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Labelling mix-up traced back to Captain Cook’s first voyage means plant no longer a New Zealand native

  • Coprosma ernodeoides (Photo credit: Catherine Beard)
    Coprosma ernodeoides in fruit, Hawai'i (Photo credit: Catherine Beard)

A native plant purportedly discovered by Captain Cook’s botanists on the Endeavour’s first voyage to New Zealand has been found, in fact, to have originated from Hawaii.

Unitec School of Environmental Science Associate Professors Peter de Lange and Mark Large, along with Auckland Museum Research Associate Dr Rhys Gardner, Te Papa Museum of New Zealand Ancient DNA expert Dr Lara Shepherd and Department of Conservation Botanist Jeremy Rolfe have finally unravelled the origin of the shrub Coprosma solandri, which has remained a mystery for the past century.  Their findings, in a paper titled The endemic that never was – resolving the status of Coprosma solandri, have been recently published in Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore.

Coprosma is a genus of shrubs, or small trees, that belongs to the coffee plant family. New Zealand, with about 55 species, is the centre of diversity of this mostly Pacific and Australasian-based genus.

Wellington-based botanist Thomas Kirk first described Coprosma solandri as a New Zealand endemic shrub in a paper he wrote in 1897 describing the flora and vegetation of the ‘East Cape District’ of the North Island. His description was based on specimens he believed to be collected by Cook’s botanists Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander on the first of the Endeavour’s voyages to New Zealand, and which were among a collection of their plants he had received from the British Museum of Natural History when he was preparing his book on Students’ flora of New Zealand.

Kirk recognised the novelty of Coprosma solandri but was at a loss to explain its relationships to other New Zealand coprosma species.  The specimen Kirk described came without collection details, so he assumed it was collected from somewhere in the 'East Cape District' of the North Island, presumably because that was where the botanists Banks and Solander had made the most plant collections on their fleeting visit in 1769–1770.  For more than 120 years, the sole specimen of the plant has been kept in the herbarium vault at what is now the Herbarium of Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand.

Through structural analysis and careful examination of the specimen, Dr de Lange and his colleagues have established that identity of the plant is the same as Coprosma ernodeoides, a species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.  From their research, it seems likely that Kirk's specimen came from collections made by Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, the first European to successfully climb Mauna Loa on Hawai'i (The Big Island) in 1793. Joseph Banks probably acquired the specimen when he purchased Menzies’ Hawaiian plant specimens. It would seem that some of these, including the enigmatic specimens destined to become Coprosma solandri, were mixed up with New Zealand collections following Banks's death in 1820 and the subsequent acquisition of his herbarium into what is now the Natural History Museum of London.

“The outcome of our research and analysis now removes from the New Zealand Flora a puzzling plant, variously treated as an endemic, a hybrid or as an ill-fitting shoe forced to fit with other genuine New Zealand coprosma species that it only ever vaguely resembled,” says Dr de Lange. “Coprosma solandri never had anything to do with New Zealand, it was our 'endemic that never was'. The species name now resides as an accidental blip under Coprosma ernodeoides in the annals of Hawaiian Botany,” he added.