|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).
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.
Boat with Phillip Island in background by Steve Daggar
Plate of Streblorrhiza speciosa by Miss Drake in Lindley (1841)