Lyttle attempting to get one of our 4WD vehicles out of the stream on a 4WD track in the Pisa Range, Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt, @ Te Papa.
Ant Kusabs and David Lyttle in the process of retrieving one of our 4WD vehicles out of the stream on a 4WD track in the Pisa Range. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Extremely small plants

Many forget-me-nots and some of the other plants we collected are tiny. Because of this, were often crouched close to the ground to find, photograph and collect the plants:

Cara-Lisa Schloots and Antony Kusabs checking out Myosotis venosa SP111281 near Charleston, Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Cara-Lisa Schloots and Antony Kusabs checking out Myosotis venosa (SP111281) near Charleston. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
Dhana Pillai getting close to Aciphylla SP111086. This plant is not tiny, but it is small relative to most other Aciphylla species. Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Dhana Pillai getting close to Aciphylla hectori (SP111086). This plant is not tiny, but it is small relative to most other Aciphylla species. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
Studying tiny plants sometimes requires flexibility. Ant Kusabs - who has been seen doing botanical yoga before - photographing Myosotis glabrescens SP111273 at Treble Cone, Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Studying tiny plants sometimes requires flexibility. Ant Kusabs – who has been seen doing botanical yoga before – is photographing Myosotis glabrescens (SP111273) at Treble Cone. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Extreme makeover: backcountry hut edition

We were grateful in some places to have access to small huts to database, process and image our collections:

The botanists have temporarily taken over Kirtle Burn Hut, Pisa Range, and turned it into a plant processing lab (Ant) and imaging studio (David). We also stayed one night in this DOC hut. Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
The botanists have temporarily taken over Kirtle Burn Hut, Pisa Range, and turned it into a plant processing lab (Ant) and imaging studio (David). We also stayed one night in this DOC hut. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
Here you can David going to extreme measures in his makeshift photo studio, where he is photographing tiny forget-me-not leaves on my black buff on one of the hut's stools! Jan 2021, photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Here you can see David going to extreme measures in his makeshift photo studio, where he is photographing tiny forget-me-not leaves on my black buff on one of the hut’s stools! Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
The bottom bunk in Lauder Basin Hut has been converted into a plant processing and databasing station. We also stayed one night in this cozy hut. Jan 2021, photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
The bottom bunk in Lauder Basin Hut has been converted into a plant processing and databasing station. We also stayed one night in this cozy hut. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

In the end, our twelve days doing extreme botany was both fun and productive: we made over 90 collections for the museum including several forget-me-nots, like this one, Myosotis oreophila, which is endemic to the Dunstan Mountains:

Heidi Meudt collecting a specimen of Myosotis oreophila SP111278, Dunstan Mountains, Jan 2021. Photo by John Barkla.
Heidi Meudt collecting a specimen of Myosotis oreophila (SP111278), Dunstan Mountains, Jan 2021. Photo by John Barkla
Myosotis oreophila SP111278, Dunstan Mountains, Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt @ Te Papa.
Myosotis oreophila (SP111278), collected Dunstan Mountains, Jan 2021. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Many thanks to David Lyttle, Neill and Barbara Simpson, Melissa Jager, Rebecca Teele, Hamish Brown, John & Marilyn Barkla, Dhana Pillai, Charlotte Boyt, Cara-Lisa Schloots, and Alice Shanks for accompanying us on our extreme botany adventure. For more photos, check out Ant’s tweets about this trip.

Extremely tired and happy botanists: Heidi and Ant after a long day collecting plants in the wind and snow near Lake McKay, Pisa Range, Jan 2021. Photo by David Lyttle.
Extremely tired and happy botanists: Heidi and Ant after a long day collecting plants in the wind and snow near Lake McKay, Pisa Range, Jan 2021. Photo by David Lyttle

4 Comments

  1. wow amazing, just yesterday I discovered a lovely book with plates drawn by a lovely lady Matilda Smith from Kew gardens who was commissioned to draw the NZ flora. There were a few depicting myosotis but in particular myosotis monroi, also collected from Dun Mountain around 1854. so lovely to see people passionate from ages ago, and how their work is still being built on nearly 170yrs later.

    1. Author

      Kia ora Coral,
      Thank you so much for your comment. Like you, I am also a huge fan of botanical illustrations, both old and new. In fact, I included two of Matilda Smith’s plates, including the one you mentioned of M. monroi, in my latest publication on Myosotis this year! (The paper can be seen here but you may not have access to it: https://www.publish.csiro.au/SB/SB20028. I’ve just sent you a pdf to your email so you can see it.) Matilda Smith’s illustrations are incredibly detailed and still very relevant today. I’ve also had the pleasure to work with the amazing illustrator Bobbi Angell, who has done several botanical illustrations for some of my previous papers. You can see some of them here: https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/topic/3669 but I just realized I don’t have her most recent Myosotis illustrations up on that site, so I will get that updated! Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  2. Wow! Good work, team. I will never forget them now

    1. Author

      Thank you, Stuart! This field trip was challenging in some ways, but we also really enjoyed it. I’m glad you are a new forget-me-not fan – thanks for reading and commenting.

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