Category Archives: News

Taming the heaths: re-definition of Styphelia and Leucopogon and the demise of Astroloma

Styphelia adscendens, Nangwarry, SE. Photo: P.J.Lang

Results of molecular phylogenetic studies (Crayn, Hislop & Puente-Lelièvre 2020) have recently been applied to the SA Plant Census, affecting six native species of heath in this State. Five of the South Australian Leucopogon species, along with Astroloma humifusum, have been transferred to an expanded Styphelia. As a result, Astroloma has effectively been dismembered; the only other SA species, A. conostephioides (Flame Heath) was recently transferred to Stenanthera conostephioides.

The Australian or southern heaths have traditionally been placed in their own family, Epacridaceae. However, the most recent treatments now incorporate them as a subfamily, Epacridoideae, within the globally widespread family Ericaceae, which includes well known plants such as Heather (Calluna) in Europe and Erica in South Africa. The phylogeny of the largest tribe of the subfamily, Stypheliae, was studied by Puente-Lelièvre et al. (2015), using both nuclear and chloroplast DNA and showed that Styphelia, Leucopogon, Astroloma and other genera represented in the largest clade were not monophyletic as currently defined.

Faced with the choice of recognising a single large genus, or at least 12 smaller genera, the authors opted for the former and expanded the circumscription of Styphelia to include all of the taxa falling within the Styphelia-Astroloma clade. While the redefined Styphelia is less informative about the morphological diversity present in the clade, it involved fewer name changes, and priority was given to maximising nomenclatural stability.

Styphelia has been defined in various ways in its long and chequered history. It is noteworthy that none of the ‘new’ names for South Australia are actually new combinations – all had been treated as species of Styphelia at some time in the past by various authors. This can be seen in the listing of synonyms under Leucopogon and Astroloma in the Census. It demonstrates past difficulties of defining the genus in a robust way based on morphology alone, when weighting different characters gives different outcomes and the derivation of character states and homologies are not obvious.

As most recently understood, Styphelia was only represented by two species in SA, S. adscendens and S. exarrhena, characterised by their much-exserted stamens (see first two figures). However, in the phylogenies from the recent molecular studies a number of Leucopogon species cluster together with these, and the circumscription of the newly defined genus is now expanded by the addition of other species with shorter stamens, as shown in the following images.

The two pre-existing SA Styphelia species, showing exserted stamens: Styphelia adscendens (image above) and S. exarrhena (below).

Styphelia exarrhena, Cox Scrub CP, SL (BSOP-520). Photo: P.J.Lang.

The five new species of Styphelia, which were transferred from Leucopogon: Styphelia clelandii, S. cordifoliaS. ericoidesS. rufa and S. woodsii.

Styphelia clelandii (formerly Leucopogon clelandii): (LHS) Hardy Reserve, SE. Photo: A. Carle. (RHS) Ngarkat CP, SE. Photo: G. Carle.

Styphelia cordifolia (formerly Leucopogon cordifolius): (LHS) Talbot Reserve, MU. Photo: SA Seed Centre. (RHS) Scorpion Springs Track, SE. Photo: G. Carle.

Styphelia ericoides (formerly Leucopogon ericoides): (LHS) Penola CP, SE (DEM 7622). Photo: D.E. Murfet. (RHS) near Bangham Siding Rd, SE (PJL 2789). Photo: P.J. Lang.

Styphelia rufa (formerly Leucopogon rufus): (LHS) Port Willunga, SL (DNK 622). Photo: D.N. Kraehenbuehl. (RHS) Aldinga Scrub CP, SL. Photo: J. Burgher.

Styphelia woodsii (formerly Leucopogon woodsii), Bullock Hill CP, SL. Photo: D.E. Murfet, (LHS) DEM 2630, (RHS) DEM 2700.

The former Astroloma humifusum, now Styphelia humifusa:

That this plant appears so different to the others can be related to its long floral tube and red colouration being adaptions for pollination by birds rather than insects.

Styphelia humifusa (formerly Astroloma humifusum), The Bluff Range NFR, NL (BSOP-522). Photo: P.J. Lang.

Prepared by State Herbarium botanist Peter Lang.

Bush Blitz 2021 (1)

Flowers of Eucalyptus yalatensis, a species growing on calcareous soils, which was first described from specimens from the Yalata area. Photo: T. Hammer.

A team of four botanists from the State Herbarium of South Australia just returned from the Bush Blitz Expedition to Yalata Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), Wahgunyah & Fowlers Bay Conservation Parks in the Far West of the State. For two weeks, from 22 Nov. to 3 Dec. 2021, Peter Lang, Tim Hammer, Jürgen Kellermann and Tracey Spokes explored the area, surveyed the vegetation and collected new specimens for the State Herbarium collection.

Some of the Bush Blitz participants, including State Herbarium botanists, with the local support team and Aboriginal Rangers on the last day before leaving Fowlers Bay. Photo: Bush Blitz (Facebook).

We are extremely grateful to the Far West Coast people, including the Kokatha, Mirning, Wirangu, Yalata, and Maralinga Tjarutja (Oak Valley) Peoples and the descendants of Edward Roberts, the Traditional Owners of the land, for allowing us access and permitting us to collect plants.

