Plant science research , Rangahau Pūtaiao ā-tipu

Our plant scientists research and collaborate on projects in plant breeding, genetics, preserving plant biodiversity, and conservation of New Zealand's native plants.

We're committed to understanding and creating a sustainable future for the unique flora, fauna and land of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Plant scientists from our School of Natural Sciences and School of Agriculture and Environment are involved in collaborative research projects and groups across the College of Sciences, including our indigenous flora seed bank, herbarium and arboretum.

Our research focuses on plant breeding, genetics, preserving plant biodiversity, and conservation of native plants.

New Zealand Indigenous Flora Seed Bank (NZIFSB)

One way to safeguard our indigenous plants is to dry and store seeds at low moisture and temperature in a seed bank. Once banked, seeds will remain viable for decades. Those seeds can then be used to reintroduce plants into areas where they have been lost.

The NZIFSB aims to collect seeds from all flowering plants of New Zealand to conserve the biodiversity within our indigenous flora.

Trained volunteers collect the seeds. After processing, seeds are banked at -20°C in our physical seed bank at the Margot Forde Forage Germ Plasm Centre (AgResearch). We also keep a specimen of each native plant that seeds are collected. This specimen is prepared and stored at the Dame Ella Campbell Herbarium.

As with any bank, withdrawals are possible but only for limited purposes, such as:

  • reintroduction of species where populations have been lost in the wild
  • research projects that will help with ex-situ or in-situ conservation of the species
  • multiplication to replenish seeds in the seed bank.

Since October 2013, over 90 species have been collected and banked.

While the NZIFSB aims to collect seeds from all New Zealand flowering plants, the collecting programme focuses on four target species.

Pohutukawa, rata and other Myrtaceae

The group includes kanuka, manuka, a number of endangered species and the more common pohutukawa and rata.

In 2010 a new disease, myrtle rust, was identified in New South Wales. Myrtle rust attacks species of the family Myrtaceae.

There are 28 Myrtaceae species in New Zealand including pōhutukawa, rata, manuka, kanuka and several climbers. Two Metrosideros bartlettii and Kunzea toelkenii are threatened. Myrtaceae are found in every New Zealand forest. The trees are keystone species of our forests, and manuka is a species of economic importance. These species are potentially at risk from this rust disease, for which, presently, there is no cure.

Seed banking of New Zealand Myrtaceae is underway.

Alpine flora and the forget-me-nots

There are many threatened species of alpine flora. Relatively little is known about their seed biology and behaviour.

Around 500 plant species are found exclusively in the alpine zone. Of those species, around 83 per cent are found only in New Zealand, and about 33 per cent of them are either At Risk or Threatened. Most at risk are the alpine forget-me-nots (Myosotis species), alpine daphne (Pimelea spp.), hebe (Hebe, Chionohebe, Parahebe spp.), the alpine daisies (Celmisia spp.), buttercups (Ranunculus spp.), speargrass (Aciphylla spp.) and gentians (Gentianella spp.).

Alpine flora is threatened by human pressure, browsing animals and climate change. There is limited opportunity for alpine plants to migrate to new environments and if lost, our alpine biodiversity and ecosystems can never be replaced.

Therefore, there is some urgency to conserve these species. Massey University is leading a project to collect, study and store these seeds.

Kowhai and other Fabaceae

The Fabaceae family is significant to this project, as 22 of the 36 species are threatened or at risk.

Kowhai (Sophora) and its relatives encompass some of the best-known flowering plants of the New Zealand flora. Recently, three new species of kowhai have been identified and some of these are of limited distribution with little data on their habitat and behaviour.

Kowhai also has several relatives, including:

  • Native brooms (Carmichaelia species) found mostly in the South Island.
  • Kaka beak (two Clianthus species) is found in very few places on the North Island.

Seventeen species in this group are At Risk or Threatened due to threats in their native habitats, browsing pests and habitat loss.

We aim to safeguard these species until the threats in their habitats are overcome.

Podocarps and forest trees

New Zealand has about 676 woody plant species, with about 252 trees and shrubs and seven vines assessed as threatened.

Broadleaf and coniferous trees and shrubs are the backbones of New Zealand’s forest. The woody flora forms the structure of our forests, and its loss would devastate our forests and off-shore islands.

Conifers from the family Podocarpaceae include rimu, totara, miro and matai. Other indigenous conifers are kauri and the native cypresses kawaka and kaikawaka. Broadleaf trees include tawa, titoki, kohekohe, and rewarewa. The shrub layer of the forest includes species like mahoe, pittosporum, hebe and daisy bushes.

