The Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus), Tasmanian Waratah (Telopea truncata), Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii), Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii) and Pandani (Richea pandanifolia) are names that are often cited by plant enthusiasts and bushwalkers guidebooks as ‘must-sees’ of Tasmania.
But these five iconic plants, showy and famous as they are, must defer to THE ONE TRUE ICON plant that represents Tasmania — the Delicate Laurel (Tetracarpaea tasmannica). The popular portraiture of Tasmania’s botanical gems must be expanded to exalt the Delicate Laurel and to remedy it’s unfortunate oversight.
(Yes I am being evangelical).
The Delicate Laurel is by no means an uncommon plant. It occurs in wet forest or more often, subalpine shrubberies in the western mountains. The plant blends quite immaculately into the surrounding scrub and is not extremely prominent unless in flower, the erect flower stalks bearing small odd-looking white flowers with 4-5 oversized carpels (female parts). Without consciously looking for it however, Tetracarpaea would be quite easy to overlook whilst hiking pass the lush shrubbery vegetation. Once known however, the plant is easily recognizable by it’s thick leathery serrated leaves. The brown dry fruits (folicles) are also quite distinctive.
Distinctive as it is, the history of how the plant was named and classified has been fraught with difficulty and confusion (See Tasmanian Flora online profile).
The eminent botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker is often attributed with having named and described the plant in but it has only recently been clarified that it was his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker that had found and described the plant (The original illustration of the plant in Sir William Hooker’s Icones Platarum may be found here). It was also only recently that the correct species epithet ‘tasmannica‘ was reinstated, as opposed to the commonly but mistakenly used ‘tasmanica‘.
Botanists also have had difficulty determining the affinities of this enigmatic little shrub. They variously thought it to be related to the Horizontal bush (Anodopetalum biglandulosum), the Native Laurel (Anopterus glandulosus), and even Saxifrages. Only recently have molecular methods demonstrated that the closest relatives of Tetracarpaea are actually raspworts (Gonocarpus spp. and Haloragis spp.) and watermilfoils (Myriophyllum spp.). Still, the unique traits of the Delicate Laurel dictate that it is best placed in a family of it’s own, the Tetracarpaeaceae.
So there we have it. A true botanical orphan found ONLY in Tasmania.
The ONLY species in the genus.
The ONLY genus in the plant family Tetracarpaeaceae.
A prime example of Tasmania’s botanical heritage.
Forget about beeches, waratahs, pandanis and blue gums for a moment. These long revered icons have been discussed, photographed, drawn and stylized in Australian art ad nauseum. A true connoisseur of plants visiting Tasmania for the first time must embark on a montane pilgrimage and pursue first and foremost the one and only Tetracarpaea.