On my way back to Queensland from the Hunter Valley in March 2021, I took an inland route which gave me the opportunity to visit the Pilliga Scrub – which has long been on my “want to do list”.
One of Australias largest inland forests, the Pilliga forest aka Pilliga scrub is a sandy region dominated by cypress pines (Callitris spp.) and ironbarks (Eucalyptus spp.) but with an incredible diversity of plant and animal life. It is also a special area for the first human inhabitants, the Gamilaroi people. One of their special places is the Dandry Gorge in Tammallallie National Park, which is now also the home of a set of Aboriginal culture inspired sculptures, which are depicted below.
In addition to the spectacular gorge scenery and above-mentioned sculptures, the site is a wildflower spectacle. While not too many of them were flowering during my March visit (apart from bluebells and a greenhood orchid), most plants were full of flower buds, an enticement for me to return in the spring to witness the full spectacle. The site is also generously provided with numerous display signs depicting many of the wildflowers present, as well as other features – my favourite being the Bibii rainbow story.
Finally, always on the lookout for plants that can be used for food or medicine, this sign appeared.
Today is wattle day all over Australia, a celebration of the Acacia genus, which I believe to be the biggest plant genus in Australia, and one which has a long history of use for food, medicines and many other purposes.
History of wattle day
The first wattle day on record was held in Hobart as far back as 1838. It was held sporadically at different times in different states, and it wasn’t until 1992 that it was gazetted as a national event to be held on the 1st September. We can thank the so –called wattle lady, Maria Hitchcock of Armidale NSW, who campaigned to get wattle day gazetted, following her success in having the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) gazetted as the Australian floral emblem in 1988. Her book, “A Celebration of Wattle”, (Rosenberg Publishing, 2012) tells the story of the history of wattle day, whilst also containing botanical and horticultural tips along with an anthology of wattle poems, songs and plays.
It is the day for wearing a sprig of wattle, and celebrating the beginning of Spring in Australia. For more on wattle day, and events that are held round the country, check out the Wattle Day Association at http://www.wattleday.asn.au/
At the Queensland Herbarium, wattle day was celebrated on the 29th August, which is also volunteers day. As with most Herbaria, volunteers play a crucial role in helping with the mounting and labeling of plant specimens. Sprigs of wattle and a lavish spread for morning tea marked the occasion.
Finally, check out these books on edible and other uses for Acacia, particularly relevant to South Australia and the inland regions of Australia
Today I learned that my friend and mentor, Dr. Arthur Tucker, just passed away following a sudden illness. Art was an economic botanist with a wide range of interests. His main passion was aromatic plants, and he is regarded as a world authority on aromatic chemistry, having managed an analytical laboratory where he performed GC-MS analysis for both academic and economic pursuits. Art lived in Dover, Delaware (USA) and he was a research professor at DE State University, where he established and for many years curated the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium, where I was a frequent visitor.
Only last year we lost another mutual friend, Dr. James Duke. I probably learned more plant knowledge from these two intellectual giants than from all other sources combined. Here they are together at a garden luncheon I arranged several years ago, at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.
Among his many activities, Art was a designed consultant to the famous Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Here we are with Arts other half, Sharon, another biologist.
Art was a prolific writer of scientific papers, and he also managed to produce one of the best herbal references around. He also had a great sense of humour, and loved to dress up!
I recently moved from the Hunter Valley NSW up to Brisbane, to start a new position at the Queensland Herbarium. It took nearly 2 weeks to get here, as we headed off with the “cub” camper trailer, and enjoed several nights camping along the NSW coastline.
The most memorable place we stopped at was Minnie Water, at the Yuraygir National Park south of Grafton. There are spacious campsites aplenty with fireplaces and picnic tables laid on. Within a few minutes walk there is also a selection of plant edibles, even during July. In the fruit department, there were two species of lilly pillys along with some sweet and juice native raspberries (Rubus rosifolius).
