Greg Bourke: Carnivorous Plant Hunter

Unlike me, Greg Bourke is a proper plant hunter. His holidays are spent submerged in swamps in far north Queensland, climbing mountains in Malaysia, and avoiding crocodiles in the wetlands of the Northern Territory. All for the love of the flesh-hungry sinners of the botanical world, carnivorous plants.

Greg Bourke, image by Jeremiah Harris

Greg grew up near the Royal National park south of Sydney and spent much of his childhood immersed in nature. He had his first encounter with carnivorous plants when he was five – he discovered sundews (Drosera spp.) in the bush near his house. It was David Attenborough, though, who really got him excited about carnivorous plants in his documentary series The Private Life of Plants.

Greg had always loved gardening and nature in general, but after seeing the madness and unique design of the flesh-eating fiends on the television screen he was hooked.

Fast forward 20 years and Greg is now one of Australia’s foremost experts on carnivorous plants. One would expect, then, that he’d spent his working life studying them. But, no, he’s entirely self-taught, and is actually an electrician by trade. He was interested in studying marine biology or science in high school but his school careers advisor talked him out of it. “She said ‘Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no money or work in that field. Go and get a trade!’ So, I went and became an electrician. I don’t know why I listened to her,” he says. Greg then spent many years working all over Australia building telecommunications networks, which also allowed him to indulge his plant passion. He tells me he’d spend a few days working, then the rest of his time looking at plants.

Luckily for him, Greg has since managed to unite his working life and plant passion – for the last five years he’s been working at the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens at Mount Tomah. He started off in infrastructure management, and now he’s the curator/manager. The big boss.

Utricularia fulva at Gunlom, Northern Territory, Australia
A praying mantis inspecting a Nepenthes rowana at Sanameer Lagoon, Cape York, Australia
Drosera lasiantha flower
Cephalotus follicularis, Albany pitcher plant
Drosera graniticola at Marble Rocks, Western Australia
Drosera murffeti and Drosera arcturi growing together at the Hartz Mountains, Tasmania, Australia

In 2001 Greg made his first trip to Malaysia to hunt pitcher plants in the wild. He returned every year for around 10 years, running tours to fund his plant hunting exploits, which involved climbing mountains no one had ever climbed before to look for plants. He even managed to discover and describe four new species in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia!

“It’s an addiction,” he says of plant hunting. “Pitcher plants are so distinctive – you know even from 10 meters away it’s a new species.

To find and see a new species in the wild is up there with the birth of my first child.  It’s just awesome.”

Since the birth of his second child, Greg’s plant hunting adventures have taken a more local turn. His focus has switched to the less extravagant but no less interesting Australian carnivorous plants, of which there are around 240 species. He likes them, he says, because “like Australian people, Australian carnivorous plants are battlers.”

Like all true plant hunters Greg’s focus is as much on the hunt itself as it is on the specific species he’s looking for. “What attracts me more than anything else is getting out there and trying to find a rare or difficult-to-find species, seeing it in the wild, documenting and learning about it,” he says.

His latest fascination is with a pitcher plant endemic to Cape York in Queensland. “This plant has pitchers that can hold around half a litre of fluid and we don’t know why,” he says. “Most South-East Asian pitcher plants with big traps are usually associated with a specific animal, but this one in Cape York – no one knows what it’s associated with.” Greg is on the hunt to find out, which means spending days in swamps, evading mosquitos and crocodiles. He’s had a few close encounters, he tells me, but clearly he’s not perturbed. He’s a man on a mission.

Cephalotus follicularis, Western Australia
Drosera erythrorhiza sub species collina

This thirst for knowledge and understanding so evident in Greg’s approach seems to be in short supply when it comes to carnivorous plants. Surprisingly (to me), learning more about Australian native carnivorous plants, including their potential medicinal value, doesn’t seem to be high on the list of sexy science projects for funding… It seems there’s still a long way to go to understand the murderous munchers and their value, and in the meantime “a number of Australian carnivorous plant species are known to be extinct and many more are critically endangered,” according to Greg.

The factors affecting the survival of Australia’s native flesh-eaters are unsurprising. “Agriculture as well as urban sprawl are the main factors affecting native carnivorous plants in Western Australia,” says Greg.

Fire control techniques are also a problem – Carnivorous plants are pioneers, they love fire coming through but if it’s at the wrong time of year, they can’t cope.”

In the Northern Territory – another carnivorous plant hot-spot – the plants are primarily under threat from weeds. “Introduced African grasses are a big problem for the carnivorous plants around Darwin,” Greg says. The introduced grasses are taller and denser than the Australian native species which means the dry season fires end up being hotter and more intensive burning. This, in turn, damages the carnivorous seed bank in the soil, with potentially devastating results.

A deepening understanding of the vulnerability of Australian carnivorous plants is high on the agenda at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) workshop at Kew Gardens in London this week, where Greg and two other Australian experts will assess all known Australian carnivorous plants for their ecological vulnerability. “The species that are listed as vulnerable or critically endangered will hopefully raise red flags to local governments and institutions,” Greg says.

Greg’s trip doesn’t end with the IUCN workshop though. Following it is the International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference, also at Kew Gardens. I ask Greg, albeit cheekily, about the demographic of the conference attendees.

Let’s just say I’m pretty unique amongst the carnivorous plant world in that I’ve got a wife and kids,” he tells me.

If only I could be a fly on the wall at the conference, I say. Actually, not a good idea. I’d be dinner for a hungry chlorophyllic creature in no time.

A carnivorous plant conference is no place for a fly.

All images supplied by Greg Bourke and The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden.

Drosera serpens, Sanamere Lagoon, Cape York, Queensland
Drosera aquatica at Girraween Lagoon, Howard Springs, Northern Territory, Australia