Plants x Science: Christine Allen, Botanical Warrior

Words by
David Whitworth
| December 8, 2014

The Planthunter is getting smart! Meet the first victim of our attempts to sound scientifically astute; Christine Allen, who completed her PhD in April 2014 with a focus on rescuing some of Western Australia’s rare Banksias and Acacias.

As I’ve learned from Christine, Southwest Western Australia is geologically incredibly old. This ancient landscape has suitably ancient plants, which have become highly specialised over time, adapting to live only in particular environments and soil types. The result is populations of rare, specialised little beauties. When you take populations of naturally rare plants and add agriculture, (90% of Southwest Western Australia is cleared) you can imagine what happens – shrinking, unsustainable plant populations in danger of disappearing.

Christine and a team of volunteers planted 860 seedlings of Acacia awestoniana and 360 seedlings of Banksia ionthocarpa in 2010, in a huge collaborative effort between the Department of Parks and Wildlife and the University of Western Australia. After two years of monitoring, some Acacia seedlings had started flowering for the first time, with a survival rate of approximately 75%  of seedlings.  To put this into perspective, only 400 Stirling Range Wattles (Acacia aestoniana) and 600 Kambellup Banksias (Banksia ionthocarpa) are known to be alive in the wild. Here’s some background info from the expert:

Do you think people are aware of the biodiversity of WA, or of the fragility of the ecosystem there?

I grew up in Sydney and had no idea that southwest WA was one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots until one of my lecturers mentioned it at the University of Wollongong back in 2004. People may not appreciate that plant species in the southwest corner occur nowhere else in the world or they support the diverse insect, bird, reptile and mammal populations as well.

Everything is connected, so if you take one plant species out of an ecosystem there is bound to be a domino effect.

What led you to becoming a plant scientist? It was a combination of my childhood love of all things outdoors, being fascinated by plants while growing up and at school. On day our science teacher took us outside to taste the sugary lerps found on eucalyptus leaves (insects live on plant leaves and create protective structures i.e. lerps using the sugars of the leaves). But, what sealed my fate as a plant scientist was a laboratory class while I was an undergraduate at the University of Wollongong. On this particular day we had to dissect a galah that had been collected as road kill and I thought “I can’t stand this blood and guts, give me plants any day”!

If you were a plant, what would you be? I would be a mangrove. These plants have amazing adaptations to survive in salty water. For example, they have to take up water to survive but need to get rid of the salt. Some species remove the salt through their roots, others transfer the salt to old leaves which drop off the plant and another strategy is storing salt in a specialized cell structure. Mangroves are also a nursery for fish and other aquatic life and they also act a water filtration system to clean water run off before it flows to the sea. Mangroves even protect humans by buffering coastal areas from storms and flooding and stabilize intertidal sediments. All-round interesting and useful plants!

What is the most obscure fact you know about plants? The WA Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda- bright orange flowers are produced in December) is actually a parasitic plant. It has donut–like structures (haustoria) on the roots to clamp onto other plants roots in the surrounding area and steal their water! These donut structures are so strong they have been known to cut through underground cables!

How would you describe your research project to a 5-year-old child? I am helping to save plant species so they don’t disappear from our planet forever.

Now, can you please describe it in more detail to us smart people? What was the initial question, what have the results been? Due to a range of factors, sometimes the populations of a plant species become very small and they are unable to recruit young plants to keep the population stable. To reduce the risk of extinction in the wild, direct action needs to be taken. We take seeds from the remaining populations of a plant species, germinate them in a lab and grow them in a nursery. We then take them to a site close to the remaining population and plant them.

This process is called translocation and is happening all over the globe. However, many translocated seedlings have low survival after planting and through my research I wanted to work out what influences survival and growth in the first few years of planting. My research focused on a Banksia (Kambellup Banksia or Banksia ionthocarpa subsp. ionthocarpa) and Acacia (Stirling Range Wattle or Acacia awestoniana) species growing in the Stirling Range National Park in WA. We planted seedlings of both these species in different environments with different watering frequencies to determine what is important for early survival and growth.

