It all started in Ruapehu, Franz Josef, and Nelson Lakes. These places were Jane’s childhood playgrounds and her parents’ working grounds. Her parents shared a keen interest for nature and the outdoors, professionally and in their spare time, so their love for the natural world inevitably cascaded down to their daughters. It was no surprise when Jane decided to complement her outdoors classroom with the biology ones at the University of Canterbury. But becoming an expert on mountain daisies, despite having a biology degree does not happen over night.
Jane with her parents as a child. “You cannot live in National Parks and ignore the surroundings. It rubs off on you in some way.” Photo supplied.
With a Master’s Degree in Ecology in her pocket, Jane soon turned the natural sanctuaries from her childhood into her work grounds. Jobs with DOC on the West Coast offered a great learning opportunity. Being part of the biodiversity monitoring team meant an exposure to a wide range of New Zealand plants and a chance to get familiar with them. All the way across the South Island from the Waitaki to Haast and up to the Marlborough Sounds and Golden Bay, Jane worked in a team that spent months following the network of plots on conservation land. The network, which is still in place, consists of 20×20 m plots every eight km and the team’s job was to identify and measure every plant in each plot. Trees got measured for their carbon and all the birds and mammals got counted. Jane humbly admits she only worked on 143 plots in total, which apparently is not an impressive quota at all, compared to some of her colleagues work.
Sounds like a dream job? “It definitely takes you to some stunning places,” says Jane. “The first season the team was still quite small, so we used to spend two to three days on site and worked together as a team, monitoring plants and fauna. Later on, teams got separated by speciality, so my team used to do a plot in a day, unless we were in a thick bush and had to do a lot of bush bashing to get through. This meant that sometimes we were in amazing places, but we had no time to appreciate them. Some other times, due to helicopter schedule, we got a small window, which gave us some time to enjoy what was around us.“
Even though the time in the bush was priceless in terms of growing knowledge, it was the alpine flora that always captured Jane’s attention. “There is something special about big open landscapes and the fragility, perseverance, diversity, and smallness of plants populating them. Aotearoa’s alpine flora is quite young. Big groups of plants, like Celmisia, all evolved relatively quickly, which makes them quite closely related. In addition, they often live close together. These are all perfect circumstances for formation of hybrids, which is what I focused on in my Masters Degree.”
You can’t escape Celmisia when in the alpine zone. They are the third largest genus of plants in New Zealand and they are simply stunning when they flower.
Celmisia dallii at Round Lake, Peel Range, Kahurangi National Park. Photo: Jane Gosden.
Other passion of Jane are plants that grow in cold places, which is why she spent some time researching plant life in the Subantarctic Islands. “This is basically alpine flora, but at the sea level. Growing close to the sea affects the plants. Good examples are coastal turfs in the Catlins. They look kind of alpine, because the environment is harsh with the salt spray and the wind, with trampling caused by seals and sea birds. Plants have adapted to tolerate this. At the same time, they receive rich nutrients from seal and bird poo. So you have similar looking plants in coastal and alpine areas because of the extremes.”
Jane with one of the local residents on Macquarie Island during her research. Photo: Karen Ziegler
With so much intimate knowledge about the alpine and coastal plants, it would almost be an ecological sin, not to share it with others. Jane’s friend Jane Connor, a publisher with multiple plant books under her belt, was strongly aware of this. The idea to write a field guide to Celmisia first germinated in Jane Connor’s mind. From there, the project grew as a collaboration between the two Janes and was picked up by Manuka Press for publication. Jane Gosden started by writing the descriptions of plants and making distribution maps. To cross check her definitions, she spent some time at the Allan Herbarium at Maanaki Whenua Landcare Research in Lincoln, which hosts over 800,000 specimens of pressed plants in New Zealand. With many dried pressed Celmisia specimens, the Allan Herbariumn provided an invaluable resource to conduct a reference check, compare notes to assure consistency and credibility and look at the specimens in minute detail. The Allan Herbarium also proved extremely useful in identifying the habitats, where certain specimens were collected, which turned out helpful later in the field.
