Erin Parke, ABC
A 10-day expedition into Western Australia’s central Kimberley has resulted in an international team of botanists hitting the floral jackpot.
The group used four-wheel-drives and a helicopter to scour remote waterways for a rare type of water lily that had never before been scientifically recorded.
Professor Kingsley Dixon, who led the team, said they were overjoyed to locate the elusive species growing in two billabongs.
“My feeling at this point about the whole expedition is just exhilaration,” he said.
“You can’t help but get a sense of uplift that we find these fabulous new species in these exotic landscapes, that no-one’s actually discovered before.”
A sample of the plant had been collected once before but there was not enough evidence for it to be formally recognised as a distinct species.
So Professor Dixon rounded up a crack team of tropical botanists to track down the elusive pale blue flower.
‘Totally hooked’ on lilies
Along for the ride was Carlos Magdalena, one of the world’s leading experts on exotic water lilies.
He travelled all the way from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London to join the expedition.
“Upon seeing my first Australian water lily years ago, I just went ‘wow’, and got totally hooked on the subject,” he said.
“It’s been a dream of mine to come here and be able to observe them in the wild, after years of growing them in London.”
But locating the mysterious blue lily proved no easy task.
Professor Dixon, who is based at Kings Park and Botanical Gardens in Perth, said they had to take on some of the most rugged terrain in Australia.
“We were exploring off the Gibb River Road which is one of the toughest roads in the country,” he said.
“You get lots of flat tyres, broken wheels, engine problems, the rivers come up and down, and there’s always the crocodiles, so we’ve had some fairly hair-raising opportunities on this trip, not to mention, our car jump starter has pulled its weight!
“It’s very much what I’d call Indiana Jones-style botany.”
After days of searching, the plant was spotted, and a mustering helicopter was used to swoop down and collect samples, including the precious seeds.
Now begins the process of documenting the species, and, more controversially, giving it a name.
Creating a seed bank for the future
The priority for the research team was ensuring there was plant matter stored securely for future reference.
The ABC was invited to visit the secret propagation site in Broome, where PhD student Emma Dalziell was in charge of organising samples of seeds.
What is clear from this work is that the Kimberley is one of the biodiversity hotspots for water lilies, probably for Australia, and possibly one of the best spots in the world.Professor Kingsley Dixon
She said the seeds had to be carefully loosened from the flower.
“We’ve collected these from the wild and I’m just processing them,” Ms Dalziell said.
“We end up with nice, clean seeds, which then get taken back to Perth to be processed as part of our seed-banking program.”
Samples will be stored in three locations – Broome, Perth, and London – to minimise the risk of them being damaged or lost.
Some will also be used to grow samples in water tubs in greenhouses in Broome so local horticulturalists can eventually have a shot at growing them in ponds at home.
The botanists said the find showed just how little was known about the biodiversity of the Kimberley region, and how many discoveries were still to come.
Professor Dixon said the region was a veritable treasure trove of rare species.
“For the last 30 years we’ve been working through the Kimberley to try to catalogue the flora of the Kimberley, and when we started 30 years ago, we thought there were about 1,200 species, we’re now at about 3,500 or 4,000 species,” he said.
“What is clear from this work is that the Kimberley is one of the [most] biodiverse hotspots for water lilies, probably for Australia, and possibly one of the best spots in the world.”