The large wildfire that engulfed extensive areas of forest, damp plains and scattered granite outcrops in the Northcliffe area in February this year has yielded an unexpected gift – a species of plant completely new to science. The species is a Haemodorum or blood root, a group of bulbous herbs with about 30 species distributed across well-watered parts of Australia, one extending into southern Papua.
The blood roots are significant as a source of spicy food, their bulbs eaten raw or cooked by Noongar people as a stable. The most common species in southwest Australia, Haemodorum spicatum, was known as mean to the Minang Noongars from around Albany. Minang translates as ‘those who eat mean’. In tropical Australia, Haemodorum species furnish a dye used for colouring Aboriginal baskets.
The first species to be named was Haemodorum coccineum, a brilliant orange-red herb from tropical Australia. It grows to up to 1m tall, and was first collected for science by Joseph Banks on Cook’s Endeavour expedition at the Endeavour River in far north Queensland.
The genus Haemodorum received its name from the Greek words for ‘blood’and ‘a gift’, alluding to the striking colours of coccineum. Most southern Australian species are coloured black above ground, mimicking the black sticks seen after widlfires, rendering these edible plants less susceptible to being consumed by animals. However, they retain the characteristic firey red colours below ground in the leaf bases and bulb.
The new species was found east of Northcliffe along intensely burnt narrow creek lines at just two places. The University of Western Australia’s Professor Stephen Hopper and botanical consultants Libby Sandiford and Nathan McQuoid were exploring granite outcrops for possible rare plants that appear only after fire. The Northcliffe Kennedia, for example, is a red flowered pea that covers the ground thriving on the ashes and the extra light available when a fire has removed the tree canopy.
The botanists discovered the new blood root at two places east of Northcliffe. Professor Hopper and colleagues have been working for several decades on the evolution and biology of the family to which the bloodroots belong, the Haemodoraceae, which also contains kangaroo paws.
“I was astonished when Libby called out ‘What’s this?’, while we were inspecting the creekline at the edge of a spectacular granite outcrop”, Professor Hopper said. “Libby knew it was a Haemodorum, but its straight unbranched stems and widely-spaced flowers looked unusual. The more we investigated the more characters we found that confirmed it was a species new to science.”
“It’s been almost three decades since a new species of Haemodorum from the southwest had been named by botanists. There has been intensive botanical surveys carries out across the region over this time. Yet this rare new species escaped detection until now, understandably so as it appears only after hot wildfire, and in the wettest habitat for terrestrial vegetation in fairly isolated country difficult to get into when it’s not been burnt.”
Fresh specimens of the new species were delivered to gifted botanical artist Ellen Hickman in Albany, who is undertaking a PhD research project with Professor Hopper on discovery through illustration, focussing on the blood root family Haemodoraceae. Her research, and DNA sequencing studies will be followed up prior to formally submitting a scientific paper naming the new blood root.
“There is no doubt”, Professor Hopper said, “from the range of observable characters and the special habitat of the species, that a new species is in hand.” The genus has demonstrated antibacterial and antiviral properties, so another new species could be included in future research along those lines.
The new species, like other members of Haemodoraceae, is likely to be at risk. Feral pigs consume their nutritious bulbs, causing significant habitat disturbance and spreading dieback disease.
“We need to minimise the presence of these feral animals in forest country” said Professor Hopper. “Who knows what other undiscovered or poorly known plants and animals are placed at risk by such destructive animals.”
It is intended that the new species will be named for its discoverer, Libby Sandiford. Professor Hopper said “She’s an outstanding field botanist who has contributed enormously to understanding of south coast plant communities, and serves as part-time curator of the Wildflower Society’s Albany Herbarium. Furthermore, Noongar women were the primary providers of red root bulbs for eating. It will be apposite to have this new species named for a woman who has done so much to help conserve the significant flora of the south coast of this global biodiversity hotspot.”
Professor Stephen Hopper: (+61 8) 9842 0842
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Relations Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716