Limestone cliff vegetation at the Nullarbor, near Head of Bight, Yalata IPA, surveyed by the State Herbarium team during the Bush Blitz expedition. Photo: T. Hammer.


Bush Blitz is an innovative partnership between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities and Earthwatch Australia. It is the world’s first continent-scale biodiversity survey, providing the knowledge needed to help us protect Australia’s unique animals and plants for generations to come.

Research news: Australian plant trait data

AusTraits is an open-source, harmonized database of Australian plant trait data. Plant traits are morphological, anatomical, physiological, biochemical and phenological characteristics of plants. The database synthesises data on 448 traits across over 28640 Australian plant taxa from field campaigns, published literature, taxonomic monographs, and individual taxon descriptions. The project is lead by Daniel Falster, Rachael Gallagher, Elizabeth Wenk and Dr Hervé Sauquet.

Plant trait data are the basis for a vast area of research, spanning from evolutionary biology, community and functional ecology, to biodiversity conservation, ecosystem and landscape management, restoration, biogeography and earth system modelling. The State Herbarium of South Australia also contributed data of plant characteristics from the Flora of South Australia to this project.

Recently, the AusTraits database was introduced to the public with the following publication. Among the over 200 authors is also State Herbarium botanist Jürgen Kellermann.

Falster, D., Gallagher, R. et al. (2021). AusTraits, a curated plant trait database for the Australian flora. Scientific Data 8: 254, 20 pp. & online supplement.

Swainsona pyrophila. Photo: SA Seed Conservation Centre.

Spring is here!

Pond in Rymill Park. Photo: B. Baldock.

Lengthening days, bursts of warmer weather – it must be spring. And with it, flower buds of terrestrial plants that have been surreptitiously developing over winter may suddenly burst into a great show of reproductive activity. But also, perhaps not as obvious, and often poorly appreciated, is the frantic activity in freshwater creeks, ponds and water storages in preparation for the drought of coming summer.

We are fortunate in the State Herbarium of South Australia that we have enthusiastic volunteers who not only help greatly in the day-to-day activities of the herbarium, but keep an eye on changing natural events and bring in plants that appear unusual or noteworthy. Recently one of our volunteers brought a sample of green “slime” for us to investigate. It was wrapped around the minute roots of some floating duckweed blown to the edge of a nearby city park pond.

Under the microscope a whole ecosystem of plants and animals was revealed – something more remarkable than the term “slime” implies. The basis of this ecosystem was a striking green alga – Oedogonium. This had strange swellings, some green, some reddish, along the lines of green cells that make up the unbranched threads or filaments of its plant body or thallus.

Oedogonium algae filaments with pine pollen (top image). Photos: B. Baldock.

Interspersed among the filaments were pine pollen grains that had dropped into the pond. These looked like Mickey Mouse hats, hence they were easily identifiable. There were also many colourless, single-celled animals going about their business, mainly filtering out single-celled algae or other animals smaller than themselves.

The filaments also acted as the base for minute threads of innocuous, colourless sulfur-bacteria less than 1 millionth of a metre (1 μm) in diameter. These could be identified, because they contained minute droplets of sulfur that caught the light brilliantly under the highest magnification of our microscopes.

Excitingly, the Oedogonium was reproducing. Swollen cells were acting as eggs (oogonia), and some had tiny attachments – dwarf “males” (or antheridia) – that were fertilizing the oogonia (males can be produced by neighbouring filaments or the same filament). Following fertilisation, red-brown, tough-walled zygotes had formed, ready to germinate into a new filament if conditions were right, or to sit dormant in the dried mud of waterways until the coming rains next season.

Oedogonium algae filaments with sulfur bacteria, oogonium (egg) and antheridium (male). Photos: B. Baldock.

It’s a pity that algal growth in our waterways such as that described above is denigrated. We are conditioned into thinking water bodies should be clear and blue, a state generally signalling they are sterile and lack vibrant, living ecosystems.

And, we rightly fear the appearance of the grey-green scum of toxic, blue-green “algae” that may form in waterways towards the end of summer. But, to be correct, “blue-greens” are bacteria, not true algae. This bacterium blooms at the boundary between an upper, warm, brightly lit layer and a nutrient-rich, cooler bottom layer that forms in still, non-flowing bodies of water. In cities, the nutrients generally come from wastewater run-off, including garden fertilizer and domestic pet excrement.

As a response to blooms of organisms in freshwater we seasonally often add our own toxins such as copper salts and hydrogen peroxide to kill them, wrecking benign living aquatic communities that may have helped in past times to obviate the threat of these blue-greens, by denying them excessive nutrients and establishing broader and more stable food-pyramids.

I hope you agree with me that green ”slime” can be more interesting than its name suggests. And perhaps you might appreciate it, understand its complexities and learn to live with it rather than try to obliterate it.

Further information

  • Entwisle, T.J., Sonneman, J.A. & Lewis, S.L. (1997). Freshwater algae in Australia. (Sydney : Sainty & Associates). – The book is being converted to a website, part of which is already available online.
  • CSIRO (2021). What are blue-green algae. [accessed: September 6, 2021].

Written by Hon. Research Associate Bob Baldock.