The Granite Petrophile (Petrophile biloba) is endemic to the south-west of Western Australia and mainly grows on the granite overlaying soils of the Darling Scarp. It is generally unremarkable, but when this shrub starts flowering in spring it displays pink, grey, white and yellow flowers arranged in a seemingly chaotic order only seen in works of Jackson Pollock – a cacophony of colours, shapes and textures that draws you in when engaging with it long enough.
The last few weeks have been a real wildflower carnival. With warm weather and still decent rainfall we have been watching a parade of colours and shapes unfold up in the hills. Although the participants in this parade try to outshine each other in the quest for pollinators, the striking Sea Urchin Hakea (Hakea petiolaris) is one of my favourites. This early flowering tree is mainly found around the granite outcrops where it benefits from increased moisture and shade, and because of its stem-flowering or ‘cauliflory’ habit, it is thought that the Sea Urchin Hakea is a relict of an earlier, wetter and more forested habitat.
Fallen leaves, fruits, branches and trees play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the tropical rainforest – they provide the essential nutrients for the typically poor soil and therefore enable new plant growth. Fungi and bacteria act as decomposers of the litter, breaking up the material into smaller pieces for detritivores such as worms, mites and millipedes. The shapes and colours of the fungi are truly amazing: some look like mushrooms while others resemble corals, tongues or sponges, and with their sometimes bright colours they add a certain magic to this already wonderful world.
Although only covering around 2% of the Earth’s surface, tropical rainforests are home to more than half of all life forms on our planet. Its biodiversity is truly immense, but the answer on why so many different taxonomic groups have evolved in this biome is rather complex. When thinking about the biodiversity of the Bornean forests the name of Alfred Russel Wallace automatically comes into my mind. As collaborator of Charles Darwin and co-author of the famous 1858 paper On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection Wallace is one of the founding fathers of the evolution theory – but where Darwin’s fame got firmly cemented by his book On the Origin of Species, Wallace’s contribution to what is now known as ‘Darwinism’ became almost forgotten. However, with his skills as an animal collector, storyteller and founder of biogeography, Wallace has left behind his own legacy; especially his observation that the islands of the Malayan Archipelago represented a frontier between two faunal provinces (the Indo-Malayan to the west …
Most colourful and amazing lifeforms in the wet tropics can be seen on the forest floor, however, they often go unnoticed. But if one keeps an eye open for the little things some truly spectacular gems can be found – and this goes for fungi in particular. They play a vital role for the life on our planet, especially in rainforest where their long thread-like hyphae invade and breakdown the tissues of dead wood and leaf litter, producing nutrients for other plants and animals. On a strenuous hike in the pristine Danum Valley we stumbled upon this beautiful Veiled Lady or Long Net Stinkhorn (Phallus indusiatus), a fungus that can be found in tropical regions around the world. Whenever it is ready to reproduce the fruiting body is grown in an effort to attract insects for the dispersion of the spores. The veiled lady is very short-lived, yet the specimen we found was still fresh regarding the slime covered cap and the undamaged hexagon-tessellated skirt – almost a perfect piece of modern architecture.
The season of adolescence or Bunuru is well underway – the days are still hot with temperatures in the mid-thirties, warm easterly winds and little or no rain. Bunuru is also the season of flowering gums, and the Marri trees (Corymbia calophylla) surrounding our tree hut are in full bloom now – a truly spectacular sight!
In my previous posts I have written about some of our inspiring encounters with the magnificent wildlife of Shark Bay. The Malgana people used to call this land ‘Two Bays’ or Gutharraguda – referring to the shallow waters of Hamelin Pool between Peron Peninsula and the mainland in the North and Henri Freycinet Harbour between Peron Peninsula and Dirk Hartog Island in the South. The old map of French navigator Henri Freycinet shows this piece of remarkable Australian shoreline best. Shark Bay is a unique area with vast beds of seagrass, forming massive meadows in the shallow and warm waters. Seagrasses provide both food and shelter for the stunning array of marine life, but also bind sediments moved in through tides and currants. Accumulated sediments have formed the numerous banks, sills and channels that have turned some of the bay’s waters hyper saline – the area around Hamelin Pool is twice as salty as the open ocean! Although hostile to many animals, the extreme salinity of Hamelin Pool forms the perfect habitat for Stromatolites – single celled …
The Greater Hawke National Park is one of Western Australia’s more recent and lesser known parks. Although gazetted to protect its old growth Karri forests, the major attraction could easily be the gnarled and twisted Paperbark trees (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla) that grow in Goblin Swamp – an intriguing yet ghostly place as it name suggests!
