Congratulations Hellmut Toelken!

Dr Hellmut Toelken has devoted his career (and ‘retirement’) to the taxonomy and systematics of South African and Australian flora. Over this time he has contributed roughly 6000 collections to African herbaria, and over 3600 to Australian herbaria (of which around 1400 are databased). He named 412 taxa, authored over 72 publications (14 in retirement, mind you), revised two large genera, Crassula and Hibbertia, as well as the Australian species of Kunzea. Hellmut even had one genus names after him, Toelkenia P.V.Heath (now a synonym of Crassula), as well as one species and one hybrid: Kunzea toelkenii de Lange and Kalanchoe
xtoelkenii Gideon F.Sm.

The 45th anniversary of his first day at the State Herbarium is coming up next month, but where did his journey begin?

From South Africa…

Map of South West Africa, indicating the location of Hellmut’s family farm.

Hellmut was born in Windhoek, South West Africa (now Namibia) and lived on a farm in the bush. The aftermath of WWII made petrol scarce, and therefore overpriced, ruling out the option of a daily 101 km trek to the nearest town of Gobabis for school. Instead he headed off to boarding school in Windhoek, 402 km from home, at the age of 8.

His interest in plants began with gardening on the farm, as well as cultivating flowers and succulents at school, and solidified with a Bachelor of Science from Stellenbosch University (1961), followed by an Honours Degree (1962), Masters (1965), PhD (1974) and even a lecturing position in botany at the University of Cape Town.

During his time in South Africa, Hellmut worked at the Botanical Research Institute in Pretoria on the genus Crassula (Crassulaceae) in particular, authoring the 2-volume A Revision of the Genus Crassula in Southern Africa (1977), based on his PhD thesis. From 1974 to 1976 he was the South African Botanical Liaison Officer at the Kew Herbarium. 

Hellmut Toelken as a young boy (LEFT) and as university student in 1961 (RIGHT).

To South Australia…

In April 1979, Hellmut immigrated to Australia and had all of two days holiday before commencing at the State Herbarium of South Australia. Not only did he have to adapt to a new country, but also its new and unique environment. He describes a 9-week field trip with fellow State Herbarium botanist Bob Chinnock in Sep. 1979 as being a good (though perhaps intensive) opportunity to become familiar with the flora of his new home.

Fortunately, Hellmut was able to continue researching some of the families and genera he had become an expert on in Africa, such as Crassula and Carpobrotus (Crassulaceae), which are also found in Australia, though sometimes as weeds. As Senior Botanist, he contributed to, and co-edited Flowering Plants in Australia (1983) and the revised, 4th edition of Flora of South Australia (1986). During this time, he also authored the Crassulaceae volume of the Flora of Southern Africa (1985).

In 1995 he first published research on Hibbertia (Dilleniaceae), particularly eastern and northern Australian species, which has become the primary focus of his research for the past 14 years and earned him renown as a world expert.

Master taxonomist

Different hair types in Hibbertia tomentosae group. First published in Toelken, J. Adelaide Bot. Gard. Vol. 23: 6 (2010).

A critical contribution to the taxonomy of Hibbertia was Hellmut’s method for describing, identifying and determining relationships within a large northern Australian group including Hibbertia tomentosa (previously called the “Tomentosae”). Species identification usually begins with morphological characters, such as differences in the organs of a flower. However, Hibbertia flowers can be strikingly similar: often with yellow petals and little obvious variation to the naked eye. Instead, Hellmut looked beyond the flowers to the microscopic trichomes (hairs that occur on many parts of the plants) to separate species. Individually each hair type has a distinct morphology that can be described in detail and differentiated from other hair types: ranging from simple and straight, to hooked, star-like or even scale-like. Using these hairs is invaluable as they provide the diagnostic differences to help separate species, and allows identification in sparse or dated collections.

Hibbertia fumana, described by Hellmut Toelken in 2011 from specimens collected in the early 1800s. Image: G.R.M. Dashorst.

Because a thorough description of a species can lead to further individuals or populations being found, Hellmut’s work has also been pivotal for conservation. Hibbertia fumana (from New South Wales) was thought extinct, before being unknowingly rediscovered as part of a biological survey 190 years after it was first collected. Hellmut realised some of the specimens were the supposedly extinct Hibbertia, and was able to revise its description with much more detail including that of the fruit and seed (which weren’t present in the three original herbarium specimens), illustrations, and photographs. This detailed treatment put the species back on collector radars, and the additional described characteristics allowed for field identification. All of this taxonomic work led to a population of 370 living plants being found, pulling the species well and truly out of extinction. And that is just one of 379 species described by Hellmut!

Hellmut’s advice for budding taxonomists?

Use your initiative and look beyond flowers. He touts the importance of physical collections and morphological examination in tandem with molecular analysis, and says that field trips are the best part of the job.

Written by State Herbarium staff member Jem Barratt.

Happy Taxonomist Appreciation Day!

This day was declared 11 years ago when Californian researcher and Associate Professor in Biology Terry McGlynn decided to boost appreciation of these critical scientists. As the science of organism classification (identifying, naming, describing and ordering), taxonomy underpins all other biological sciences. You need to know what something is in order to study it further: Learn its chemical and physical properties, mimic it for human inventions, or conserve it in the wild. As McGlynn himself said:

Without taxonomists, entire fields wouldn’t exist. We’d be working in darkness.

Whether you realise it or not, you are interested in taxonomy, or at least you use it. When you send your friend a picture of an interesting flower or potential weed you found in your garden, you are seeking to understand taxonomy.

On a grander scale, climate change and the current biodiversity crisis are pressing environmental concerns that cannot be tackled without taxonomy. Experts in some species groups are scarce, and taxonomy itself is a dying art. This is why we say thank you to our taxonomists, and why we encourage people to consider this path for their (and the world’s) future.

