“Australian bush is rarely described as pretty, but the forest floor in spring is a mass of dainty and colourful blossoms” – The Southwest, Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot – Victoria Laurie
Only a few weeks ago orchids were blooming profusely in the metropolitan bushland, but after the first spring heat they’ve vanished like snow before the sun. The same seemed to be the case in the Jarrah forests of the Darling range, where Silky Blue Orchids (Syanicula sericea) were plentiful in the Kalamunda area not that long ago, while none have been seen there on recent walks. Observations like this feed my never-ending hunger to understand the intricate relationship between the bottomless chest of botanical treasures, their respective flowering seasons and habitats, and, above all, have led me to approach nature in a more holistic way rather than singling out its individual parts. It has not only helped me to gain a better understanding of the flora that surrounds us, it has also helped me to find out how to increase the chances of sighting wildlife: the associations formed between plants and animals offer valuable clues of ‘where and when to look for what’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m out there to experience the thrill of nature in the first place rather than to contribute to science, and although I enjoy determination of species through field guides afterwards, I as much appreciate to read historical accounts of early explorers or hear indigenous stories about the significance of the natural world in our lives.
Knowing the season of Djilba has given way to Kambarang, change is noticeable everywhere in the forest. White Cottonheads (Conostylis setosa) and White Banjine (Pimelea preissii) flower abundantly on the shallow laterite soils in open areas, accompanied by colourful Myrtles in the proximity of granite outcrops.
Grass trees (Xanthorrhoea preissii) or Balga of great age show massive white-flowered spikes, especially in areas that have been burnt in the previous year, attracting honey-eating birds as well as all sorts of insects like ants, flies and honeybees. As the trunk is built from layers of flat leaf-bases those trees only grow around 1½ cm a year, leaving me staring in awe at the specimen that have grown taller than a few metres.
The marked presence of Grass Trees, Zamia and Banksia in the undergrowth of the Jarrah forest was noted on the earliest expeditions. When Captain Stirling explored the region in 1827, naturalist Charles Fraser provided a vivid description, although as colonial botanist of New South Wales he confused the Balga with a species of Grass Tree dominant in the east:
“The Zamia, seen from the islands, was here to observed to attain the height of thirty feet. Zanthorhoeea arborea, too, was of equal size, and, associated with the splendid Banksias, imparted to the forest a character perfectly tropical” – Remarks on the Botany of the banks of Swan River, Charles Fraser (1830)
While the spear of a centuries-old Balga can grow up to an impressive 4 metres long, the ones from the Slender Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea gracilis) or Burarup are much shorter, with a modest 20 cm flower spike sitting on a thin and flexible scape. As this species hasn’t got a trunk it will blend into the undergrowth anonymously once the scape and flower have fallen off at the end of summer.
Although the evergreen undergrowth is an ever-present and important feature of the forest – not in the last place because of the wildlife it feeds and shelters – nothing really vies with the beauty of flowering orchids.
“Orchid-hunting is a delightful pastime entailing much healthful waking exercise, and adding unending charm to bush excursions”. – West Australian Orchids, Emily H. Pelloe (1930)
While some species have disappeared, others have poked up almost out of the blue; the combination of rising temperatures and sufficient rainfall currently works wonders for the Blue Lady Orchid (Thelymitra crinita) as featured, Cowslip Orchid (Caladenia flava) and the Purple Enamel Orchid (Elythranthera brunonis). With over 400 (known) species in Western Australia alone there’s no doubt more will be found over the next few weeks.