Christobel Mattingley tells of the extraordinary talent of Deny King in seeking out hitherto unknown specimens—and even new species—of flora in Tasmania
Charles Denison King AM (1909–1991), better known as Deny King, was one of the great bushmen of the twentieth century. His biography, King of the Wilderness, published this _year, details his many significant contributions to knowledge of Australian flora and fauna. Through his fieldwork, several species new to science were discovered and described.
Born in Tasmania’s Huon Valley, Deny King had only one year of formal schooling at the age of six before the family moved to an isolated selection in the Huon hinterland. It was a deliberate choice on his parents’ part, to educate their four children to be observant and self-reliant.
Deny could not have had a better tutor in bushcraft than his father, Charlie King, Boer War veteran and experienced prospector. Deny’s mother supervised lessons at the kitchen table and encouraged the children to write to the Hobart Library for books on subjects which stimulated their curious young minds, such as bird migration and plant genetics. Books were valued and Leonard Rodway’s Tasmanian Flora (1903) and J.A. Leach’s An Australian Bird Book: A Pocket Book for Field Use (1911) were carefully carried on every expedition into the little-explored country surrounding them.
With his enquiring mind and insatiable appetite for facts about the natural world, Deny sought information from the Tasmanian Museum. The staff, impressed by his detailed, precise knowledge of his home territory, recruited him as a collector. As a result of his collecting through the Huon and Lake Pedder region in the 1930s, Deny acquired a reputation as reliable, resourceful and observant in the field.
Charlie King, already a collector for the Australian Museum, went to mine tin in wild south-west Tasmania (now a World Heritage area), followed later by Deny. Other scientists became aware of his work and, after World War II, many major institutions sought his assistance. Academics and researchers developed deep respect for his knowledge, high regard for his efforts in the cause of science and appreciation of his generosity with his time. The authenticity of his information, gathered from observation and familiarity with his unique environment, was already established and its value undisputed.
Deny was always painstaking in preparing material for dispatch, aware how long it might be in transit from isolated Port Davey and the conditions under which it had to travel. The first stage was by fishing boat until, in 1957, Deny completed construction of an airstrip for light aircraft on the button grass plain at Melaleuca, where he lived with his wife and two daughters. His meticulous packing ensured that specimens, which had taken so much of his time and effort to collect, arrived in first-class order.
Deny’s longest and most fruitful collaboration was with Dr Winifred Curtis of the University of Tasmania's Botany Department. In 1952, the Tasmanian Museum passed on to her specimens Deny had sent for identification. She was interested to discover that one, Eriostemon virgatum, already known from the east coast and Macquarie Harbour, was also found near Port Davey. Curtis was working on a new book, The Student’s Flora of Tasmania (1956), and offered her help in identifying plants. King and Curtis corresponded for almost 40 years, and specimens Deny sent contributed significantly to knowledge of Tasmanian flora.
In March 1965, she wrote to Deny acknowledging that ‘The whole collection was extremely interesting.’ Items included a species of Euphrasia, (eyebright), not yet officially named. She referred to ‘the beautifully pressed specimens’, enquiring whether the plant was annual or perennial, the flower colour, range and locations, requesting details about other Euphrasia species, and more material.
She identified another specimen, with delicate white starry five-petalled flowers, as Oschatzia saxifraga, saying she had never seen fresh material before and very little had been collected. Referring to her own revisions for Rodway’s Tasmanian Flora, she stated that, given Deny’s information, perhaps her distribution description was inaccurate and she should correct it in the next edition.
The third specimen was of even greater interest. It was a plant Deny had discovered in 1937 in only one location. In 1965 he found another elsewhere. Curtis wrote:
Deny’s curiosity and enthusiasm were aroused and in spring 1965 he set out on an arduous walk to collect the desired specimens. He dug six suckers and cut a section of the wood. It was a momentous day’s collecting.
Deny was elated by Curtis’s letter acknowledging receipt of the specimens. ‘The arrival of this box of treasures caused considerable excitement in the botany department. I do sincerely appreciate all that you and Mrs King have done to ensure that these plants shall reach us.’ She told him she hoped to visit the Melbourne and Canberra herbaria shortly and would take the opportunity to examine all available Lomatia species. ‘However, I shall be surprised if I can match your plant, I think it is an undescribed species.’ Deny’s excitement mounted when he read that Curtis thought the Euphrasia he had sent was also a new species.
Both species indeed proved to be new to science.
The Euphrasia was endemic to the Port Davey area and duly named Euphrasia kingii. Growing in peaty heathlands and mountains, it is conspicuous and attractive, erect in growth with small serrated dark green leaves setting off clustered lobelia-like flowers. Usually white, sometimes pale lilac or deep purplish blue, these may be striated crimson or purple. Curtis’s description in The Endemic Flora of Tasmania (1967–1978) concludes: ‘The species is named in honour of Mr Charles Denison King who collected the specimen, designated the type, and who has done much to increase knowledge of the flora of south-west Tasmania.’
