Picture a gorgeous woodland in the early 1800s. What do you see? Majestic gum trees with bent old boughs, golden grasses, a mob of sheep or kangaroos, and a forested hill in the distance? The luminous landscape of a Hans Heysen painting, perhaps.
It’s an iconic Aussie landscape. But something’s missing. The trees are wrong. Or at least, they aren’t all there.
Two hundred years ago, another group of trees – Honeysuckle, Oak, Lightwood and Cherry – formed extensive woodlands across many parts of south-east Australia. Today we call these trees Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata), Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata), Wild Cherry (Exocarpos cupressiformis), and Lightwood (Acacia implexa) or Blackwood (A. melanoxylon).
Did you picture a woodland dominated by any of these species? If not, I wonder why. Do we picture eucalypt woodlands because eucalypts now dominate our local bush? In doing so, did we forget the felled species and remember the hardy and persistent?
Indigenous Australians and early white explorers and settlers knew these woodlands well. William Howitt extolled the beautiful Sheoak and Banksia woodlands near Melbourne:
… nearly all the trees were shiacks [she oaks], — not the eternal gum-trees, — and these, interspersed with Banksias, now in fresh foliage, and new pale yellow cones, or rather bottle-brushes, with a sprinkling of gums and golden wattles, gave what you rarely see in that country, a variety of foliage and hue.(Howitt 1858, p. 206)
Early surveyors inscribed combinations of ‘oak, honeysuckle and gum’ across many survey plans, as on this early map of Mt Alexander in central Victoria. Mt Alexander is still covered by bush, but it’s now dominated by eucalypts, not Silver Banksia. I wonder how many honeysuckles survive on the range, and how far away the nearest large population might be?
The woodlands of honeysuckle and oak disappeared as the trees fed the stoves and the seedlings fed the sheep of the new colonists. Property-conscious landholders avidly removed the untidy banksias:
Clearing the timber has done much, both towards improving the pasture and adding to the beauty of the estate. The country is gently undulating, and in its natural state lightly timbered with gum, honeysuckle and lightwood trees. As the honeysuckles fall and cover the ground with dead wood, a system is being carried out all over the estate of cutting down and burning of all these trees, leaving only the lightwoods and gums.’(The Burrowa News, NSW, Friday 13 August 1880, p. 3)
Widespread clearing guaranteed that future generations will never have the opportunity to complain about too much woody debris from old Banksia trees.
From the hills to the plains…
The woodlands of she oak and honeysuckle, lightwood and cherry clothed the flat plains and the rolling hills. They were particularly common on basalt soils, as William Howitt noted: ‘So off I went… through a wood of Banksia trees, which, as well as shiack [sheoak], particularly affect volcanic soil…’ (Howitt 1858, p. 215), and also abundant – according to the first edition of the Geology of Victoria (Ulrich 1875) – on granite hills:
Granite – This rock occupies a considerable portion of the area of the colony, forming larger and smaller isolated tracts and massives…. The higher points and spurs are in most cases quite bare, or support but a poor forest-growth of gum-tree (Eucalyptus), and, as specially characteristic, of she-oak (Casuarina) and honeysuckle (Banksia).
This statement – that honeysuckles were common enough to be seen as ‘specially characteristic’ of granite outcrops – is staggering. Nowadays most granite hills have few if any banksias. Instead, the ghostly woodlands persist in place names and road signs – at ‘Sheoaks’ and ‘Oaklands’ and along many a ‘Honeysuckle Creek’.
With the trees, went the birds…
This isn’t a botanical requiem. The demise of the oak and honeysuckle woodlands affected an entire ecosystem, not just a few trees. Eucalypt, honeysuckle, cherry and oak each provided specific foods and resources for insects, birds and mammals. In full bloom, the honeysuckle woodlands hosted a cacophony of birds, interrupting William Howitt’s peaceful sojourn:
…the dogs in continual excitement with the noises of vast numbers of parrots, paroquets, and wattle-birds, which were feasting on the honey of the Banksia flowers.(Howitt 1858, p. 215)
In flowering Silver Banksias near Sunbury, naturalist Isaac Batey watched the birds we now call New Holland Honeyeaters and Rainbow Lorikeets (Batey 1907).