Herbariums are such a rich resource, but have become kind of forgotten. All three big herbaria in Aotearoa – the Allan Herbarium in Lincoln, Te Papa herbarium in Wellington and Auckland War Memorial Museum herbarium hold specimens from Banks’s and Solander’s first voyage to NZ. These are specimen collected over 200 years ago, but they look like they were pressed yesterday.
Celmisia rupestris Cheesman from Te Papa herbarium, which was collected by T. Cheeseman at Mount Peel [Peel Range], Nelson, New Zealand. Te Papa SP004532.
Since the book was planned to be a field guide, the next step was logical – field visits. Finding out about the locations where specific specimens grow starts with research – reading the existing literature, studying maps, talking to researchers, and DOC colleagues and browsing through iNaturalist. By the time Jane was ready for the field trips, she also secured two sets of funding, one from the Royal Society Publishing Grant – Charles Fleming Award and one from Koiata Trust. These funds helped with the travel costs to all the high places, that most mountain daisies call home.
The idea for the field guide first came from Jane Connor, Jane’s friend and a publisher of plant books. Cover supplied.
Motivated by the grants, an ambitious plan came to mind – to see all 78 named Celmisia in New Zealand in one summer. The field trips started close to home in Castle Hill. Soon, family holidays turned into Celmisia hunting trips. Accompanied either by her partner or her parents, the hunt took Jane to the West Coast – Denniston Plateau, Charleston and up the Charming Creek, down south to Catlins, Blue Mountains, Old Man Range and Remarkables. Even though Celmisia grows in the alpine areas, some specimens break the rule – some prefer sea views. Such plants can be found in Charleston, on the cliffs of Auckland coast close to Piha and Karekare, on Whangarei Heads, and the Wairarapa Coast. To locate these plants, Jane took a journey up North, which got interrupted by Covid. “I had a great day out, feeling very fit, followed with a day of Covid settling in, which slowed the progress of the project down for quite a bit,” she recalls her pre-Christmas time last year when trying to locate the population of Celmisia close to the Pinnacles Track.
After the recovery, the hunt for daisies continued at Mt Taranaki, Mt Ruapehu and later down south at Mavora Lakes, Fiordland, Rakiura/Stewart Island and Eyre Mountains. Over the six months, Jane managed to see, identify and visit 80% of Celmisia entities in 23 different locations.
Map of locations, which Jane visited during her Celmisia field guide research. Image supplied.
Looking for flowers out in the wild feels a bit like a treasure hunt. “It’s quite fun, especially if I get to a plant I haven’t seen before. I imagine it’s the same excitement people get out of geocaching, hut bagging or peak bagging. Same sort of concept,” says Jane. It also makes deciding where you want to go tramping easier – you go wherever the plant grows. You don’t have to get off the track much either. With a little bit of knowledge, many plants can be spotted and identified by staying on the tracks. Knowing a little bit about the habitat and what kind of vegetation one might expect can be very helpful. Mt Burns in Fiordland, for example, is a prime destination during the flowering season, when the tussocky slopes turn into blooming fields. It is home to 20 species of Celmisia and easily accessible – a 15-minute walk through beech forest brings you into an alpine wonderland. The peak season to spot Celmisia flowering is in December and January. However, there are always some individuals that are a bit faster or slower depending on the location and species. One can still spot them if venturing out in February, sometimes even March.
Jane photographing plants on the slopes of Mt Burns. Photo: Don Bogie.
An important part of the research is documentation, which includes taking many photos. Over 900 photos of Celmisia were included in the book and Jane provided most of them, along with a few other contributors. Even though the flowers are the most photogenic parts of the plants, leaves or other plant parts are crucial for identification or iNaturalist contributions. That is certainly true for Celmisia.
