A Plant Called Mary

It was only a few months ago that I was told of Mary’s death. At first, I was shocked, then upset, and finally filled with a hollow sense of loss. This conventionally is what one would expect with grief - except in this case, Mary was a plant.

I was first introduced to Mary a few months after starting work at an indigenous nursery in 2014. Mary was a member of the Glycine family, commonly called clover glycine (Glycine latrobeana). I was told of her rarity and that she had been with us for 13 years. She sat in one of the top igloos, amongst other pots of varying importance. Simply looking at her, you would not really have thought there was anything particularly noteworthy about her. We had no posters saying ‘Save Mary’ and there were no special campaigns run in her honour. After being told more about her and the plight of her species, I did, however, feel a certain reverence when I looked at her, a steady sense of appreciation for her existence.

A portrait of Mary ( Glycine latrobeana ).  Image: Sarah Bond

A portrait of Mary (Glycine latrobeana). Image: Sarah Bond

Now, this is not what I would consider the natural reaction of most people towards plants, although it is quite commonly expressed towards animals. There is a common saying of ‘plant blindness’. People rarely perceive the importance of the plants around them and even more rarely empathise with the plight of plants. Many people would express astonishment at the rarity of Mary but think little of her continued presence at the nursery.

Glycine latrobeana is endemic to South-Eastern Victoria and is listed as a vulnerable species within the State. Intercepting on these plants’ behalf would appear to be the only means of ensuring the species’ continuation in nature. They are under threat from grazing, weed invasion, altered fire regimes and an overall destruction of habitat. This is unfortunately not a new story for many plants. Mary in this instance is just giving a face, and a name, to the silent cry of plants within our bushland that are at risk from all fronts. When an animal is threatened, one of the initial interceptions is a captive breeding program. This was what Mary was to the nursery, our captive breeder. Unfortunately, in the 13 years that Mary was at the nursery, she only flowered three times - three times in 13 years.

This grassy woodland is the type of habitat that plants like Mary could be found in.  Image: Sarah Bond

This grassy woodland is the type of habitat that plants like Mary could be found in. Image: Sarah Bond

The second step to protect animal species is to protect and possibly restore the habitat. This is the step where plants present different challenges to animals. Habitat protection for small herbaceous plants like Mary often involves grazer removal or exclusion from the area: both intensive and often costly endeavours. Additionally, they are often outcompeted by introduced species, but weed removal in an area can often cause disturbance to the site that further damages the habitat. Finally, changing fire regimes means that plants are often burning outside of their natural cycles. Unlike animals that can flee a fire, our vulnerable plants can’t simply leave an area and so often they disappear from sites entirely.

Revegetating along riverbanks unfortunately isn't enough.  Image: Sarah Bond

Revegetating along riverbanks unfortunately isn't enough. Image: Sarah Bond

More frequent burnings can kill off some plant species.  Image: Sarah Bond

More frequent burnings can kill off some plant species. Image: Sarah Bond

This is not to say that there aren’t areas that have been appropriately protected and managed where this species can persist into the future. But wouldn’t it be nicer to see our habitats flourish and have a greater return of our vulnerable and threatened species into their previously documented ranges?

Caring personally for the well-being of plants is not the easiest feeling to develop, but it is worthwhile. Next time you take a walk outside or look to do some gardening, think about what plants you have around you. Are they native to your area? Are they special to you for any reason? What legacy will they leave? It can be valuable to visit a local indigenous nursery to learn more about the spaces indigenous plants can fill in your backyard. Widening and joining our urban habitats is one way of extending the range of our plants like Mary that are vulnerable and at risk of disappearing from our bushland areas entirely. It will also have the flow-on effect of providing habitat and homes for our native animals.

And as for Mary? We will try at the nursery to germinate the few seeds we collected from her so that her legacy can continue. Wish us luck.

Sarah Bond

Sarah is a botanist who works at a local indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne. She is interested in engaging the public with the conservation of local flora and fauna.

You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond



Banner image of Mary courtesy of Sarah Bond.