The she-oak woodlands supported different birds again. Over a century ago, Mr G.F. Gill recorded Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and Spiny-cheeked Honey-eaters in the oaks near Ararat…
… while Isaac Batey saw his first flocks of Cockatiels in the Sunbury she oaks:
Not surprisingly, the birds disappeared as the honeysuckles and oaks were felled and cleared. Isaac Batey lamented the loss of Grey-crowned Babblers, Hooded Robins and Varied Sittellas.
All three species are now listed as Declining Woodland Birds across Australia.
Shifting baselines, future landscapes
The decline of the oak and honeysuckle woodlands, and our failure to recognize its scale, is a textbook example of the shifting baselines syndrome. Each generation views the condition of an ecosystem when they first saw it as the new normal. We see many small losses, and know of other changes before we arrived. But we remain oblivious to how big these changes become as they accumulate over many generations. We forget the expansive, noisy woodlands of honeysuckle and oak, and remember only the locations of a few old banksias, and a few more dead plants. We picture a past landscape dominated by eucalypts, because we forget the felled species and remember the hardy and the persistent.
Why does it matter what a landscape looked like over a century ago? From one perspective, it doesn’t matter at all. We can design landscapes to conserve birds and other organisms without knowing about, or attempting to re-create, past patterns. As climate change intensifies, our children will have to do this more and more.
From another perspective, a primary goal of History is to create morality plays for the future. Picture two regions. In one, honeysuckles were always rare; in the other, they were abundant. In both, a handful of dying honeysuckles remain. What would you do for the honeysuckles in each landscape? Would you have a bigger vision for banksia conservation in the second region? If you would, it’s because our knowledge of past landscapes informs not just the content, but also the scale, of our visions for future landscapes. We think bigger when it was bigger.
In many regions Silver Banksias can no longer be planted across large areas. There just aren’t enough seeds. More abundant she oaks, wattles and other species are planted in their place. In these areas the best prospect for the banksias is to collect cuttings and seeds from every surviving plant, and to create seed orchards that contain all the inter-mixed plants, to overcome the grinding poverty trap of genetic isolation. These orchards will inspire further action, as they host the first bustling woodlands full of squawking ‘parrots, paroquets, and wattle-birds’ for over 100 years. Across broader landscapes, we can re-create some of the functional diversity that once existed by planting nectar-rich trees of other species as surrogates for the vanquished honeysuckles.
Whatever we choose, the landscape of the future is a world that we’ll create. We can use the past as a signpost to embolden our visions, or we can embroider the past like a fading signpost. Either way, no action = no future. So think big.
Guess what? A single old honeysuckle survives at Mt Alexander – just. In the comments below, Gerry Gill sent in this photo of the last surviving tree. I can’t embed a photo in a comment, so I’ve added it here instead. By the look of it, it won’t be too long before this tree joins the ghosts of landscapes past. Gerry has also made some great videos about the old map of central Victoria, which you can watch here. I hope this blog encourages many readers to propagate these old veterans (the trees, not Gerry) before they disappear completely.
Many thanks to Anna Foley and Tim Barlow for allowing me to use their photos of the old Banksia and the Honeysuckle Creek sign, to Frank Carland who discovered the old article about clearing Banksias, and to Tim and Steve Sinclair for their comments on an early draft of this post.
Many groups are doing fantastic work to create the future woodlands of honeysuckle, sheoak and more. If you are, please leave a comment below to inform and inspire others.
Batey, I. (1907) On fifteen thousand acres: its bird-life sixty years ago. Emu 7, 1-17.
Hill, G.F. (1907) . Birds of Ararat District. Emu 7, 18–23.
Howitt, W. (1858). Land, Labour, and Gold or Two Years in Victoria with Visits to Sydney and van Dieman’s Land. Full text available online.
Ulrich, G.H.F. (1875). Geology of Victoria. A descriptive catalogue of the specimens in the Industrial and Technological Museum (Melbourne), illustrating the rock system of Victoria. (Mason, Firth & McCutcheon, Melbourne). Full text available online.
