Two quirky features of our biodiversity captured the interest of Friends of Te Papa who joined Te Papa’s botany curator Carlos Lehnebach and botany researcher Heidi Meudt at a Science for Lunch session about the museum’s botanical collections and New Zealand’s orchids and forget-me-nots.

Carlos, who is researching spider orchid species, explained how these plants lure tiny fungus gnats to lay eggs in the flowers to pollinate the seeds. By identifying the fungal partner of a selected group of these orchids, Carlos aims to develop methods to germinate orchid seeds ex situ—an exciting first step to orchid conservation in New Zealand.

Heidi surprised us when she revealed the Chatham Island Forget-me-not, a plant familiar to many of us, is not a close relative of the native species of Myosotis forget-me-nots that she researches.

To give us an insight into the treasures of Te Papa’s botanical collections, Carlos described how the museum’s herbarium—a collection of dried plants created in 1865—includes 280,000 specimens of seed plants, mosses, liverworts, ferns, lichens and seaweeds.

We found out the herbarium is useful for recording New Zealand biodiversity, protecting biosecurity by detecting new introductions, measuring changes and distribution of plants and extinctions, recording species variability and providing online information for the New Zealand Virtual Herbarium.

Collection highlights include specimens collected by European naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander almost 250 years ago during Captain Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand, King Tawhiao’s ferns (the first record of Māori use of plants for medicinal purposes), and the Charles Knight collection of lichens. Plants collected by Russian Carl Maximovich and his Japanese assistant Sukawa Chonosuke add an intriguing international connection.

                                                 Heidi Meudt on Myosotis matthewsii found only in Northland

To provide digital access to the species in the botanical collection, the Te Papa team is continuing to add specimens to the database—which now has details of 3,351 native orchids online.

Heidi posed the question “Why are native New Zealand forget-me-nots so awesome?” She gave us 10 thought-provoking reasons.

  • #10 There are heaps of species. Most are found only in New Zealand—over 45 different Myosotis species are now known and described.
  • #9 The Chatham Island Forget-me-not dispersed to New Zealand 2 million years ago and is most closely related to European forget-me-nots.
  • #8 The actual closest relatives to Myosotis are found in Chile, Australia and New Guinea. Heidi is researching how the southern hemisphere species are related.
  • #7 They are found only in certain areas and habitats. For example, Myosotis matthewsii is found only in Northland.
  • #6 Most species are threatened or at risk.
  • #5 They are very hard to find and it is a challenge to see the flowers, some of which are just 1mm across.
  • #4 They have different ways are getting pollinated.
  • #3 They have really cool pollen.
  • #2 They have plant-Velcro hooked hairs, for example, Myosotis traversii
  • #1 We continue to discover and describe species. Just this year, a specimen was collected in Southland that was last collected 100 years ago.

What a special treat it was to have Carlos and Heldi give us a small taste of Te Papa’s botanical collections, New Zealand’s spider orchids and their associated fungus gnats, and our awesome Myosotis forget-me-nots. There are more Friends of Te Papa events coming, see them here.

Loralee Hyde
Member, Friends of Te Papa

Feature image: photograph by Loralee Hyde