“I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the other species in the world” – Charles Darwin, Origin of Species Charles Darwin’s fascination with Sundews is no secret, and after elaborate experiments to unlock the mechanisms of those carnivorous members of the Kingdom of plants, he published his findings in Insectivourous Plants in 1875. And as Darwin wondered about the sensitivity of the tentacles and leaves, their reflexes and digestive powers, I’m continuously amazed by how the small and delicate Leafy Sundew (Drosera stolonifera) is so well adapted to the poor sandy soils of our Jarrah woodlands, patiently waiting to trap and devour the next unsuspecting insect.
The carnivorous Red Ink Sundew (Drosera erythrorhiza) grows on the poor soils of Western Australia’s south west. It is a tuberous species that survives underground during summer, and emerges in abundance after the first rains in autumn and winter. It supplements its limited nutrient uptake by trapping anthropods with its glandular tentacles, with the glistening drops of mucilage resembling fresh morning dew.
Makuru is blue, Makuru is wet. The rain keeps falling, and the forest is full with damp, musty smelling wood. Fungi start fruiting, rotting away trees and leaf litter, like this Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina spiculifera). Known as Numar by aborigines, it fruits on Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) trees, producing a slow decay in the wood called ‘pencilling’ or ‘black fleck’.
The Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla), also known as tea tree or Yowarl, is a common appearance near rivers, lakes and salt marshes in the south west of Western Australia. Its name refers to the paper-like bark, and the long flaky strips were used by aboriginal people as roofing for shelters, carrying of water, cooking, medicinal purposes and smoking ceremonies. Most paperbark trees grow in flooded areas, providing the perfect refuge for the many water birds that share its habitat.
“While way way up higher than the eye believes the Karris whose ancestors paved the streets of London bask sunrise lemon and pink in their solid new skin and widen their hold on the sky” – Caroline Caddy, Esperance The colossal Eucalyptus diversicolor – commonly known by its Noongar name Karri – grows in the remarkable forests of the South West. With heights over 80 metres it’s not only one of the tallest trees in the world, it also provides dense and long-lived hardwood, used for the paving of roads in 19th century London. The majestic Boranup forest in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park is what still remains of the once widespread Karri, and the 11km long drive is now one of the regions major attractions – a fine example of the importance of Eco-tourism!
Visiting some of our favorite Australian National Parks is not always easy as many of them are located in the northern part of the continent. Distance is not the major obstacle, as traveling just costs time and petrol, however, it is the climate that makes things complicated. In summer the tropical regions can be unbearable hot with temperatures exceeding 40°C, while the cyclones and heavy rainfall of the so-called ‘wet’ season hinder access to many areas. Unfortunately our leave is mostly taken during summer holidays with the result that many wild places are still on our bucket list. This is exactly why we’re so excited that finally we’re heading up north this July, to visit Karijini National Park in the Pilbara region of Western Australia; an outback adventure we have been dreaming about for many years! The Tall Mulla Mulla (Ptilotus exaltatus) we spotted around the Shark Bay area late last year will definitely be one of many attractions, as this magnificent wildflower is a true icon of the outback.
The Stirling Range National Park is a biodiversity hotspot with a dazzling array of wildflowers. Although most of the area’s iconic species flower in spring, there is not a single season when the landscape is not alive with colours, textures and shapes. A few walks or climbs on and around the numerous peaks unveil a true botanical treasure – as long as you’re able to focus on the little things instead of getting lost in Koikyenunuruff’s lovely vistas. The plants that populate the Stirling Range make it a special place, however, especially the rare montane heath and thicket is under serious threat: Phytophtora dieback disease, intense and frequent fires, climate change, as well as browsing by animals such as quokka’s (Setonix brachyurus), mardo’s (Antechinus flavipes) and quenda‘s (Isodoon obesulus) has led to severe population declines. Protective fencing for highly threatened species in order to allow regrowth has shown promising results – so don’t be surprised to find those fencing structures on top of Bluff Knoll!
Each time I go out for a bush walk this time of the year I wonder which treasures nature keeps in store for us to discover. Because of the warm spring weather many plants and animals undergo a transformation; the flowering of the Moodjar or Christmas Tree indicates that hot weather is already underway, but before the season of Birak brings the wildflower season to an end the incredibly beautiful Myrtle flowers show off their purple splendour. And although both the Graceful and Rough Honeymyrtle (Melaleuca radula and Melaleuca parviceps) are most common it is the ostentatious Pink Flowered Myrtle or Kudjid (Hypocalymma angustifolium) that steals the show.
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.
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.
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 Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) is endemic to south-western Australia and can be found in almost any nature reserve. In Western Australia Grass Trees are commonly referred to as Blackboys, but are best known by its indigenous name, Balga. The plant has always been extremely important for aboriginals and early settlers. Its thin fronds provided thatching material for shelters, while the resin which oozes from the trunk was used both as a binding and tanning agent. Because the resin is also highly flammable aboriginals used it as a firelighter, but when settlers cut down great numbers for firewood it disappeared almost completely from certain areas. As Grass trees grow extremely slow (about one metre in 100 years) it will take them a long time to recover, however, through a resurgence of popularity in using native plants for landscaping it has started to make a comeback in urban areas.