When French naturalist Jacques Labillardière visited New Holland (Australia) in 1792 under the command of Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, the foundations were laid for what became the most extensive collection of Australian flora of its day and age. Especially his collections from southwest Australia produced numerous new species amongst which the ones from the genus of Anigozanthos, better known as Kangaroo Paws. His discoveries are described in the Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, a masterpiece of botanical science and art. I clearly remember my own amazement when I first saw those wonderful plants with their tubular flowers, dense hairs and claw-like structures. No wonder the State Government named the striking Red and Green Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos manglesii) as WA’s floral emblem in 1960, after which it was incorporated in the State Coat of Arms. Although this species is the best known and most famous of all Kangaroo Paws, the tall Evergreen Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos flavidus) and the much smaller Cat’s Paw (Anigozanthos humilis) are equally remarkable and spectacular.
Only one look at the flowering spike of the Bull Banksia (Banksia grandis) and you know why the Nyoongar season of Birak was sometimes called the ‘yellow season’. During the hot and dry summer months these Poolgarla spikes where collected for their nectar – either sucked directly from the flower or steeped into water to produce a sweet drink called mangite or mungitch. An account from famous botanist John Drummond (1839) states that ‘the natives, men, women and children live for five to six weeks particularly upon the honey which they suck from the flowers of this fine tree’. In the Diary of George Fletcher Moore (1884) the production of mangite was described as ‘this was done by lining a hole in the ground with paper-bark, filling it with the spikes, and then covering these with water and leaving them to soak’. Consumption of this slightly fermented drink in large quantities could eventually lead to intoxication – a possible explanation why during Birak there would be large gatherings of Nyoongar people participating in mangite drinking parties. On a walk through …
The season of Birak has started. Sometimes it’s called the first summer, characterised by easing rains, warm easterly winds and increasingly hot weather. The dry conditions transform the surrounding landscape – most wildflowers slowly wilt while certain trees as Banksia, Balga and Mudja are in full bloom. One of the smaller flowers showing its beautiful colours at the moment is the Rose-tipped Mulla Mulla or Pom Pom (Ptilotus manglesii) – easily found on the pea-gravelled paths of nearby Beelu National Park this fluffy flower is certainly one of my smaller highlights this time of the year.
Out of all plants the Quandong (Santalum acuminatum) is probably Australia’s most significant bush tucker. It was widely recognised as a source of food and medicine by Aborigines while the aromatic wood was used in their smoking ceremonies. Given the fact that it has adapted extremely well to the arid conditions of the country’s interior the Quandong has often been referred to as ‘Jewel of the Desert’ or ‘Desert Peach’ – one of the plant’s remarkable features is that it is semi-parasitic, with its roots cheekily attached to neighbouring plants for moisture and nutrition in order to survive. The ripe red fruit was a staple food for Aborigines and would be consumed raw or dried for later use – dried Quandongs can be perfectly reconstituted in water years later! The inside of the succulent fruit contains an edible oil-rich kernel with many uses such as skin moisturiser, ointment or ornamental bead. The best place to look for them is underneath the trees – but as emus are particularly fond of the sour tasting fruit the undigested …
The last couple of weeks the weather has changed significantly with longer dry periods and temperatures rising in the thirties again. This time of the year is called Kambarang in the Nyungar calendar – the season of birth. The warming trend transforms nature around us with animals starting to show more activity while flowers explode in all sort of colours and shapes. In wildflower country a spectacular floral display erupts including Balgas, Banksias, Kangaroo Paws and Orchids. A very good place to witness this spectacle is Lesueur National Park, with over 900 plant species – of which many endemic to this region – one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots along with places like Sundaland in South East Asia, the tropical Andes in South America or the Cape Floristic region in South Africa. Important landmarks in this National Park are the laterite mesas that are called after members of the Hamelin’s Naturaliste expedition in 1801 – Mount Peron, Mount Micheaud and Mount Lesueur. The trails that surround those flat-topped mountains lead through the exceptionally diverse Kwongan heathland, home …
Common Donkey Orchids (Diuris corymbosa) are some of the easiest recognisable Australian orchids due to their large ‘Donkey ear-like’ petals. These orchids flower between August and October, and with the first specimens blooming on the sandy soils of the Darling scarp the first signs of spring have finally arrived. According to the Nyungar calendar this time of the year is called Djilba – the growing season during which a massive explosion of wild flowers in Australia’s South West is happening. In anticipation of this botanic spectacle it would be an understatement to say we are getting a little excited!
