Creating the herbarium at Cravens Peak

Sunday 21 December, 2008

Volunteers Max and Margaret Bourke discuss their experiences volunteering at Cravens Peak Reserve, where they helped set up the herbarium. Cravens Peak in south-west Queensland is Bush Heritage’s largest, most diverse and most remote reserve.

Flowering pink fringe myrtle (Calytrix longifl ora) on a sand dune after winter rains, part of the biologically diverse desert ecosystem on Cravens Peak Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Flowering pink fringe myrtle (Calytrix longifl ora) on a sand dune after winter rains, part of the biologically diverse desert ecosystem on Cravens Peak Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

It's in relatively healthy condition, despite the damage that had been caused by grazing. Recovery work includes managing camel incursions from the Northern Territory, maintaining boundary fences and minimising the impact of bushfires, especially in the dunefields.

Although the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Group has revealed much about the dunefields through their long-term work in the area, Cravens Peak is so vast and remote that many areas have never been biologically surveyed.

The field herbarium project was established to complement work undertaken by the Royal Geographic Society of Queensland in 2007. The herbarium – a collection of preserved plant specimens – aims to fill these gaps and is an important part of the ongoing effort to understand this beautiful and biologically important region.

Max and Margaret Bourke with Bush Heritage ecologist Paul Foreman (right).

Max and Margaret Bourke with Bush Heritage ecologist Paul Foreman (right).

Herbaria preserve a historical record of change in vegetation over time, and provide a vital reference for plant identification.

The Toko Range, which runs along the northern boundary of the property, can be thought of as the dividing line between the sand of the Simpson Desert and the heavy soils of the Channel Country. This is what makes the place so interesting aesthetically, as well as from a biodiversity point of view.

In our initial application as volunteers we indicated that we were prepared to work on any of the Bush Heritage properties. Our major criterion was that we wanted to help on the scientific program. As Bush Heritage has purchased property of high ecological value, we believe that it's important that the scientific benchmarks for rehabilitation and preservation are in place for management.

Yellowtop daisy bush (Calotis erinacea) flowering on a desert dune near The Coolibah Hole, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Yellowtop daisy bush (Calotis erinacea) flowering on a desert dune near The Coolibah Hole, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

When we were offered the opportunity to help set up a herbarium at Cravens Peak in August this year we were delighted. This project meant we'd be doing some of the baseline recording in an environment which Max knew and wanted to know better.

In 2007 the Royal Geographic Society of Queensland had collected botanical specimens on the property, however heavy rain had fallen before they arrived, which meant that while they could make good collections they were restricted in where they could go. Under the guidance of Paul Foreman, a Bush Heritage ecologist, we collected at sites which had not been previously surveyed.

Spectacular flowering of a field of mulla mulla (Ptilotus macrocephalus) in grassy woodland of Georgina gidyea, Cravens Peak. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Spectacular flowering of a field of mulla mulla (Ptilotus macrocephalus) in grassy woodland of Georgina gidyea, Cravens Peak. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Although the conditions this time were very dry, we were able to collect approximately 120 flowering specimens, 20 of which had not been previously collected, and one, Paul believes, which had not been previously recorded in Queensland.

Max had previous professional experience in botanical collecting but not in this environment. On the other hand, Margaret, as a keen gardener, had some botanical knowledge, but was a novice in the field procedures of collecting, pressing and recording, which was made more difficult by the less-than-ideal conditions, with cold gale force winds blowing some days.

We did find that plant collecting brings out the hunter instincts, making the quest for a rare or unusual specimen very exciting. It also leads to close examination of the landscape, which is rewarding in itself.

Central netted dragon, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Paul Foreman.

Central netted dragon, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Paul Foreman.

The great red dunes of Cravens Peak are magnificent and many of the species in flower, including the Aboriginal favourite, pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii), occur on the dune ridges.

But the variety of flora between the dune swales was the real surprise, and the ability of some of the more robust species to thrive and flower in the gibber plains areas is truly astonishing. Along the ephemeral water channels of the Mulligan River, smaller streams and inter-dune systems (all dry) were also areas of rich floral diversity.

While there are a few invasive species like Noogoora burr, for the most part the property is in very good shape. The camels are certainly a worry though.

Having returned from collecting specimens in the most remote parts of the property along the Northern Territory border, the next stage was to identify them, record the locations from GPS data, then mount and store them. This was all done according to a template developed by volunteers at Bush Heritage’s Eurardy Reserve.

Hawk moth (Sphingidae) rests on a coolibah eucalyptus, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Hawk moth (Sphingidae) rests on a coolibah eucalyptus, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

The final stage was to scavenge, with reserve managers Nella and Mark Lithgow, through the homestead’s out-buildings for a suitable storage cabinet to house the Cravens Peak Herbarium so it's protected from pest and environmental damage. Duplicates of the collection were sent to the Queensland and National herbaria to confirm identification.

Now the collection has a starting point. The next addition will be the material from the Royal Geographic Society’s collection. We hope it will be there in hundreds of years’ time like the very first herbarium collection of Andrea Caesalpini in Padua (1594), which is still in use. (Knowing of this monk’s work in Italy 500 years ago made collecting several members of the family Caesalpinaceae particularly rewarding.)

Georgina gidyea (Acacia georginae) tree on a pediplain, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Georgina gidyea (Acacia georginae) tree on a pediplain, Cravens Peak Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Our time at Cravens Peak gave us a chance to experience life in the truly remote outback, as well as the companionship of the lovely reserve managers. At Cravens Peak if something breaks or you need urgent supplies, you know Boulia, a very small town, is two and a half hours away and Mt Isa is five hours away!

We finished up the herbarium work with a week to spare so we spent our last week moving junk to the tip, also a rewarding experience because each day you could see what had been done!

Life in the desert can be tough with either cold or hot winds blowing. The hot days make driving over the dunes particularly difficult, but boy does the washing dry quickly! Seeing only eight people in three weeks and lights out at 9.30 each night because of the generator meant that it was a novel experience, enhanced by no television or newspapers … something we didn't really notice.

With the sunsets that we had most nights as we sipped a beer with Mark and Nella, we really missed nothing of the so-called amenities of the city!

Thanks to Max and Margaret Bourke and the Brisbane and Canberra herbaria for their work, time and in-kind support on this project.

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