Vine draws leading botanist to New England

Published 28 October 2009

trimeniaProfessor William (Ned) Friedman flew all the way to Armidale, NSW, from Boulder in the United States for two days of fieldwork in pursuit of a species of plant unique to north-eastern NSW.

“There aren’t many places in the world I’d go for only two days,” he said. “But I’d come here for just one day.”

Ned Friedman is a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A leading authority on plant morphology and embryology, he has a particular interest in the evolution of flowering plants. And the plant he flew to Armidale to see – a direct descendant of an ancient lineage of flowering plants – could reveal some vital secrets of that evolutionary process.

Before coming to Australia, Professor Friedman had examined records of the plant – Trimenia moorei (a bitter vine) – sent to him from the N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium at the University of New England and available through Australia’s Virtual Herbarium, but he had never seen a living specimen. The species – the only Australian member of the family Trimeniaceae – is a woody vine or liana that climbs to a height of 10 metres.

Professor Friedman’s host at UNE was the Director of the Beadle Herbarium, Associate Professor Jeremy Bruhl, and it was Dr Bruhl and the Herbarium’s Curator, Ian Telford, who took him to see the vine in its forest habitat. “They led me directly to the plants,” he said. “It’s been amazing; everything’s happened spectacularly.”

Dr Bruhl – accompanied by Tilly Eldridge, a young English botanist from the University of Manchester who is visiting UNE for three months – had undertaken a reconnaissance trip to the New England escarpment to ensure that the plants were in flower and with young fruit. The two days of fieldwork by the four botanists took them to the Cunnawarra, New England, and Gibraltar Range National Parks, and then back to UNE Botany for the preparation of samples for transport to the United States.

“Darwin called the origin of flowering plants ‘an abominable mystery’,” Professor Friedman said. “In a fraction of the time that it’s taken for the conifers, for example, to reach their modest level of diversity, flowering plants have taken over the world. What led to this explosion of biodiversity?”

This is the question that he’s hoping a study of Trimenia moorei (pictured here) will help to answer.

His particular interest is the evolution of endosperm – the tissue that nourishes the embryo in the seeds of flowering plants, and that nourishes humankind in the form of flour (wheat endosperm) and related foods. “Flowering plants provide between two-thirds and three-quarters of our caloric intake worldwide,” he said.  “In fact, without endosperm we humans wouldn’t have evolved.”

A deeper understanding of the evolution of endosperm could have major implications for both plant breeding and human nutrition.

Professor Friedman hopes to return to New England before the end of the year to observe, in a later stage of development, the plants he saw flowering in spring. He has a double incentive for the return visit, as UNE is hosting, over the first few days of December, the annual conference of the Australian Systematic Botany Society – “a tremendous opportunity,” he said, “for me to interact with the plant evolutionary biology community in Australia.”

Clicking on the Trimenia moorei image displayed here reveals a photograph of (from left) Ian Telford, Tilly Eldridge, Associate Professor Jeremy Bruhl, and Professor Ned Friedman.