Had humans not implemented a system of recording in the form of herbaria or writing, we might never know what wondrous plants grew on the soils of Northwest Tasmania almost two centuries ago. It was 174 years ago in the winter of July 1836, when the imminent naturalist Ronald Gunn found a little species of Wurmbea, or what is known by Australian naturalists as Early Nancys, probably alluding to the early spring or winter flowering habit of members of the genus.
Wurmbea is a genus belonging to the botanical family Colchicaceae, a split-off family from what was once the great family of the Lilies. The Colchicaceae includes other Australian lily-like plants like Milkmaids (Burchardia sp.), or more famously the Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) of the Northern Hemisphere and the Glory Lily (Gloriosa superba) of the tropics. The species Ronald Gunn discovered was named Wurmbea latifolia, or the Broad leaved Early Nancy, and is also found in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Tasmania has another three species of Wurmbea, including the very common W. dioca which graces our heathlands every winter-spring. W. latifolia, however has not been observed since Ronald Gunn’s collection.
Could it be that some plants are just masters at being cryptic, to provide that ineffable purpose that drives many a botanist and plant hunter. Amazingly, Wurmbea latifolia was ‘re-discovered’ after almost two centuries in July this year by ecological planning advisor Richard Barnes from Cape Grim near Woolnorth, Northwest Tasmania and was in the news on the Mercury this monday (see news article).
At least a few hundred plants were found within a small one hectare area, in pretty much the same locality where Ronald Gunn had collected the plants. This significant rediscovery in Tasmania is by botanical standards comparable to finding the Gospel of Judas! The plants Richard Barnes found are likely the direct descendants of those found by Gunn, providing a direct link to the botanist extraordinaire of the past. Such a discovery augments the place of botany in Tasmania’s history and brings renewed faith that even on an island as small as Tasmania, there is still much to rediscover.