Some 250 tree and shrub species (on-shore and off-shore) are At Risk or Threatened, with kauri and rata also threatened by disease.

A number of species in this group are thought to be desiccation sensitive and therefore cannot be banked under standard conditions. New protocols will need to be developed for these species.

Volunteer with us

We are always looking for people to help us. Volunteers are a vital part of the seed bank project, and there is specific training available for those who volunteer to:

  • collect seeds (anywhere in New Zealand)
  • prepare the seeds for banking (Palmerston North)
  • germinate a selection of seeds (Palmerston North).

Find out more about volunteering

Dame Ella Campbell Herbarium (MPN)

The Dame Ella Campbell Herbarium (MPN) is located on Massey University’s Manawatū campus in Palmerston North.

The herbarium is a collection of dried, pressed plant specimens used for scientific research. The majority of our collection comes from New Zealand, but there are also many specimens from around the world. We currently have 40,000 specimens databased.

Our specimens are prepared with archival-quality materials and intended to last for centuries. They are used for studies related to ecology, geography, systematics, and taxonomy.

If you are a researcher, you can borrow specimens from our collection for your work through an institutional loan.

How specimens are used

Our specimens are often used as a reference to identify new collections.

We compare specimens across a geographical distribution to compare the morphological variation present within a species.

Historical collections housed in herbaria around New Zealand can also provide information about local flora that is no longer present. This information can indicate when a non-native species first appeared in a region or even how the geographic distribution of a species has shifted with climate change.

Herbarium specimens have also become an important source of material for DNA analyses. Through DNA, we can understand phylogenetic relationships between species or assess genetic variation within populations of a single species.

The majority of our collection is from the North Island from the Volcanic Plateau to Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki and south to Wellington. We currently have 40,000 specimens databased, with more being catalogued every day.

Several important collections are housed separately from the main collections, including:

  • Dame Ella Campbell’s bryophyte collections (approximately 3,000 specimens)
  • E A Hodgson’s collection of bryophytes (primarily liverworts, approximately 14,000 specimens)
  • J M McEwen’s collection of Coprosma (including hybrids that he made between species, approximately 1,000 specimens).

If you have an interest in a specific area and would like to find out more, please email Dr Jennifer Tate at

The unique identifier 'MPN'

Every herbarium in the world is given a unique identifier in the Index Herbariorium, a global catalogue of these plant specimen libraries kept by the New York Botanical Garden for the International Plant Science Center. This list is published periodically by the International Association for Plant Taxonomy.

The acronym MPN is given to the Dame Ella Campbell Herbarium at Massey University and is a standard for referring to the institution and its specimens.

Index Herbariorium

International Association for Plant Taxonomy

About Dame Ella Campbell

Dame Ella

Dame Ella Campbell

Massey University’s Herbarium is named after renowned botanist Dame Ella Campbell.

Massey University’s first woman staff member and the only woman staff member for many years, she was a dedicated and passionate botanist.

Dame Ella joined Massey in March 1945, lecturing horticulture and agriculture students about plant morphology and anatomy.

Her primary research interest was the study of liverworts, and her vast collections still contribute to current research on the New Zealand flora. She travelled widely overseas in pursuit of liverworts and became an internationally-accredited orchid judge. She was multi-lingual and once delivered a speech in German at the 300th anniversary of the Berlin Botanical Gardens.

She remained on the teaching staff of Massey University until her ‘retirement’ in 1976 but continued to work as a research associate in the ecology building for more than two decades. She published a substantial volume of work before retiring at 90 years old.

She was awarded a DSc from the University of Otago and made a Fellow of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture in 1976. She became a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997 as "a pioneer in the field of university botanic research" and received the Massey Medal in 1992.

Molecular plant pathology laboratory

Plant pathology is the study of diseases in plants caused by infectious organisms (pathogens). Our laboratory investigates how these pathogens affect an infected plant at the molecular level.

The main goal of our research is to develop a comprehensive understanding of these interactions. Currently, breeding programmes are underway to increase disease resistance in kauri, pine, apple, tomato and kiwifruit. Our research may have a significant impact on their success.

Botanic gardens project

Massey University's Manawatū campus is a beautiful, lush expanse that already hosts 11,000 different species of plants. The botanic gardens project aims to expand on this to create a botanic garden available for research, teaching and to the community across New Zealand and internationally. This garden will generate a wealth of information on restoration methods and the management of rare, threatened and endangered plants from around the world.

