Scientific research to save our rarest plants

03 Aug 2022

Dr Karin Van der Walt is the Conservation and Science Advisor at Wellington City Council’s Ōtari Native Botanic Garden.

Karin is applying her in-depth knowledge and experience gained through her academic studies – a MSc in Ecology from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and a PhD in Plant Science through Massey University – to help save some of the rarest plants in New Zealand.

Ōtari boasts a recently upgraded plant science laboratory, enabling Karin to focus on creating genetically representative ex situ (outside of the natural habitat) collections of New Zealand’s flora. Her work integrates pollination ecology, seed biology and plant physiology with biotechnology to create germplasm (seed, embryos, pollen, shoots) banks through conventional seed banking (storage at low moisture contents and low temperatures) and cryopreservation (storage at ultra-low temperatures).

Karin and her two collaborators Jennifer Alderton-Moss (research technician at Ōtari) and Dr Carlos Lehnebach (botany curator at Te Papa) are currently investigating how to grow some of our threatened native orchids. Research indicates that most, if not all, orchid species cannot germinate without the presence of a particular fungal partner. These mycorrhizal fungi can differ for each orchid species and orchids may form a life-long association with a single fungal partner, while other orchids might require different fungi at various stages of the life cycle.

Karin and the team are applying their research to both common and rare native orchids, including green hoods (Pterostylis), spider orchids (Corybas) and potato orchids (Gastrodia). She collects their seeds and uses the upgraded Lions Ōtari plant conservation laboratory  for seed and fungal cryopreservation while she carries out various experiments.  

Being based in Ōtari means Karin enjoys an ideal daily mix of lab work, nursery work and the natural world.

“During break times I walk around Ōtari. I can see which fungus grows where at what times of the year and which plants are fruiting when. I add to my plant knowledge with each walk.”

Originally from South Africa, Karin has been working in threatened plant conservation since 2006. She moved to New Zealand in 2016 and after securing her role as conservation and science advisor, started to do her PhD on a part-time basis. Initially she found it difficult to find a supervisor to enable her to further her study in cryopreservation. Fortunately, just before she decided she might have to study through an Australian University, Dr Jayanthi Nadarajan from Plant and Food Research was able to supervise. Dr Nadarajan was later joined by three Massey supervisors: Dr Svetla Sofkova-Bobcheva, Professor Peter Kemp and Craig McGill.

Karin’s PhD was in “Ex situ conservation of Myrtaceae. A  response to Myrtle Rust in the Pacific Region”. Her thesis is a valuable contribution to the conservation of native flora species and helps us understand the impact of myrtle rust on our native plants. Karin was also a recipient of the Dean’s List of Exceptional Theses. This is an outstanding achievement, acknowledging  all the work Karin and her supervisors put into the development of her thesis.

Karin’s other achievements include serving on the panel for South Africa’s response to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation from 2011 to 2020, being an expert advisor on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and being is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Seed Conservation Specialist Group.

She encourages other people to study plant science as it leads to many incredible research, travel and collaboration opportunities.

“There’s so much in plant science that we just don’t know yet so there are always more research needed. For example, even in New Zealand we don’t know that much about Kauri seed conservation – its best germination and seed storage conditions etc – despite it being such an important species here. It’s rewarding being involved in the research that will hopefully help the survival of native species.”



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