Charles Sturt ‘DNA detectives’ trace journey of an invasive weed

30 OCTOBER 2019

Charles Sturt ‘DNA detectives’ trace journey of an invasive weed

“Paterson’s curse is found in more than 30 million hectares of Australia and has a financial impact on the grazing industry in lost pasture production, wool contamination and weed control ... of up to $250 million a year."

  • Charles Sturt research has genotyped Paterson’s curse plants from three continents to trace its invasion pathway to Australia
  • Research reveals Mrs Paterson was not the first nor only person to bring this weed to Australia
  • Paterson’s curse was introduced as an ornamental garden plant and also accidentally imported with fodder and livestock on many occasions

The purple-flowered weed Paterson’s curse or Salvation Jane is named after the woman who reportedly brought it to Australia for her garden but Charles Sturt University (Charles Sturt) research has shown there’s much more to the story.

The research, published in the journal PlosOne, genotyped more than 250 Paterson’s curse plants collected from its native range in Spain and Portugal and its non-native habitats in Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Lead author, Dr Xiaocheng Zhu from the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation (pictured), said the weed has been recorded in Australia from 1843 but it is not clear if this was the first introduction event or whether this introduction resulted in naturalisation of this weed.

“Paterson’s curse is found in more than 30 million hectares of Australia and has a financial impact on the grazing industry in lost pasture production, wool contamination and weed control, with some government departments estimating a cost of up to $250 million a year,” said Dr Zhu.

“We wanted to understand the invasion pathway and the genetic structure of Paterson’s curse in Australia to provide information to boost the success of current biological control agents and to inform future plant biosecurity efforts.” 

Along with examining the genetic make-up of plants collected in the field, the researchers also examined specimens from the Natural History Museum in London dating back to the 1800s.

Dr Zhu said the results suggest Paterson’s curse has very likely been introduced to Australia multiple times, both deliberately and as contamination in feed, fodder and other agricultural products.

“According to our study and historical records it is quite clear that Mrs Paterson is not the first nor the only person who introduced this species into Australia.

“Along with the importation of Paterson’s curse plants as ornamentals from the United Kingdom it is likely the weed was also introduced with movement of feed or livestock, particularly sheep imported to Australia.

“Our research showed that nearly all haplotypes found in Australia were also recovered from sampling conducted in the Cape of Good Hope region in South Africa, an important stop-over on the shipping and trade routes between Western Europe and Australia.

“The research highlighted that the most abundant genotypes in southern Australia were also prevalent in southern Spain, where past and additional future biocontrol agents could be optimally sourced,” Dr Zhu said. 

The research was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project led by Professors Leslie Weston and Geoff Gurr.

Professor Weston said the project was a good example of international collaboration.

“The expertise of NSW Department of Primary Industries research scientist, Dr David Gopurenko from the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute DNA barcoding facility and scientists from the United Kingdom, Spain, South Africa and the United States contributed to the research,” Professor Weston said.

The Graham Centre is a research alliance between Charles Sturt and the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews contact Graham Centre communications officer Ms Emily Malone on 0439 552 385 or email

The paper, ‘Genetic evidence for plural introduction pathways of the invasive weed Paterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum L.) to southern Australia’ is by Dr Xiaocheng Zhu, Dr David Gopurenko, Mr Miguel Serrano, Dr Mark Spencer, Dr Petrus Pieterse, Dr Dominik Skoneczny, Dr Brendan Lepschi, Professor Manuel Reigosa, Professor Geoff M. Gurr, Professor Ragan Callaway and Professor Leslie A. Weston.

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All Local News Agricultural Science Charles Sturt University Graham Centre Research