Rietfontein Poort in Agulhas National Park, the original wagon track ran between the two hills on the left of the picture, the current management road runs to the right of the hills. The insert is of Erica gracilipes (CR) growing in situ in the limestone rocks first collected in 1896 (C. Cowell 2016).

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Environmental change is rapid and biodiversity loss is happening at rates never experienced before.

Against this backdrop, we are still finding plant populations in the same areas where they were first collected over a century ago, thanks to this research.

Biocultural heritage sites show the footprint and impacts made by people on the landscape over time. In the face of ever-growing environmental pressure, declaring protected areas should be a priority in saving biodiversity and heritage.

To prove this, our research used the dried plant pressings or herbarium specimens that described and named a plant species for the first-time. These date back to some of the first botanical explorations of our planet.

Herbarium specimens are directly connected with the collection stories from early botanists; they provide a window on a time past.

The Cape Floristic Region in South Africa, for example, was a popular port of call for early botanical explorers.

Fast forward to today, we spent time in the Agulhas National Park at the southernmost tip of the African continent. Using the historic information in the journals of early explorers to trace back the stories surrounding their collections more than 100 years after collection of herbarium specimens. 

By following in their footsteps, we discovered 29 of 31 original collection sites still had the actual plant populations from which these original cuttings were taken over century ago.

Plant populations like these, where historic specimens were collected, are significant biocultural heritage assets. They are in areas where society and science came together to generate knowledge.

This work proved the case for including botanical collections and their original collection sites under the term biocultural heritage.

Our work also highlights the value of protected areas like national parks through the lens of historical and current botanical sites, in the active role of conserving both biodiversity and cultural heritage for today and the future.

Not only do we use specimens to understand the landscape, but to honour the hardships and friendships forged in the collection and shine a light on the conservation of those precious species.

Harry Bolus (seated left), Max Schlechter (standing) and Rudolf Schlechter (seated right) on a collecting expedition in 1896 (T. Oliver 2004).