While the common lilli pilly (Acmena smithii) was seen fruiting heavily, the taster blue fruit from Syzygium oleosum was more to our liking, crunchy like an apple and moderately sweet.
Other fruiting species were sighted , though not flowering at the time. These include 2 species of geebung (Persoonia spp.) and the succulent midginberry (Austromyrtus dulcis). However I’m told that man can’t live on fruit alone, and that green vegetables are a necessity for a healthy diet. Fortunately we had no shortage, the variously named Warrigal greens, Botany Bay greens or New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides) were growing along the paths to the beach. This species is common in the eastern states, especially on the coastline, and is found outside Australia also, including New Zealand as one of the names suggests. I remove the hard little fruits before cooking them lightly, stems and all. They do shrink upon cooking, so use a generous serving.
Like most of coastal NSW, the invasive bitou bush (Chrysanthemoides monolifera) is a constant threat to the indigenous flora, despite ongoing control programmes. I pulled out my share of the bush and liberated some of the coastal flora, for the time being at least. Once away from the beach and main sand dunes the bitou bush disappears, and the indigenous species grow unthreatened. I enjoyed walking through some Banksia woodland, dominated by the wallum Banksia (B. aemula), which creates a really thick mulch layer, soft to walk on. Coastal cypress pine (Callitris columellaris) are common here, which is the southern limit for their distribution . The trunks are typically covered in mosses, lichens and young staghorn ferns, making a pretty sight in amongst the gnarled Banksia trunks. The ground in places was covered by orchids of the Acianthus genus, many in flower. As with most of our coastline Melaleuca quinquenervia is abundant, source of nerolidol, one of my favourite essential oils.
Ambling through the bush like this is most enjoyable, however it can come at a cost. Whilst I’m quite aware of the danger of ticks, it turned out that a tick-relative was my downfall on this occasion. Following my years of living in the USA, I came back to Australia being grateful for at least one thing (well apart from good coffee and cricket), that at least we have no chiggers. The microscopic mites managed to get under my skin, (figuratively and almost literally) on a few excursions on Atlantic Coastal areas, and left me covered in itchy lesions which could last for weeks. So the night after my Banksia woodland walk I noticed these itchy lesions springing up around my body, by the next day I knew they could only be chiggers – or a close Aussie relative.
So I did what anyone would do
and googled Wikipedia, and sure enough:
Trombiculid mites are found throughout the world. … In the British Isles, the species Trombicula autumnalis is called harvest mites, in North America the species Trombicula alfreddugesi, and the species Trombicula (eutrombicula) hirsti, which are found in Australia and are commonly called the scrub-itch mite. Read more about the here:
Over a week later I still have some lesions, but they are not bothering me. I had far fewer lesions than during my American experiences, and the itch does start to ease after a few days, so perhaps our species is less numerous and a little more benign. But Aussies be warned, there are hidden dangers in the bush that most of us are unaware of.
The festival was held during the first week of May at Woodford, Queensland, the site of the famous folk festival. I have been an occasional visitor to the festival since it began in the 1980s, originally at nearby Maleny. The 500 acre site, once a dairy farm, is owned by the folk festival organization, and fans such as ourselves can become citizens of Woodfordia for a small fee. In addition, there is a planting program that has so far seen over 100,000 native trees in the ground, many of them now having attained a good size. Most were planted by the volunteer “Treehuggers”, who meet there each month.
Woodfordia comes with a philosophy which I quote
“live as if we will die tomorrow and plan as if we would live forever”.
After setting up camp alongside thousands of others, in fields well-shaded with tree specimens, we made our way up to the festival site in time to witness the festival opening, a fire ceremony featuring Aboriginal dancers – can you make them out?
The following day it was time to get active, and what better way than to plant trees. I found myself in a group led by botanist Robert Price, we were tasked to plant some rare and endangered rainforest species along a creek bed. Here is the first tree I planted at Woodford, a previously unknown species for me, listed as rare and vulnerable, it grows in a narrow belt between the Tweed Valley and SE Queensland.
