Looking at the seed collection with Botany Curator Carlos Lehnebach

A special moment for Friends of Te Papa during a behind-the-scenes experience of the museum’s botanical collections was taking a close look at the very first specimens of silver fern, rewarewa and Cooks scurvy grass collected by the European naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander almost 250 years ago during Captain Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand.

We were fortunate to have Te Papa’s botany curator Carlos Lehnebach leading the tour. Carlos shared his knowledge and expertise of work undertaken in Te Papa’s herbarium which houses 300,000 plant specimens along with treasures in historical collections.

Carlos showed us how representative samples of species are catalogued in boxes by regions so they are easily found for research studies on New Zealand’s botanical diversity or handling enquiries. An astonishing 150,000 other specimens are still to be added to the database.

With a focus on digital access to the catalogued species, the botanists are now developing an electronic summary—work on ferns is almost complete and the team will then move on to other specimens including seed plants and seaweeds (the collection does not contain fungi).

We found out how fresh specimens are pressed and DNA is extracted from plants for analysis before turning to the historical collections of Banks and Solander and Sydney Parkinson’s coloured engravings of the species they collected.

Two hundred years after the botanical engravings project started, Joseph Banks’ collection was printed in a limited edition of 110 sets entitled Banks’ Florilegium. In 2011, Te Papa bought a full set of the 183 New Zealand colour prints with the assistance of the Friends of Te Papa. A tour highlight for me was seeing the beautiful kowhai print close-up.

A question was asked about extinct plants held in the collection. We were privileged to view seeds collected in 1905 of the extinct Adams mistletoe Trilepidea adamsii. The New Zealand Plant Conservation Network (NZPCN) uses this species to illustrate their logo.

Exploring Te Papa’s botanical collections in this Friends of Te Papa tour gave me a fascinating insight into our diverse and unique plants and has whetted my appetite to find out more. There are more science sessions this month on a variety of topics, see them here.

Loralee Hyde

Member, Friends of Te Papa