Every morning, a pile of envelopes full of promises and possibilities lands on Andrew Orme’s desk.
In his case, promise and possibility mean unidentified organic matter waiting to be inspected, identified and preserved for the future.
Orme is a Plant Detective, also known as an Identification Technical Officer, part of a science duo working at the New South Wales National Herbarium at Mount Annan.
“I like to understand what things are,” he says. “It’s a bit of detective work…using characters, evidence and inferences to piece things together.”
In addition to helping members of the public identify plants found on their property, they also work hand-in-hand (gardening) with law enforcement to check for drugs such as opium and cannabis found during raids, at the border or at crime scenes.
“I currently have a job in the border forces that I place a high priority on,” says Orme.
“Police may, if a murder investigation requires it, have pieces of plant material and they try to piece it together at a location or event. They might be trying to tell someone was in a certain place [through] a piece of hardware they have.
“Counter-terrorism is a similar issue…but I can’t go into detail.”
Orme and his colleague Seanna McCune use “old school” techniques to identify the specimens – relying on reference books, microscopes and the herbarium’s collection of more than a million specimens.
Besides sometimes being sensitive, their work can also be quite crude, such as when they are sent “intestinal contents of dead goats and sheep” to determine if they died from a poisonous plant.
They also spend a lot of time tending to aquarium plants that have escaped into waterways and begun to choke out the natives.
The unit has been around for decades and has changed quite a bit over that time. There was a counter open to the public at the City Botanic Gardens before the big move to the new Australian Botanic Garden facilities in Sydney’s south-west in March this year.
“For a lot of older people, it was part of their routine trip around town – you bring a specimen to the ID counter,” Orme says, noting that the service is still available at Mount Annan if people feel like visiting and to add to the herbarium collection.
“The [public’s] interest in natural history and nature helps us understand what is happening where. All of this feeds into our knowledge that we can then help spread in the community. »
Some fairly large specimens have appeared over the years, including the Wollemi pine in the 1990s – the “dinosaur trees” that existed 200 million years ago.
“It took a few tries before the experts said, ‘Wow, this is the world’s biggest botanical discovery this century,’” recalls Orme.
It was a particularly special case, but the team played an important role in other rediscoveries, including the identification of a native indigo at Geurie near Dubbo that had not been seen for more than half a year. -century.
“You get that sense of satisfaction from working on something, but you also feel like you’re directly involved in conservation,” Orme says.
“If you call something new, [or] if something was presumed extinct, and you said “yeah, it’s not extinct”… that’s really exciting.
“Catalogizing our biodiversity is absolutely crucial to understanding conservation.”