The Lomatia find was even more remarkable. Deny had discovered the only two plants known. He sent further specimens in flower at the end of January 1966, advising by telegram of their arrival, to ensure collection from the airport before a hot long weekend. On dissecting this new material, Curtis was able to confirm it belonged to the genus Lomatia. It was later named Lomatia tasmanica and Deny was recognised for this unique find in the plant’s common name, Kings lomatia or Kings holly.
Grevillea-like, with glossy green leaves and crimson flower spike, Lomatia tasmanica has been found only in south-west Tasmania. The plant Deny discovered in 1937 seems to have disappeared and the one from which he took specimens is now protected by an Act of Parliament. Neither fruits nor seedlings have been found. Recent research has led to what is thought to be the oldest known plant clone. Fossil leaves from the area have been dated by radiocarbon tests as at least 43 600 years old.
In 1972, Deny was responsible for another amazing find. This was an orchid that had been collected only once before, in 1893 in the Port Davey area, by Rev. John Bufton. It had never been found again anywhere. Bufton sent specimens to Ferdinand von Mueller at Melbourne Herbarium; they remained there unidentified until 1949. The plant was finally published as a new species article J.H. Willis, Papers and Proceedings of Royal Society Tasmania.
And then the search was on. Orchidologist David Jones wrote to Deny, describing the challenge. ‘You are the only person in Australia in a position to re-find the species.’
Deny’s inveterate curiosity, allied with his keen eye and unique knowledge of the terrain, equipped him well for the search. The 8 centimetres high orchid was said to grow only in heathland, bearing in autumn insignificant greenish brown flowers, only 2 to 3.5 millimetres in size. In February 1973, he found a colony of the tiny orchids on the Rowitta Plains north of Bathurst Harbour. Deny’s daughter Mary remembers returning from a four-day walk to the Western Arthurs when her father said, ‘We’d better start looking out for Curty’s [sic] orchid.’ Then only minutes later he spotted it. He had recognised a likely location—a bare patch burnt several years previously, on an elevated well-drained site, rocky with rather poor soil.
So less than a year after Deny received Jones’s letter, Curtis wrote, ‘You have found Prasophyllum buftonianum, collected in 1893 and not seen since! It is an exciting find.’
They made pilgrimages each year to see it, until Deny discovered it one autumn growing on the bank near the airstrip, in a firebreak only a few hundred yards from the house! This proved to his satisfaction the necessity for burning off to regenerate some species.
In 1966, Deny also received a request to collect for the Irish botanical enthusiast and art lover, Lord Talbot de Malahide, who made a flying visit to Melaleuca from his property Malahide in north-east Tasmania in January 1964. Deny’s help with 19 species was solicited. Because of Talbot’s passion for rare plants and his interest in Tasmania, he had initiated and funded the comprehensive and prestigious six-volume publication The Endemic Flora of Tasmania, commissioning eminent Australian artist Margaret Stones as illustrator and Winifred Curtis to write the text. Curtis sent two of the precious orchids to Stones at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London.
In 1974, Deny’s help was again sought, this time collecting a species of banksia described as Banksia insularis by Matthew Flinders’ botanist, Robert Brown in 1802, and also for locating fossil leaf material. Interest stimulated, Deny later sent specimens of ancient banksia fragments unearthed in mining, which he believed to be undescribed. Scientists, however, thought they were probably the common Banksia marginata, so they joined the uncatalogued backlog. Finally analysed in 1991, they were recognised as a hitherto unknown species, now extinct. They had been preserved in a sedimentary bed at least 38 000 years earlier. The species was named Banksia kingii, in recognition of Deny. Palaeobotanist Dr Greg Jordan wrote ‘He discovered the deposit, encouraged its study and gave freely of his local knowledge and hospitality.’
Another botanist Deny assisted was Mervyn Davis, whom Deny took to many locations around Port Davey. Davis’s list for the area at the Tasmanian Herbarium includes 51 specimens of over 40 species. In the summer of 1991, only months before his death at 81, Deny was still assisting botanists with fieldwork.
Deny’s interest was not confined to plants. Every form of living creature received his respectful attention, so entomologists, marine biologists, zoologists and ornithologists also sought his assistance, which will be described in a second article in the next issue of National Library of Australia News.
CHRISTOBEL MATTINGLEY AM, DUnivSA, is the author of King of the Wilderness: The Life of Deny King, which was released to critical acclaim in August 2001 and has already been reprinted twice. Mattingley’s papers are held in the National Library’s Manuscript Collection
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