Botany of Taranaki to feature in talk

Professor Bruce Clarkson's quest to study Taranaki's flora sounds more like a Bear Grylls television series than ecological excursions.

Just like the Man v Wild star, the University of Waikato professor has tramped, climbed, forded rivers, been dropped into small swamps and bogs by scoop net from a helicopter and hung over cliff faces.

"I have covered as much of the Egmont National Park and its surrounds as possible over the last almost 50 years, if you count the fact that I started doing this since secondary school and even before then," says Prof Clarkson, who will be speaking at Puke Ariki tomorrow night.

"I think one of the longest stretches of continuous downpours I endured was holed up in the old York Road hut for at least five days."

He was not alone on his adventures and was often accompanied by his wife, Bev, who he met at university, and his brothers Jim and Bill.

Prof Clarkson's free presentation on biodiversity will cover the history of botanical discovery and significance of the Taranaki flora, including new information from the latest research. The 6pm talk stems from the Shadowing Venus: Pacific Adventures of Joseph Banks exhibition now on at Puke Ariki.

He says the region's flora is notable for low species richness and many "missing" species; a result of a continuing history of volcanic disturbance and the isolation of the mountain from other areas of high ground, especially the central North Island.

Prof Clarkson has not found any brand-new species in Taranaki, but he has discovered species new to the region and to particular areas.

"There are, however, a small number of species not found anywhere else; most notable of all and most intriguing is the divaricating shrub Melicytus druceii," he says of the plant that looks like a tangle of rusty wire.

"It has been recognised as a botanically unique, rare, and threatened species, growing in Egmont National Park and nowhere else in the world. It is in fact currently the only indigenous species known to be truly endemic to the park."

He was involved in the naming of that plant, but it was on Mt Tarawera that he personally discovered a new species - a hybrid between a mountain daisy and a shrub daisy.

"While I am interested in species, I am more interested in plant communities and in particular the pattern and process of vegetation change, which I have studied on volcanoes all round the world," he says.

"Ironically, I was researching forest recovery on debris avalanches of Lassen Volcanic National Park in California when Mt Tongariro erupted."

The Taranaki-born man is passionate about plants and biodiversity. In 2006, he received the Loder Cup, this country's premier conservation award, given to New Zealanders who work to investigate, promote, retain and cherish our indigenous flora.

Taranaki Daily News