18 August 2012

Gone are the glory days of the glory pea

Phillip Island, as seen from Norfolk Island. Problems with soil erosion persist to this day, as evidenced by the red patches free of vegetation.

In the southern Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Australia and New Zealand, lies Norfolk Island. In 1774, the HMS Resolution brought Captain James Cook to its shores, as part of his great voyage to discover the mythical southern continent Terra Australis. Cook and his men explored Norfolk island and two smaller offshore islands, Nepean and Phillip. Uninhabited and with sheer sea cliffs, Phillip Island in particular appeared lush, with dense scrub and forest growing in its rich volcanic soil. What secret wonders of nature were hidden in its valleys?

Gone: the glory pea (Streblorrhiza speciosa).
Austrian botanist Ferdinand Bauer visited Phillip Island (named in 1788 for Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales) in 1804 on a collecting trip. One of the plants he discovered was a striking new member of the bean family. So unique was this plant that, upon receipt of Bauer's herbarium specimen back in Vienna, botanist Stephan Endlicher gave it its own genus, naming it Streblorrhiza speciosa. It quickly acquired the common name of glory pea: a scrambling woody vine, producing cascades of gorgeous pink blossoms. This was a plant that deserved to be grown by gardeners everywhere. Once introduced in Europe, the glory pea was an instant hit. Every nobleman with a conservatory wanted one. However, the glory pea proved quite difficult to grow well. Most gardeners kept it in pots in greenhouses. With its roots restricted by container gardening, instead of the deep volcanic earth of its island home, the glory pea flowered erratically. It gained a reputation as being intractable, and began to fall out of vogue.Why dedicate greenhouse space to something that promises a spectacle, but that you cannot get to flower? Within fifty years, no one was cultivating it any more. Which was such a big mistake.

Back on Phillip Island, something was going disastrously wrong. On his 1830 collecting trip there, English explorer Allan Cunningham noted that the "vegetation was thin on top and there was severe gullying in the valleys". This was neither the lush island discovered by Cook, nor that so gleefully explored by Bauer. Naturally, there's an anthropological component to the decline of the island. For you see, in 1788 goats and pigs were introduced as food for the newly established penal colony on Norfolk Island. Rabbits soon followed, precipitating ecological disaster. Pretty soon, the overgrazing of Phillip Island became so severe that all the goats and pigs died from starvation. As can be seen from the photo above, the island is pretty much a desert to this day, plagued by soil erosion. It took until 1986 just to eradicate all the rabbits, and projects are currently underway to remove some introduced plant species as well. The long term goal is to restore the natural vegetation of Phillip Island to its former glory. But, tragically, without the glory pea. Researchers have made several attempts to find surviving specimens of Streblorrhiza speciosa still hidden in the valleys of Phillip Island, but to no avail—the glory pea is listed as extinct on the IUCN Red List. The botanical illustration above and a handful of dried herbarium specimens are all that remain now.

If only those gardeners had known the value of ex situ conservation back then. If only they had realized that they could have saved the glory pea from oblivion. But perhaps, within the ancient walls of a palace garden outside of Vienna, or in the conservatory of a crumbling English manor house, someone had thought, Oh, might as well, and kept a specimen of the glory pea alive all these years. Hope lies dormant, like seeds buried deep in volcanic soil.

Picture credits:
Boat with Phillip Island in background by Steve Daggar
Plate of Streblorrhiza speciosa by Miss Drake in Lindley (1841)


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic article..yet so sad!! I hope someone has one hidden away somewhere!!

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