After two years of monitoring, results are..complex to say the least! But results are never simple when it comes to ecology. I found that the main driver of high seedling survival was seedling size at planting (planting larger seedlings = better chance of survival). Seedlings that were watered with irrigation often had the same survival as those not watered. I was surprised by this result but it just shows that these species are superbly adapted to harsh environments.

What spurred this study or this question? The Department of Parks and Wildlife has been working on threatened plant translocations in WA since 1998 (it is the most extensive and longest running translocation program in Australia) with varied outcomes. In the past, it was largely unknown as to why some seedlings die while others survive. So my research incorporated different experimental treatments (seedlings size, watering frequency and planting environment) with intensive monitoring to work out if I could come up with some guidelines for the department to improve translocation success in the future.

Acacia seedlings before planting, Photo by Christine Allen.
Acacia seedlings before planting, Photo by Christine Allen.
Volunteers installing irrigation, Photo by Christine Allen
Volunteers installing irrigation, Photo by Christine Allen

What do you find most interesting about your work? I find it amazing that plants, particularly seedlings (that usually have vulnerable, young leaves and small roots), can survive such harsh climatic conditions (drought, heat). While animals can move to more favourable environments, plants are stuck where they are and use all sorts of amazing features to survive long periods of low water, high sunlight and heat. I’m interested in what drives patterns in survival and what goes on inside the plant to survive these harsh conditions.

What would you hope to be the outcome or impact of your research?

Raising awareness about the vulnerability of plants was a key outcome for me. So many people tell me that they didn’t know that plants could be endangered or even become extinct. Animals get all the attention!

I’ve been spreading the word about my research through local newspapers and radio as well as community talks. Just like in the field of animal conservation, there are teams of dedicated land managers and researchers all over the world who are trying to save species of plants from extinction.

What do you anticipate the future of plant science to include/look like? I think there will be more cross collaborations between plant science disciplines. For example, research into using drought tolerant native plants in agriculture or genetically modifying native plants before planting them in restoration sites so they can survive extreme heat and drought. We have started to see the effects of climate change on plant populations across the globe, so scientists need to start thinking outside the box to conserve plant species and the ecosystems that they support.

How has your research changed your understanding of your topic? My research gave me an insight into real science. Many people think science research is clean-cut, black and white. In truth, there are is much trial and error, stuff ups of various sizes, data collection can often be repetitive and sometimes you collect data that is totally unexpected. I also realized that you have to use creative skills in science research as well. For example: creative solutions for problems that pop up and creative ways to write up your research findings in way that will interest a reader.

What do you like about academia? I love being surrounded by thinkers. There are not many workplaces where can you listen to a presentation about crop breeding, attend a journal club discussion about seagrass research off the West Australian coast and then have a lunch time chat about electric cars.. all in one day!

What do you dislike? Right now is a tough time to be an academic. There have been heavy federal and state funding cuts to research. I have seen amazing scientists struggle from year to year for funding to keep their research afloat. Even the plant translocation program that I mentioned previously is in jeopardy.

If you weren’t a plant scientist what would you be? I would want to work in the field of sustainable living, I love composting and worm farms!

Describe your relationship to plants in five words? Integral, relaxing, curious, tasty, awe.


Christine finished her PhD in April this year and is currently working at Scitech, Perth, where she coordinates science engagement across regional and metro communities in WA. Christine will also be a key organiser for National Science Week WA.

You can find out more about Christine and her work here, here and on facebook.

Banksia seedling, Photo by Christine Allen.
Banksia seedling, Photo by Christine Allen.
Volunteer planting seedlings, Photo by Christine Allen.
Volunteer planting seedlings, Photo by Christine Allen.
Christine Allen
Christine Allen