- The candles of Dunkeld
- Growing biolinks for climate change
- On restoration, old photos and provenance
Thankyou Ian, I am part of the Friends of Daly Nature Reserve in Gisborne, Victoria. It has remnant native vegetation and is in the heart of Gisborne. Macedon Ranges Shire Council is trying to put a development on it, so we are fighting to protect it. Council had promised in November 2012, to protect it and place a Trust for Nature Conservation Coventant over it – they betrayed us and the nature reserve. Your posts are very helpful in putting more information to them, to try to get them to see reason. Thankyou again, Helen Radnedge
Hello Helen, thanks for writing, I’m glad you find the posts useful. I hope they help inspire others to keep up the good fight, as you are doing in Gisborne. Keep up your great work, I hope you make some inroads despite the opposition. Best wishes Ian
Excellent piece! Perhaps when you are next in Canberra you might like to visit the STEP site (Southern Tableland Ecosystem Park) within the National Arboretum Canberra where we have now re-assembled the dominant tree species and 50+ understorey spp of the southern tablelands so people can once again see the full biodiversity of these ecosystems.
Hello Max, that’s a fantastic initiative. I’ll definitely pay a visit next time I’m in Canberra. Thanks again for writing in, Ian
What an interesting piece! A dairy farmer with an environmental bent, I’ve planted thousands of gums and wattles but not a single banksia. Although there are some small, localised stands of banksia in the adjoining forest, they haven’t been on my radar at all but now I will think again.
Welcome Triple-M, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope all of your plantings grow well and support lots of birds. It’s fantastic to hear of the great work everyone is doing, through the comments. Thanks again, best wishes Ian
Great article, thanks. There is a rarely visited arboretum at Elphingstone, a couple of km’s from Mt Alexander, where the many now mature silver banksia’s are self seeding profusely. I’m not sure where the original seeds were collected, but just a great place to visit & see the honeyeaters. Many other plant species and and even planting information boards about the place too.
It’s still happening – at least here in Tasmania where laws on clearing of private land are almost non-existent. I was distressed when a small patch of beautiful mature Banksia marginata woodland was cleared overnight by the new owner of a rural residential property, apparently to run a few sheep and stoke the fire. Native vegetation has little value beyond the pulp mill or sawlog. Thank you for bringing these less appreciated communities to attention and for giving me the impetus to go out and collect propagating material to at least do something positive towards their restoration.
Hi Kade, I hope you manage to propagate the banksias and other species successfully and make some amends for the damage inflicted. Keep your enthusiasm up, it’s the only thing that will make a difference in the long run. Keep at it! Best wishes Ian
Hi Ian. Having just read your article on forgotten Woodlands of such species as Honeysuckle -Banksia marginata, and after reading the Candles of Dunkeld where Stephen B. comments on mono species regeneration, the issue of provenance seems to be rearing its ugly head. The value of tracing and planting “original” seed appears to be widely regarded as a dubious value in the context of climate change. I was inspired by commercial seed seller Mr. Lindsay Ezzard from St. Arnaud who recommends the planting of seed orchards. At a recent biolinks meeting in Bendigo it was said that climate change was making the planning element in Land Management less than reliable and increasingly uncertain. In terms of revegetation then, do we abandon attempts to recreate landscapes as they once were or accept that benchmarks of sliding scale are a must not a fallacy? Sorry to end with a question, but I am genuinely interested in what others are thinking out there.
Hello Runar, you raise lots of great questions. We have very little ability to predict accurately how particular species will respond to climate change, especially at local or regional scales. Overall, the best option is keep open as many options as possible, whether we are thinking about genetics, plantings, disturbances, linkages, restoration, or any other activity. The provenance issue is a big one that I suspect I’ll return to in future posts. In the meantime, John Morgan wrote a really good blog on local provenance a while ago that is well worth reading: http://morganvegdynamics.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/is-tide-turning-on-using-locally.html Best wishes Ian
Hello Ian thank you again for another interesting blog and astute observations about the ecology of our woodlands and veteran trees. I am sad to think of how many species may have been driven to extinction before we even named them and how many more will be lost due to the demise of veteran trees of all species across our landscape. Runar’s question is a good one. I think that collecting and propagating from trees that have survived in the landscape beyond the first two thirds of their potential life expectancy is not a bad strategy given that those trees have likely survived a variety of extremes. However the spectre of accelerating warming and record breaking conditions does pose conundrums for conservation as well as restoration strategies. In addition our vegetation is also not immune from increasing threats from introduced diseases and pests similar to those those faced by NZ Kauri dieback (Phytophthora spp) and UK Ash dieback (Chalaria fraxinea). I am not confident taht I fully understand what Runar means by a seed orchard but if this is similar to an arboretum then the more the better imo. It seems a valid strategy to preserve and test genetics across a diverse range of conditions.
