Article and photo by Roy Skabo
Hibbertia rufa                                          Dilleniaceae
Brown Guinea Flower

Hibbertia rufa
Tasmania has fourteen species of guinea flowers, the common name for members of the genus Hibbertia. They are easy to identify as a group because all but one of the Tasmanian species have five showy yellow petals which are slightly indented at the rounded tips. Some species have large flowers and make very good garden plants. They are not really suitable for the vase as they lose their petals quite readily.  Many of the species are very common and several of them, including a number of rare species, grow in the Break       O' Day municipality. Hibbertia rufa’s common name comes from the reddish-brown colour of its branches. Its petals, though small, are similar to those of other Tasmanian species.

One of my favourite places for botanising (i.e. having a nice walk and looking at flowers) is a wet buttongrass heath a few kilometres west of The Gardens and about 2 km east of  the Ansons Bay Rd, north of St Helens (located in Tasmania's north-east). This wet button grass heathland is part of the Doctors Peak Forest Reserve. It is rather like an archipelago with the “sea” being the low-lying swampy areas and the “islands” being very low rises covered in dry sclerophyll woodland. The whole area is dissected by small creeks which drain into either the Ansons Bay River or the Georges River.

On 1st December 2008, during yet another visit to the area, I noticed a tiny-flowered (1cm diameter) prostrate Hibbertia which I could not put a name to. Because a storm was approaching, I took a small sample and a GPS reading and did not bother with any other details.

On returning to Launceston I tried to key out the Hibbertia, and found that the only species to match my specimen was the “extinct” Hibbertia rufa. Not quite believing my tentative identification, I sent the specimen to Alex Buchanan at the Tasmanian Herbarium and awaited his verdict. Within 24 hours I had an email from Alex saying that he thought I was correct. By coincidence, however, the only Tasmanian Herbarium record for Hibbertia rufa (from the collection of Leonard Rodway and dating from 1892) was on loan to the South Australian Herbarium where Dr Hellmut Toelken is making a study of Hibbertia species, including some found in Tasmania. I sent him a specimen of my plant and within a couple of days he emailed that he also agreed with the identification.

Over the next few weeks a considerable effort was made to find further populations of H. rufa and it is now known to have a range extending from just north of Priory (near St Helens) to the area where I first found it.  Several thousand plants have been seen and the plant is now likely to be listed as “rare” which is an unusual downgrade for a plant thought to be extinct in Tasmania.

To find a species which had not been seen in Tasmania for nearly 120 years and was thought to be extinct in this State (although it occurs near the NSW/Victoria border) has been a huge pleasure for me. It was also nice to be the first to photograph it in Tasmania.

I wonder exactly where Leonard Rodway found his specimen, which he annotated as being in the Georges Bay area. This was in the days before GPS and botanists at that time did not seem to worry too much about providing details for the locations of their discoveries.

The area around the Bay of Fires and Georges Bay contains a large number of rare and threatened plant species.  The most notable of these is the Davies wax flower which grows only in Tasmania. (see Federation Flower) With only thirty or so plants in the wild and all of these on the banks of the Georges River, it must be one of the rarest plants in the world (although it is easy to propagate and grows well in the garden). I am pleased to have added to the number of these precious species known to exist in this wonderful part of Tasmania.

The rediscovery of the brown guinea flower reminds us of the need to protect our natural heritage. We do not have a complete knowledge of what is out there and it would be a great shame if we lost something before we even knew it existed.

Brown Guinea Flower habitat  (Photo: Jennifer Skabo)
Hibbertia rufa habitat