News | 19 September 2018

Otari Native Botanic Garden launches a laboratory for plant conservation

Otari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton's Bush Reserve has taken a major step forward in its history, taking on scientific research aimed at saving native plant species.

Conservation and Science Advisor Karin Van Der Walt
Conservation and Science Advisor Karin Van Der Walt

The Lions Otari Plant Conservation Laboratory is now in operation on the site, focusing on seed germination and long term storage, including how seeds can be stored at -196degC in liquid nitrogen and then germinated into normal plants.

Once this process has been perfected, more species can be stored safe in the knowledge it can be germinated when needed for restoration or research.

The laboratory, a small prefabricated building, was set up with $72,000 raised by the Lions Club of Karori and more than $50,000 worth of work from Wellington City Council.

“Otari is the only public botanic garden in New Zealand dedicated solely to native plants. Now it is entering the field of laboratory seed research – a massive step,” says Mayor Justin Lester. 

“The garden has a history of research – collecting plants and seeds from the wild – and propagating them, but never like this.

“It will contribute to the knowledge of how we can preserve the seeds of endangered native species. No other botanic garden in the country is doing such work.”

The lab will help fulfil part of the Council’s commitment, through its botanic gardens, to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

It will collaborate with Plant & Food Research, Kew Millennium Seed Bank, Te Papa, Victoria and Massey Universities.

Councillor Peter Gilberd, who holds the city’s science portfolio, says Otari is a national taonga.
“The commissioning of the new lab could not be more timely as we confront climate change, and diseases such as sudden decline, myrtle rust and kauri dieback.” 

Conservation and Science Advisor Karin Van Der Walt says: “There are endangered species in New Zealand that will benefit from this work.”

Among the first seeds being cryopreserved (stored in liquid nitrogen) are those of swamp maire tree (Syzygium maire) and the work is complementing similar research being done on Syzygium species in Australia.

Otari, in collaboration with Te Papa are also working on Bartlett’s rātā (Metrosideros bartlettii) - New Zealand’s rarest tree with just 13 left in the wild in three separate populations. Metrosideros species are at risk from Myrtle rust.

Using pollen from another Bartlett’s rata tree at Auckland University, the tree at Otari was pollinated and viable seed collected. 

They can now investigate various ways in which to store and grow the seed and to increase the wild population
“If we don’t do this, the species could go extinct in the wild,” Van Der Walt says.

Otari is also doing research on native orchids, and the shrubs ramarama  (Lophomyrtus bullata)  and rohutu (Lophomyrtus obcordata) both threatened by myrtle rust. 

On a more local level, the lab will work with Council’s nursery in Berhampore to investigate why some species are difficult to grow.

In October they plan to start researching the seeds of Dactylanthus taylorii – New Zealand’s only fully parasitic flowering plant – which attaches to roots of trees.  

The Māori name for Dactylanthus is "pua o te reinga," meaning “flower of the underworld”. Dactylanthus is currently regarded as nationally vulnerable to extinction.

Otari Team Manager Rewi Elliot says the research will increase knowledge on New Zealand seed germination and long-term storage providing opportunities to support threatened species populations in the wild.
The public will get a chance to see the lab from the outside when Otari-Wilton’s Bush holds an open day on Saturday 22 September from 10am-2pm.