James, originally from Australia, was a two-day hike from the 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 in Hawaii’s Bishop Museum and for the past two years 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.
James’ focus is on vascular plants, which have only begun to be cataloged in PNG. Experts speculate there are between 11,000 and 25,000 species in the region, but that’s a wild guess.
The reason: PNG is not an easy place to do research. It’s expensive, 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 and lead to medical breakthroughs. “There could be medical chemistry associated with some of these plants that could help fight cancer or AIDS,” James says.
The team hires local community members who help collect samples, share knowledge of where species are located, and 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.
Why does she do it? “I’ve been in some hairy situations, but I love the field work. It’s just one big adventure.”