The combination of ample winter rain and plenty of sunshine gets the first wildflowers blooming. Not even two weeks ago there were only a few Hovea’s to be seen, now the bush is full with them; Prickly Hovea’s (Hovea chorizemifolia), Tree Hovea’s (Hovea elliptica) and Devil’s Pins (Hovea pungens) – a royal purple spectacle.
The splendid firewood Banksia (Banksia menziesii) is a rather gnarly tree of the Proteaceae family that grows on the sandy coastal plains of Western Australia’s mid and central west regions. It flowers in autumn and winter after a lengthy process in which the inflorescence changes from a bare brown cone to a spectacle of more than thousand brightly coloured flowers.
As a profuse producer of nectar the Parrot Bush (Banksia sessilis) attracts many birds as for example Honeyeaters, Black Cockatoos and Ringneck or Twenty Eight Parrots. If the latter would eat the nectar the local Nyungar people knew it was safe to use the wood for message sticks and its spiky leafs for trapping fish. Nowadays this tree is highly valued for the beekeeping industry.
Unlike the South African bushveld the landscape in Australia grows more colourful in wintertime. After the first heavy rains of Makuru (the cold and wet season of the Nyungar calendar) many trees have started flowering, bringing a kind of new life to the otherwise dry bush. On one of our walks near Victoria Dam we stumbled upon this beautiful Silver Princess or Gungurru (Eucalyptus caesia), a rare Mallee of the Eucalyptus genus endemic to the central Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. It is named after the grey-white powder covering branches, leaves and flower buds. While most of its fruits where still closed this tree had just started to show some magnificent red flowers, inaugurating the first colours of winter.
A flowering Impala Lily (Adenium multiflorum) is a colourful beacon in the dry wintery landscape of southern Africa. The plant contains a highly toxic latex which is used for both hunting and medicinal purposes. Some species – amongst which the summer or Swazi Impala Lily – are harvested to such an extent that they are now listed as endangered. While commercial gathering for the horticultural and traditional medicine market, urbanisation and agriculture have almost wiped out the entire population in certain areas, the Kruger National Park forms a save heaven for this beautiful plant. It features abundantly in Skukuza, Letaba and Shingwedzi rest camps, where its stunning pink colour will certainly overwhelm you.
The Netherlands is a land of water. The country has been shaped by its force and largely exists due to sound water management. A major example is the Zuiderzee, a large shallow inlet of the North sea consisting of multiple lakes, marshes and channels. As rising sea levels and storms made it bigger over the centuries, surges and floods caused death and disaster. These perilous waters have finally been tamed by closing them off from the open sea in the 1930s, creating a manmade freshwater lake. A big block of land has since been reclaimed for farming, housing and industrial development, but when the drainage of the lowest part was finally concluded in 1968, no one could have foreseen it would become one of Europe’s most important wetlands. Too wet for construction this part was planted with common reed, providing food and shelter for numerous (near) extinct species of waterbirds. Some of these species, as for example the Grey Goose (Anser anser), Great Egret (Ardea alba) and Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea Leucorodia), returned in such numbers that the significance of this area as a major nature …