Restoring the native corridor

Turitea Stream runs alongside the Manawatū campus. Restoration of the stream and its surroundings will create a corridor for native plants and wildlife to thrive. Concurrent research on restoration methods and stream health will involve work from botanists, ecologists and zoologists from Massey, the local community and beyond.


Massey's arboretum is a well-established haven for native and exotic trees. This area will be incorporated into the Botanic Garden Project, with improved tree signage and pathways to enable better access to this existing resource.

Research plots and themed gardens

Creating plots for specific research projects and themed gardens will provide researchers, students and the community with access to tailored and specific plantings for education and enjoyment.

Plant science facilities

Massey horticultural units

Purpose-built facilities for teaching and research in plant science and production include:

  • 7 hectare orchard
  • 25 glasshouses
  • six temperature-controlled rooms
  • growth cabinets.

Plantings include apples, pears, green and gold kiwifruit, and vegetable trials of traditional Māori crops.

Location: Manawatū campus, Palmerston North

Contact: Mark Osborne


Our people

Meet our plant scientists

Associate Professor Jennifer Tate

Associate Professor Jennifer Tate

Associate Professor in Plant Systematics and Evolution
Professor Rosie Bradshaw

Professor Rosie Bradshaw

BSC (Hons), PhD
Professor in Genetics
Dr Carl Mesarich

Dr Carl Mesarich

BSc, MSc, PhD
Senior Lecturer
 Craig McGill

Craig McGill

Senior Research Officer
Dr Vaughan Symonds

Dr Vaughan Symonds

Senior Lecturer in Plant Science
Professor Peter Lockhart

Professor Peter Lockhart

Associate Dean Pacific People

Georgina Homs Aubia

Junior Research Officer – Seed Banking and Data Management

Associate Professor Paul Dijkwel

Associate Professor, Director - Academic Centre

Plant science research projects

New Zealand Virtual Herbarium project

MPN is a member of the New Zealand National Herbarium Network and contributes to the New Zealand Virtual Herbarium project, which aims to make specimen information available online for plant and fungal collections housed in the 11 different herbaria across New Zealand.

New Zealand National Herbarium Network

New Zealand Virtual Herbarium project

Alternatives to drying seeds

Not all seeds can be dried for banking. For example, kohekohe seed dies when dried below 30 to 40 per cent moisture. Part of this project is to determine which seeds can be dried for banking and how else we can store seeds that cannot be dried.

Collect, study and store alpine flora

Our alpine flora is highly endemic – about 83 per cent of our alpine plant species only grow in a particular place, which makes them vulnerable to climate change.

Massey University is leading a project to collect, study and store these seeds as part of an ex-situ conservation strategy to conserve our biodiversity. Funding for this project is from the Lottery Grants Board.

Effector proteins in plant-pathogenic fungi and oomycetes

Plant-pathogenic fungi and oomycetes secrete protein molecules called effectors, plus secondary metabolites. These effectors cause disease by changing the host plant's physiology or interfering with the plant's immune responses.

However, the same effectors can trigger host immunity in the presence of cognate host immune receptor proteins. Understanding how these pathogens and their effector proteins affect a plant may help to increase disease resistance in kauri, pine, apple, tomato and kiwifruit through targeted breeding programmes.

Our research focuses on identifying and characterising these effectors across a range of pathosystems. These include:

  • three plant-pathogenic fungi which cause scab and leaf mould disease in apple and tomato (Venturia inaequalis, Cladosporium fulvum) and needle blight of pines (Dothistroma septosporum)
  • the plant-pathogenic bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa), which causes canker disease in kiwifruit
  • oomycete pathogens, including the kauri dieback pathogen (Phytophthora agathidicida) and the pine red needle cast pathogen (Phytophthora pluvialis).

Cellular morphotypes in filamentous plant-pathogenic fungi

Filamentous fungi can change their form, shape or structure (morphotype) to colonise an infected host. They do this through modifications in their cell surface. We study how they differentiate and maintain each cellular morphotype.

Manuka in flower.

NZIFSB helping to save native trees from Myrtle rust

The NZIFSB was part of New Zealand’s national response to the incursion of Myrtle rust in 2017 – a fungal disease with the potential to decimate our native and introduced Myrtaceae species. Seed banking is vital to make sure trees like pōhutukawa and manuka aren't wiped out by the fungus.

DoC banking on more seeds to save native trees from myrtle rust fungus

School of Agriculture and Environment – Manawatū campus


Physical address
AgHort Building
Manawatū campus
Palmerston North

Use our Manawatū campus maps or find us on Google Maps.

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