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Setting a course for plant knowledge

From plant structure and correct terminology to learning about the features of leaves, bark, fruit and flowers; a three-day plant identification course hosted by Cape York NRM provided new insights into the flora on Cape York Peninsula.

“It was a really engaging course by Stuart Worboys from the Australian Tropical Herbarium (ATH) and very hands-on from the beginning,” Cape York NRM Biodiversity Project Officer James Dobson said. 

Eleven people, including personnel from sand mining group Diatreme, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and Cape York NRM, took part in the course over February 6-8, upskilling their knowledge of local and invasive species and how to use free, online Lucid keys to identify the plants. 

The main tool used was the Australian Tropical Rainforests Plants key (8 th Edition), developed at the Australian Tropical Herbarium by CSIRO.

The course began with the basics, and progressed quickly to terminology and more complicated identification techniques. The group also learned about how regional ecosystems are coded, mapped and surveyed. An open book exam capped off the three days.

“I liked that it didn’t assume everyone had prior knowledge,” James said. “And it was well structured with classes in the morning and then field trips to the Cooktown Botanical Gardens in the afternoon.

“And, of course, Peter Symes, the Gardens’ curator, helped out. He spoke about the Gardens’ role in the conservation of Cape York plant species and gave us a tour of the nursery, including their vast ant plant collection and newly-sprouted ant plant seedlings. 

“It was really fantastic, it was a really, really well executed course.” 

Another highlight was going to Finch Bay on the final day to look at littoral rainforests.  

“It’s a beautiful forest I didn’t know was there, really,” James added.  

He said the idea for hosting the course came from “completely selfish reasons”. 

“I wanted to do the course myself, as I thought it would help me in doing my job better. It then morphed into a course in Cooktown for all stakeholders with support from Regional Land Partnerships. I hope we can host it again.”

Stuart also provided useful feedback to the recently developed Cape York NRM Littoral Rainforest Guidebook, which is used for on-ground surveys and training for land managers.

Participant feedback on the course was also positive, with the team from Diatreme saying the littoral rainforest study, in particular, was highly relevant. 

“Being a geologist, this was all new,” Diatreme’s William Bird said. "This training complements and enhances previous training we have done with Stuart and will assist in providing basic plant ID skills to Diatreme staff.”

For Cape York NRM’s Sustainable Industries Officer Nat James, the workshop was “very practical”.

“Although we were learning specifically about rainforest plants, all the skills we gained, understanding plant features, and using plant keys, are useful for learning about new species and plant families in any context,” she said. 

“No doubt it will improve my skills when it comes to identifying pasture grasses in the future.”

James said that he and Stuart had discussed adapting the course to attract more Indigenous Ranger groups working in the field.

“There is the opportunity for us to learn also - what the local language word is and what uses they have for a plant - whether it's edible or not. That would be another learning experience to benefit our work on the Cape.”

This project was supported by Cape York NRM, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.