Step inside the life of a professional seed hunter

Botanist Gavin Phillips has spent the past six years searching for the rare and endangered Torrington Pea.

He never imagined finding a budding plant on the second-last day of his career as a professional "seed hunter".

Hired by Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, seed collectors gather and monitor samples from native plants, ranging from orchards to indigenous bush foods. 

"I'm one of only a few that do this in the country," Mr Phillips said.

"There's probably only one or two of us … in each state."

'Most satisfying find' in career

The Torrington Pea is known as a "bacon and egg" plant due to its colouring, only growing in the Torrington state conservation area (SCA) near the Queensland-New South Wales border.

It is one of the thousands of threatened species that have been tracked by the Australian Plant Bank west of Sydney, as part of its Saving Our Species program.

The Torrington Pea, commonly referred to as "bacon and eggs".(Supplied: Gavin Phillips)

The manager of the Royal Botanic Garden's seed bank and restoration research, Peter Cuneo, said seed hunters would take up to fifty trips per year across the state to find seeds.

"It's one of the most major native seed banks in Australia," Dr Cuneo said.

"The Torrington Pea however is very hard to locate. It's spindly; it only occurs in swamps above 900 metres altitude."

"[Seed hunters]  will have to go to very unusual areas to try and find plants like this."

A trip through the Torrington SCA in late November was Mr Phillips' last seed hunting venture, before moving roles inside the Plant Bank. 

On his second last day, a seeding Torrington Pea was found. 

Dr Cuneo said that although it had taken a seed hunter like Mr Phillips six years to track down a seeding plant, it was not uncommon. 

"You can go up to ten years tracking down a single specimen," he said.

Researchers will now collect, dry, and store the seeds at the Australian Plant Bank. 

"We'll also germinate a few of the seeds, to test its viability," Dr Cuneo said.

"It's almost an insurance policy for these native plants, if they almost go extinct."

The Australian Botanic Garden's seed vault has 15 researchers studying the native rainforest and threatened species seeds for landscape restoration work.(ABC Rural: Sarina Locke)

For Mr Phillips, it was one of the most satisfying finds of his career.

"The Torrington Pea had frustrated me. I had found a couple of plants over the years that never flowered," he said. 

This year, researchers have focused on areas affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires, which proved to be a positive for the elusive pea.

"Those fires had created a whole range of seeding plants," Mr Phillips said.

"It's a really good way to wind up this trip and wind up my job."

Mr Phillips is now looking into formal endangered listings for plants in his new role.

Inside the life of a seed hunter

An ordinary day for Mr Phillips ran from enduring the sweltering humidity of a creek bed to scaling a mountain. 

For plants such as the Torrington Pea, seed hunters will make several trips to the same area and same plant, to monitor its life and track when it will flower. 

Mr Phillips surrounded by white mountain ash trees that were burnt during the 2019-20 bushfire season.(Supplied: Gavin Phillips)

High time of the collecting season usually starts in November where there's a late spring,  through to February.

"I've probably done more than a hundred treks across New South Wales," he said.

"When we're looking for one small plant for example, we use a mapping-grab GPS to find it again.

"Sometimes you're just looking for a plant that is a centimetre high."

Mr Phillips says kangaroos are the natural enemy of a seed hunter. 

"Especially for things like orchards, because they are juicy, like lollies to kangaroos," he said. 

"You can be tracking a plant for years, and all that work marking it out is gone, especially in times of drought."

Mr Phillips is no stranger to finding extremely rare seeds in a variety of locations, from swamp banks to high mountains.(Supplied: Gavin Phillips)

Mr Phillips first entered the seed collecting industry looking to complement his love of the outdoors. 

"I grew up rock climbing; my family had a property, and it's been such a satisfying career path."

"It's a bit of a unique job."

How anyone can be a seed hunter 

Mr Phillips said there was a lot that the average Australian can do to help seed hunters like himself. 

Seed hunters regularly look at plant databases and other people's observations online. 

"Everyone has a phone with a camera," he said. 

Mr Phillips says bushwalkers are a treasure trove for everyday plant sightings.(Supplied: Gavin Phillips)

"There's so many apps now, like iNaturalist, which track plants, no matter how unusual."

He also urged people to take photos of plants that weren't just flowers. 

"If people would start recording things like fruiting trees, or when seeds are coming out, that information comes to seed hunters."

"Something as simple as that is such a big help to people like me."

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