Thanks Herbie!

As for the State Herbarium of South Australia in particular: In the year preceding this 2024 Taxonomist Appreciation Day, staff and Honorary research associates published 40 new Australian taxa (species and subspecies) and 3 new combinations (such as the transfer of an existing species to another genus). In addition, botanists from other institutions published 5 new species and 16 new combinations in our journal Swainsona.

Three new species published during the last year: Ptilotus ostentans, Hibbertia fulva and P. durus. Photos: G. Krygsman, K. Brennan & D.J. Duval.

Some of the newly published species are pictures above, they include: Ptilotus ostentans from Western Australia described by Tim Hammer and R.W. Davis; Hibbertia fulva from the Northern Territory published by Tim Hammer; a rare Ptilotus was also published by Terena Lally from the Australian National Herbarium, P. durus, after having been discovered during fieldwork of the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre, several years ago.

On Taxonomist Appreciation Day, we are grateful to all taxonomists who tirelessly describe the world’s biodiversity, but today we would like to highlight the outstanding contributions of long-time researcher, staff member and now Honorary Research Associate Dr Hellmut Toelken, who published a whopping 85% of the herbarium’s 2023-24 taxonomic work.

Two examples of species described by Hellmut can be seen below: Hibbertia prorufa from Sydney (photo: T. Hammer) and H. pustulifolia from the Blue Mountains.

Two species described by H.R. Toelken (from left to right): Hibbertia prorufa and H. pustulifolia. Photos: T.A. Hammer.

So please think of all the toiling taxonomists out there today and pass on your gratitude. Even better, if you are interested in this field, why not pursue taxonomy yourself? With an estimated 75% of Australian biodiversity still to be discovered and described, there’s clearly a pressing need. Maybe we’ll be thanking you and highlighting your contributions in years to come.

Written by State Herbarium staff member Jem Barratt.

New Journal article: Mar. 2024

The State Herbarium of South Australia published one article in Vol. 38 of its journal Swainsona today, 1 Mar. 2024.

P.C. Jobson, A new species of Senna (Fabaceae: Caesalpinioideae: Cassieae) from the Top End, Northern Territory (1.2mb PDF).

The author from the National Herbarium of New South Wales describes the new species Senna arcuata, which was previously known under the phrase name Senna sp. Pine Creek (P.Martensz 480). It occurs in the Top End region of the Northern Territory, in a broad arc from Maranboy to Pine Creek, and from Mary River and Kakadu National Parks to Ramingining in central Arnhemland.

Senna arcuata, a new species from the Northern Territory. Photo: K. Brennan.

To access content of all volumes of Swainsona and the Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens since Vol. 1 (1976), please visit the journal’s web-site at

New Journal articles: Feb. 2024 (2)

The State Herbarium of South Australia published two further articles in Vol. 38 of its journal Swainsona today, 19 Feb. 2024.

The new species Hibbertia prorufa, near Sydney. Photo: T.A. Hammer.

(1) H.R. Toelken, Notes on Hibbertia subgen. Hemistemma (Dilleniaceae) – 13. The eastern Australian H. acicularis and H. perhamata groups (4.4mb PDF).

Hon. Research Associate Hellmut Toelken continues his revision of Hibbertia in eastern Australia with this contribution on two groups of species allied to the well-known H. acicularisH. exutiacies and H. rufa. In the paper, 36 species are described in detail, of these 28 are new to science. Most species occur in New South Wales and Queensland, a few also in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.

(2) D. Nicolle, Transfer of residual species and subspecies from Angophora and Corymbia to Eucalyptus (Myrtaceae) (0.1mb PDF).

In this SHORT COMMUNICATION, Dean Nicolle from the Currency Creek Arboretum publishes several new combinations in the genus Eucalyptus for species that are so far only known as Corymbia or Angophora. This is in order to make the names available to people, who prefer to use a large single genus Eucalyptus, incl. AngophoraCorymbia and the recently published Blackella (Crisp et al. 2024).

To access content of all volumes of Swainsona and the Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens since Vol. 1 (1976), please visit the journal’s web-site at

New Journal articles: Feb. 2024 (1)

The State Herbarium of South Australia published two articles in Vol. 38 of its journal Swainsona today, 2 Feb. 2024.

(1) J.L. Dowe & P.S. Short, The Gullivers’ travels: Thomas Allen Gulliver (1848–1931), Benjamin John Gulliver (1851–1938) and Susannah Gulliver (1857–1938): their contribution to Australian natural history and horticulture (7.6mb PDF).

Isotoma gulliveri from northern Queensland, named by Ferdinand von Mueller after Thomas Gulliver. Photo: D. Albrecht.

The authors report on the history of the natural history collections of the Gulliver siblings, who were active in the late 1800s. After a short biography of the family, they discuss the different periods in their lives: Thomas and Benjamin Gulliver provided plant and animal specimens for Museums and Herbaria. Their sister Susannah collected plants at a more limited scale.

The main focus of the article is the plant collections from New South Wales, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Queensland, which are now mainly found at the National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (K), with lesser numbers at other institutions. Lectotypes are chosen for some names that were published from Gulliver collections.

(2) T.A. Hammer & R.W. Davis, Ptilotus ostentans (Amaranthaceae), a new species from Western Australia segregated from Ptilotus seminudus. (2.5mb PDF).

Ptilotus ostentans, newly described by Tim Hammer and Rob Davis. Photo: G. Krygsman.

A new species of Ptilotus from southern Western Australia is described. Distinguishing characters and photographs are provided to separate it from the related P. seminudus, which is now restricted to South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

To access content of all volumes of Swainsona and the Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens since Vol. 1 (1976), please visit the journal’s web-site at