On the hunt for rare seeds in the middle of a pandemic

(CNN) — James Wood is looking for a tree.  

He is surrounded by trees on the Overland Track — gnarled myrtle beech, spindly snow gum — but he is looking for one tree in particular.

Time is short. Steely clouds are tearing at the dolerite peaks of Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, portents of rain, but there is another reason for haste.

A pencil pine can live a thousand years but the ancient tree bears its seed cones only sporadically. This rare event — known as ‘masting’ — last took place in 2015. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s happened again.

It won’t last for long — “If you’re not there at the right time you miss it,” Wood laments —  and nobody knows when it will next occur.

So, he is on a mission, to collect and store genetically diverse seed from the endemic conifers most at risk from climate change in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Wood is not a survival expert. He’s a botanist from Kew Gardens in London, who now works in the seed bank at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens, in Hobart. He has never been on the Overland Track.

Botanist James Wood is on a mission to collect rare pencil pine seeds.

Botanist James Wood is on a mission to collect rare pencil pine seeds.

Courtesy Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

His navigator is Justin Dyer, a seasoned guide with the Tasmanian Walking Company, a local operator of  ’luxe’ guided hikes along Tasmania’s top trails.

The Overland Track is one of Australia’s premier alpine walks. It’s a serious undertaking for walkers with a good level of fitness who understand the risks of remote alpine areas where conditions can change rapidly.

Deaths have occurred, even in summer months, when people have been under-prepared for brutish weather.

It takes two days for Wood and Dyer to get where they want near Pelion Plains. There’s a primeval specimen shaped a little like Marge Simpson’s hairdo with green scale-like leaves and tightly crosshatched cones in the higher branches. The woody capsules are ripe and ready to release seeds.

“If there’s a severe fire, the iconic pencil pine will be one of those likely lost — along with the King Billy pine — so there’s a critical need to take action now if we are to keep these plants in our landscape,” says Wood,

Eerily quiet

The coronavirus pandemic has unexpectedly granted Wood and Dyer one of life’s superlative gifts.

Between October and May, the Overland Track usually attracts intrepid recreationists from around the world, with up to 60 hikers a day undertaking the 65-kilometer six-day trek from Cradle Mountain to Mt Ossa (Tasmania’s highest peak) ending at Lake St Clair (Australia’s deepest natural lake).

But, for now, the scientist and the outdoorsman have it all to themselves. When Covid-19 forced the closure of all national parks they discovered what it was to have complete solitude on one of Australia’s most exhilarating alpine walks.

“It was eerily quiet out there,” says Wood on his return to civilization at the end of a five-day odyssey in a landscape carved with glacial valleys, ancient forests, moorlands and meadows. “One day we came across a platypus snuffling about in a small tarn beside the track, totally oblivious to humans. It was very sweet.”

Another day, through sheets of torrential rain, the pair walked into a dense field of pandani.

“It’s an insane plant,” admits Wood. “A type of heather that looks more like a weirdly tropical, grassy kind of palm with a single head of long leaves. It’s peculiarly out of place in this cold environment.

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is filled with unique alpine vegetation.

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is filled with unique alpine vegetation.

Luke Tscharke

“We had to squeeze through a belt of them as we ascended Mount Oakleigh. It was really misty and they were standing in shrouds like big cloth wipers in a car wash station. I looked back at this beautiful dark silhouette on the horizon. It was a single pandani with its leaves arching downwards to the earth against a grey/purple sky. It was just gorgeous. We were the only witnesses to that moment in time.”

New species discoveries

The final night in Tasmanian Walking Company’s private Pelion Hut was something of a relief for Wood. He had been menaced by a knee injury (after steep track climbing on the first day) but the cabin was warm and Dyer was an artisan with lamb ragout. The guide had brought his sourdough starter from home to make bread and there was a good store of red wine.

Isolation in nature is not entirely unfamiliar to Wood.

“I occasionally worked on Christmas Day at Wakehurst Gardens in the United Kingdom,” he remembers. “I’d have the entire estate to myself and it would be oddly quiet. Not another living soul all day.”

When the English seed collector moved to Tasmania in 2005 — having been interested in botany since his mid-teens — he was still astonished by differences in the landscape.

“I’d worked in Mexico and Africa, but then I came out to Australia for the first time, and it felt as if I got off the plane onto on a totally different planet. Nothing looks familiar.”

He struggled to get his head around things and decided, if the opportunity to work in Australia ever came up, he’d take it. Tasmania’s floral diversity is much lower than the mainland but new species are still being identified every year.

The rain comes down on the Overland Track seed collectors.

The rain comes down on the Overland Track seed collectors.

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

“You know,” Wood enthuses, “this season I was out surveying and I discovered a plant that was only known from another collection that was made 30 years ago and we don’t even know what it is. Discoveries like that are pretty rare in Europe but are much more common out here. The opportunities to learn about new things is huge for somebody with my interests. It’s immensely rewarding and very exciting to be in this sort of environment.”

An insurance policy for the future

As Tasmania’s habitat changes, many alpine species may become extinct, and that will be a heartbreaking loss to humanity.

“Some populations have already been lost to fire and may not be able to re-establish naturally due to fragmented distributions or poor dispersal capacity,” Wood says. “The increasing aridity and likelihood of fire in these areas is very worrying.”

Most stands of pencil pine are clonal, that is, from one individual. This means the seed collectors must capture genetic variation over a large area to ensure biological diversity.

The two men who met as strangers parted as friends, having covered 300 hectares of land, picking two handfuls of cones from 46 stands of trees, filling a cloth bag with what, in the end, amounted to 8,000 viable seeds. 

Pencil pine seeds.

Pencil pine seeds.

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

“It’s not a bad sized haul as an insurance policy for the future,” Wood concludes.

The collection will be stored in the Tasmanian Seed Conservation Centre and the Millennium Seed Bank (UK). Ultimately, one day, the seeds may be reintroduced back into the landscape to flourish again.

“It will be nice if we can leave those who come after us with more than just a glimpse of what the world was in the beginning,” Wood says.  

Tasmanian Walking Company and the Royal Botanical Gardens will be partnering again for the next Overland Track seek collection walk, scheduled for February 24 to March 1, 2021.  Guests will be given the chance to join the conservation project. 

This article originally appeared here