Bishop Museum Botanist Finds Undiscovered Plants in Papua New Guinea

The Plant Hunter: This Bishop Museum botanist travels the world to find undiscovered species.

James with some of the Bishop Museum’s Herbarium collection.

photo: david croxford

When Shelley James broke her arm in the bush of Papua New Guinea, a dreadlocked, tattooed medicine woman carefully wrapped stinging nettle leaves around her skin to create a poultice. James was a two-day hike from her pick up point and her plane wasn’t scheduled to arrive for three days after that. “The plant has stinging hairs that release an irritating poison,” says James, rubbing her left arm, which is still pink from the cast. “The leaves increased the circulation of blood flow so I didn’t get as much swelling as I would’ve if it was left untreated.”

James didn’t need convincing of the woman’s know-how or the plant’s coaxing powers. She’s an associate botanist for Bishop Museum. For the past two years, James has led scientists on expeditions to remote forests across the country. The project aims to discover new plant and animal species in one of the most species-rich countries in the world.

To document the work, plant samples go to Bishop Museum’s Herbarium Pacificum (BISH), a reference collection of more than 750,000 plant, algae and fungi specimens, mostly from Hawaii and the Pacific Basin. Here, the samples are photographed, scanned and uploaded to the museum’s online database, becoming an invaluable resource for scientists around the world. BISH was started in 1896 and, unsurprisingly, some of its plants are no longer found in the wild. There are even plants from Captain Cook’s third and final voyage to Hawaii.

Stinging nettle helped keep the swelling of Shelley James’ broken arm down.

James’ focus is on vascular plants, which have only begun to be cataloged in Papua New Guinea. (Vascular plants are those with vessels—a plumbing system, if you will.) Experts speculate there are between 11,000 and 25,000 species in the region, but that’s a wild guess, really.

The reason: Papua New Guinea is not an easy place to do research. It’s expensive, it’s extremely humid, which affects samples, and its diverse geography can make regions hard to access. But documenting species can help identify priority areas for conservation (think climate change and logging) and even lead to medical breakthroughs. “There could be medical chemistry associated with some of these plants that could help fight cancer or AIDS,” she says.

James, originally from Australia, tall, with strawberry-blonde hair and blue eyes, does not blend in in the field. The team hires local community members who help collect samples, share knowledge of where species are located, and even cook and set up camp. “In the villages everyone stares a lot; they’re just curious about what we’re doing and why we’re so interested in their plants,” she says. When James broke her arm, several women gathered around her while she was being treated. “They were all bawling their eyes out with sympathy for me,” she says. “It was sweet.” Why does she do it? “I’ve been in some hairy situations, but I love the field work,” she says. “It’s just one big adventure.”