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The Guardian - AU

Meet the plant detective helping gardeners and fighting crime

The National Herbarium of New South Wales has more than 1 million plant specimens which Andrew Orme uses to help identify submitted samples.
The National Herbarium of NSW has more than 1m plant specimens, which Andrew Orme uses to help identify submitted samples. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Every morning a pile of envelopes full of promise and possibility lands on Andrew Orme’s desk.

In his case, promise and possibility means unidentified organic material waiting to be inspected, identified and preserved for the future.

Orme is a plant detective, also known as an identifications technical officer, one part of a scientific duo working out of the new National Herbarium of New South Wales at Mount Annan.

“I love working out what things are,” he says. “It’s a bit of a detective work ... using characters and evidence and deduction to piece things together.”

As well as helping members of the public identify plants found on their property, they also work hand in (gardening) glove with law enforcement agencies to verify drugs such as opium and cannabis found in raids, at the border or at crime scenes.

“I’ve currently got a Border Force job that I am giving a fair bit of priority,” Orme says.

“Police may, if murder inquiry requires, have pieces of plant material and they’re trying to piece it to a location or to an event. They might be trying to say someone was at a certain location [through] a piece of material they have.

“Counterterrorism is a similar issue ... but I can’t go into any details.”

Callistemon specimen at the National Herbarium of New South Wales.
Andrew Orme spends his days identifying organic samples, such as this Callistemon specimen. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Orme and his colleague Seanna McCune use “old-school” techniques to identify samples – relying on reference books, microscopes and the herbarium’s collection of more than 1 million specimens.

As well as sometimes being sensitive, their work can also be pretty gross, such as when they’re sent “gut contents from dead goats and sheep” to work out if they died by poisonous plant.

They also spend a lot of time dealing with aquarium plants that have escaped into waterways and started choking out natives.

The unit has been around for decades and has changed a bit over that time. There used to be a counter open to the public at the city botanic gardens before the big move out to the new facilities at the Australian Botanic Garden in south-western Sydney in March this year.

“For a lot of elderly people, it was part of their routine trip to the city – you bring a specimen to the ID counter,” Orme says, noting that service is still available at Mount Annan if people felt like visiting and adding to the herbarium’s collection.

“The [public’s] interest in natural history and nature helps us have an understanding of what occurs where. It all feeds into our knowledge that we can then help spread to the community.”

Some pretty important specimens have come through over over the years, including the Wollemi pine in the 1990s – the “dinosaur trees” that existed 200m years ago.

“It took a few goes before the experts said ‘Woah, this is the major botanical discovery in the world that century’,” Orme recalls.

That was a particularly special case, but the team has played an important role in other rediscoveries including identifying a native indigo in Geurie near Dubbo that had not been seen for more than half a century.

“You’ve got that feeling of satisfaction working something out, but you also have that feeling that you’re involved with conservation directly,” Orme says.

“If you make the call of something being new, [or] if something was presumed extinct, and you’ve gone ‘yep, this is not extinct’ ... it’s really exciting.

“Cataloguing our biodiversity is absolutely crucial to understanding conservation.”