On another occasion I joined the Treehuggers, taking care of some trees from previous plantings, weeding and mulching them, and replacing any that were dead.
Some other trees of interest in the camping grounds come arboretum :
The candelnut tree below (Aleurites molucanna) is a striking tree that has medicinal properties, and the nuts are delicious but they must be cooked. It grows in many tropical countries, including India and Hawaii (ok, not a country). It is in the spurge (Euphorbiaceae) family. For more info:
I don’t know if this one has any medicinal uses, but it has really spectacular flowers appearing in Autumn, when there is very little flowering in Queensland. It is Xanthostemon (meaning, appropriately, yellow stamens) chrysanthus, or yellow penda. This would be an outstanding specimen tree for sub-tropical gardens.
The festival isn’t all about trees, there are various other biological and non-biological activities to get involved in. The DiscoveryLab, open for the duration, is the home of numerous citizen science projects including fungi, mosses and lichens, spiders, butterflies and other insects. My favourite are the butterflies, there is a walk featuring trees that are host to different butterflies, enticing onlookers to plant these species for the sake of attracting butterflies. In the photo below, the tree is Alphitona excelsa, a significant tree with medicinal properties.
There is native orchid group and a cycad group, anyone can join in.
Fungi is of major interest, I’ll let the posters speak for themselves
As you see, this isn’t exactly an amateur group conducting these projects, leading scientists in each of the fields are involved, however as with the tree planting, all are welcome to contribute. For those who don’t know where to start, or have little experience in field biology, there is an app available called QuestaGame, once again it speaks for itself.
Herbies reading this might be wondering whether herbal medicine fits into the scene. It turns out the local herbalist Dominique Livkamal, a one-time student, hosts the Medicine Room herb dispensary and provides medicine-making classes during the festival.
The festival is also about fun, entertainment, excellent food and beverages and a happy, kid-friendly environment. A highlight for me was the rainbow that signaled the end of the rain we received on day one. The photo doesn’t capture the drama of it, but it helps to set the atmosphere, though unusually, there are not many people about.
I was pleased to attend the book launch and museum exhibition of this stunning new book, the event held at the Newcastle Museum
This is a remarkable publication, given that it provides detailed and authoritative botanical monographs of 54 trees and shrubs that are endemic to the Hunter region, each one of which is accompanied by a full page scientific illustration.
The lead author, Dr. Stephen Bell, is probably the leading botanist in our region, having undertaken countless plant surveys over the last 25 years.
The fact that the other two co-authors, Christine Rockley and Dr. Anne Llewellyn, are both scientific illustrators, demonstrates the significance placed on the illustration component of this book. In fact as many as 20 different illustrators were used, all alumni of the Bachelor of Natural History programme at the University of Newcastle.
I was lucky enough to be photographed with the illustrator of Eucalyptus aenea, Candice Rogers.
One of the features of the launch was the stunning display of framed, enlarged prints of all the book’s illustrations, along with a video describing the process involved in the field surveying, collecting, cataloging, creating herbarium specimens, describing and illustrating each of the 54 species.
Each monograph contains the full nomenclature and etymology (origin of the botanical name), distribution (with map) and known reservation plus location of the “type” specimen, habitat including a long list of species it occurs with, flowering period, affinities with similar species and hints on differentiating them, key diagnostic features, conservation status, plus a protologue ie the original material associated with a newly published name, comprising detailed botanical descriptions.
There are numerous entries for species of interest from the point of view of their essential oil potential, but given that many of them are threatened or of limited distribution, they aren’t readily available for distillation. One such species is Prostanthera cineolifera, so named by Baker and Smith (pioneers of essential oil analysis of Australian plants) because it contains 1,8-cineole, giving off a eucalyptus-like fragrance. This species grows in a limited range centred around the Brokenback Range.