If you’re taking a photo of the plant for identification purposes, the more parts of the plant you photograph, the better. So getting a whole plant the the photo is helpful. And especially the leaves.
A bright sunny day in the mountains might be perfect for taking landscape or action shots, but it is not ideal for photographing flowers. “Capturing flowers on a camera, especially white flowers in an alpine area, is best on an overcast day,” advises Jane. For this purpose, she carries a mini diffuser or uses her own shadow to create better conditions. Due to their robustness, Olympus Tough are the cameras of her choice, “They are so easy to carry, they don’t mind getting wet or being dropped. That coupled with a macro lens is a great combination.” Still, the best way to truly study the plant is not just through a lens, but by drawing it. Jane has been drawing plant life since she was a child. Last year, she extended her skills by enrolling on a botanical illustration course delivered by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. “Drawing can really hone your observational skills,” says Jane “You need to really focus on specific features of the plant.”
A watercolor drawing of cyclamen Jane did for course assessment. Drawing can really hone one’s observational skills, believes Jane. Image supplied.
Besides rich pictorial material, a good field guide to plants needs to use well-balanced and accessible language. Jane wrote the book with a reader in mind, without overwhelming technical language, though some of it is often unavoidable. “The big Flora of NZ books can be quite daunting,” admits Jane. ”It’s like learning another language, a botanical language.” Her hope is the guide will prove as a user-friendly introduction to botany for people who love the outdoors and mountains.
Inner pages of the book. Jane tried to use accessible language to make the guide user-friendly. Photo: Masha Oliver
Now the book is out and going through a second print – the first one ran out – Jane is focusing on her next research project, kettle hole tarns. These fascinating geological features can mostly be found in the intermontane basins of the eastern South Island. They are water-filled depressions formed by the big blocks of ice, left behind by the retreating glaciers. “I guess the kettle comes from their shape as they look like the bottom of an old kettle,“ explains Jane. “Americans call them vernal pools, Europeans kettle holes as well. Freshwater ecologists would call them ponds.” For Jane, they are the most amazing ecosystems and there is still so much unknown about them. On the eastern side of the South Island, the kettle holes dry up in summer and turn into a turf carpet of tiny flowering plants. How they survive and persist and why their plant communities differ so much is still a mystery. Jane’s PhD study will try to answer these questions, as well as look into ways how to best manage them and protect them better “Often there are hundreds of them in an area, some of them are quite small and some are quite big. They all have completely different plant communities, even if they’re next door to each other. The question for land managers is, how do we manage them? Do we manage the ones with threatened plants or do we manage all of them, because they are somehow connected?”
Plants in kettle hole tarns have remarkable lifecycle. Video by Learnz.org.nz and DOC. Source: You Tube.
Even though kettle holes have already captured the curiosity of researchers, they need to be looked at as a whole. As wetlands, they are often overlooked, and when drying, they are quite vulnerable to external physical impacts, like driving vehicles or pugging animals. The best publicly accessible kettle hole tarns can be found in the big open glacier country of the Mackenzie Basin. Tekapo Scientific Reserve and Hakatere Conservation Area host hundreds and a few can be found in Marlborough, around Sedgemere hut. Technically, Wombat Lake by Franz Josef Glacier is one of them too, though the high rainfall of the Coast means it functions as a full-time bog.
Feeling inspired for the next tramping trip? There seem no limits to where a curious mind can take you and what you find there. Sometimes more new questions than answers. Jane’s story is definitely a story of that – adventures in nature, fueled by curiosity for small, yet magnificent living things, persevering in the grand vastness of the planet we all call home.
Team at Wilderlife thanks Jane for her time to share her story and wishes her all the best with her future work and research. We also hope that her book A Guide to Celmisia in Aotearoa New Zealand might come with you on your next tramp. If interested, please visit Manuka Press to order or browse some inner pages.