From 1981 – 1983, Robyn Tredwell and Robert Hahn, both directors of the Institute of Ecotechnics participated in the “Amazon River Expedition” on board the research vessel Heraclitus in charge of the ethnobotanical collections. The impetus to mount this expedition was made by Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes, founder of contemporary ethnobotany, who spoke at our 1979 conference in Malaysia. When we asked what could we do to help preserve the lore of the jungle, he suggested that the Institute use its sailing ship, the Heraclitus to undertake an expedition up the Amazon River to collect and document plants of economic and medicinal interest used by native peoples of the NW Peruvian Amazon region.
Subsequently, IE organized the “Around the Tropic World Expedition” (1983-1986) which was dedicated to the study of tropical cultures that had lived in harmony with their environment for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, in order to preserve the knowledge of these disappearing traditions. Robyn, a trained botanical collector , and her colleagues recorded important ethnobotanical data, and observed first hand that the medicinal plants, and the knowledge regarding their use, were indeed under threat.
Many specimens from these collections were deposited at various herbaria around the world, including Missouri Botanical Gardens, Kew Gardens, New York Botanical Gardens, and herbaria in Iquitos and Lima, Peru. Thanks to Robyn’s care, around 860 voucher specimens of these IE collections (including collections made by other eminent ethnobotanists participating in the expedition) have been preserved at Birdwood Downs in airtight storage cabinets.
Robyn passed away in 2012. In May of this year, Reka Komaromi, a close friend and associate of the Institute since 1988, arrived at Birdwood Downs and began to organize the contents of the four metal storage cabinets full of dried and pressed plants, bearing testimony to Robyn’s passion for plants and cultures. Most of the specimens were collected in the early 1980s, and include plants from the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon, as well as from Samoa, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Galapagos, Panama and Puerto Rico.
Reka sorted, organized and digitized the collection while at Birdwood Downs, and made a preliminary database with all the collectors’ notes and information that could be found on the station and on the website of The Missouri Botanical Gardens which also houses one of the original sets collected. Through her friend and ethnobotany colleague, Ivan Casselman, she found the Medicinal Plant Herbarium at the Southern Cross University, in New South Wales.
The small Medicinal Plant Herbarium is financed by the Plant Sciences laboratory which is not only a research and teaching facility for students and visiting researchers, but is also a commercial operation, carrying out services such as herbal authentication, natural product extraction and plant genomics, to name but a few. The Institute is pleased to have this collection become a permanent part of their Herbarium.
By the end of August 2014, the collection of 867 specimens was packed up and ready to fly across the country to be incorporated into the herbarium collection at SCU. Many thanks to Graham King, Director of Southern Cross Plant Sciences for facilitating the transfer of this large collection, and to Peter Mouatt (Research associate and Pharmacognosist at the Medicinal Plant Herbarium) for his guidance and assistance in receiving the collection.
Specimens have to be sorted, identifications from the 1980s have to be double-checked for taxonomic name changes, plants have to be mounted and accessioned into the SCU database before they can be digitized and made available on the world wide web. On Reka’s departure, Victoria Szabo, took over the curation, organizing an Herbarium Workshop Day in order to get the accessioned specimens mounted. Peter Mouatt will keep identifying specimens, while Reka and Robert “Rio” Hahn will network with other herbaria and botanists internationally, with the objective to get more plants identified and to find out about the results of the plant extractions.
Local Field Herbarium Maintained at Birdwood Downs
Since 1978 Birdwood Downs Station, one of the Institute’s consulted project, has pioneered new ecological methods of improving degraded lands using stock management, weed control and planting improved grasses. It is a 1900 hectare station located in the coastal ecosystem of the Kimberley region, Australia.
One of the storage cabinets in Robyn’s Herbarium housed 200 Australian plant specimens, which Robyn collected in the Kimberley area, including also collections made at Birdwood Downs Station and around Fitzroy, with ecotechnic colleague, Marie Chevrier in the early years of the pastoral project. Encouraged by feedback from Broome botanist Phil Docherty (SKIPA, Environs Kimberley) and Gregory Chandler from the Agriculture Department in Darwin, Reka sorted, digitized and mounted the 200 specimens and set up a database with all the information she could find on the specimens.
Specimens are now in the accepted shape for a reference herbarium (mounted on card in plastic sheets) and are organized into grasses/herbs and trees. They were put in the freezer for 48 hours to ensure that they remain insect-free, a procedure that will have to be periodically repeated in order to draw moisture out in the wet season. Greg Chandler has kindly agreed to help with the identification of the specimens and is keen to visit the station and send other botanists who might be going through the area. So, our wish to establish a reference herbarium for Kimberley plants has come to its first manifestation, and the small herbarium will hopefully encourage other local plant collectors to submit specimens and add to the collection. The updating of the database with identifications will certainly be an ongoing process.