Additional information provided includes a glossary, an ecological and taxonomic bibliography, specimen collection locations plus coordinates (lat/long) for locations mentioned and conservation assessments for each species.
The full title is Flora of the Hunter Region. Endemic Trees and Larger Shrubs, published by CSIRO Clayton Vic, 2019. A second volume is in preparation, this will include herbs, grasses, orchids and other smaller plants. The recommended retail is Au$80.00 which is what I paid at the launch, however it can be purchased online for under $60.00.
This book is a must for native plant enthusiasts in the Hunter region, and for people anywhere who enjoy botanical artistry.
As a way of escaping extreme heat, as well as to participate in a plant collecting trip for the Hunter Region Botanic Gardens, we headed up to Barrington Tops National Park on Sunday, observing the change in temp from 35C in the valley to 26C an hour later, at an elevation above 1400m. The plan was to camp the night at Polblue camping area, then meet our collecting colleagues there in the morning.
Along with the camping and picnic area, Polblue has a significant peat bog, surrounded by sub-alpine flora.
Peat bog with pools of crystal clear water
This area is not only of great ecological significance, it also harbours a number of rare and threatened species, including two species of mountain pepper, Tasmannia purpurescens and T. glaucifolia (fragrant pepperbush).
Around the campsite we found an abundance of flowering veined doubletail orchids (Diuris venosa), another threatened species.
There is a good walking track around the peat bog, however it is a surprise to find large piles of horse manure along the track. I took a short stroll into the peat bog and found plenty of large hoove prints deeply embedded in the soft ground. Our guide Bill Dowling indicated there are around 100 feral horses in the area, certainly one of the threats to this world heritage wilderness site.
As we progressed slowly along the track at botanist speed, another major threat is ever-present, the introduced Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a declared noxious weed. While it is a reasonably attractive plant with its’ buttercup yellow pea flowers and bright green pods, this species looms as the greatest threat to the stability of this fragile wilderness.
Herbalists are quite aware of this species, since it contains the alkaloid sparteine, whose actions include anti-arrhythmic (similar to quinidine, a plant-based drug used to treat arrhythmia) and oxytocic (strengthens uterine contractions), rendering it as a potential abortifacient. Historically it has been used as a diuretic. Due to toxicological concerns, use of the plant as herbal medicine has been restricted.
Efforts to control the spread of this weed have met will little success. There is plenty of evidence of herbicide applications in the past, and while glyphosate does kill the plant, it can’t control the germination of seedlings from the rich seed bank in the soil.
After a lunch break we drove a little way north to another section of Polblue creek, known habitat for the rare silver tea tree (Leptospermum argenteum) and two threatened species of plantain (Plantago spp.) We disturbed a wild pig, another environmental threat to the region (see photo above), and did find some silver tea tree on the creek bank although it was visibly in the process of being squeezed out by the broom. A few specimens of Tasmannia glaucifera on the edge of the creek were also being overwhelmed by the broom.
The continuing spread of this invasive weed is a massive problem. At Polblue hundreds of seedlings can be seen emerging in places both inside and outside of the walking trail, making a mockery of attempts at controlling this species with herbicide. In fact, I learned that the spray program was put on hold after it was discovered that around 100 T. glaucifera specimens were accidentally poisoned.
I do have major concerns about the use of herbicide on such a large scale, as we know that much of the residue will end up in the waterways, and ultimately the Hunter River. However there is no viable alternative in sight, physical control by digging out the plants could work in theory, but the scale of the problem means we would require thousands of workers for an extended period, an idea that is clearly impracticable.
As we headed back down into the valley and the heat I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is a beautiful area with so much more to explore and a selection of rare and interesting plant species. On the other hand I felt a sense of despair – it is hard to imagine that within the foreseeable future the peat bog won’t be overrun with Scotch broom, just as the nearby creeks and woodlands are already.