Hello Jan, thanks very much for writing in. I think you and Runar raise lots of fascinating questions that will bedevil restorationists in coming decades. It will be fascinating to see how people approach these issues in 50 or more years time. My guess is that they might adopt very different approaches than we do, but I won’t be around to find out! To quote the old proverb, ‘We live in interesting times’. Best wishes Ian
Hi again Ian, I hope you forgive the following as addendum to my last post. I remember the scolding look I received from my biological environment lecturer when I recounted a tasmanian friends ecological theory regarding rubus fruiticosus – common blackberry, as a pioneer plant in a succession leading to establishment of Acacia spp then the climax community of Eucalyptus spp.
Hi again Runar, if I put my professional ecologist’s hat on for a moment, and reply in more formal language than I normally use in the blog posts, I’d suggest that that’s an interesting hypothesis in need of further experimental verification 🙂 Thanks again for writing in, cheers Ian
G’day Ian, attached is a photo of a very old blasted Banksia from the very area you selected from the Hoddle / Urquhart / Selwyn 1852 map. It is the only survivor in the area that I know of; although the local Landcare group have had some success with protected plantings. The young trees are very attractive to rabbits and stock. Regards, Gerry Gill
WOW, Thanks heaps Gerry, that’s fantastic. WordPress doesn’t allow attachments to be sent with comments, so I will email you separately and then work out a way to post the image so everyone can see it. I hope you manage to grow lots and lots of plants from this last survivor. Thanks again, Ian. UPDATE: I’ve now inserted Gerry’s great photo at the end of the post above.
Ian, great post.
Although not a WordPress author, I gather from other blogs that you can append/update your original post to include additional material like Gerry’s photo.
Hi Kate, great suggestion – done! Cheers Ian
Reblogged this on disconnectedlandscapes.
thanks again for another interesting thought provoking post, always a nice mental vacation home from my far away home in the tropics. This one really struck a ‘yes!’ chord – remembering all that pre-1750’s mapping we did in the noughties, and our perpetual unease and discomfort of interpreting the landscape as static and piecing it together like an archaeologist interpreting small pieces of disparate evidence and with deadlines constantly looming and other imperatives pushing – no wonder we called it ‘fantasy mapping’!
Hi Cathy, would that be Cathy M, ex-Latrobe and Vic Dept Environment? I never know who will read these posts, and it’s wonderful to know people are reading them in far-flung places, and enjoying them. Thanks for writing in, and best wishes Ian
Hi there, Yes, this is I. I’ve been a long, long time working in East Timor and been getting your blog for a few years now, found it via one of your former students who did a volunteer stint here, small world ya? Take care
A great read Ian. And hello too Cathy. I see you drifted further north; I drifted further south! Glad to know you are well. I also recall calling it ‘hysterical mapping’ (instead of historical mapping). That Colac mapsheet was hard work. Ian, I’d be interested in knowing if there is anyone who has collated information on the coverage of species historically? Historical maps from the Victorian western basalt plains around Colac listed other species which we translated e.g. Bursaria spinosa. I recall using anything we could find: landmarks, features in paintings and maps to put together a ‘picture’ of what might have been there. We did find one old Bursaria tree and really celebrated. I recall one painting having ‘Mt Emu Creek’ in the title – quite hard to find where that painting was taken given the distance that creek covers! Here in Tasmania some Banksia marginata woodlands still persist and the species itself is widespread (shrub/large tree; coast to subalpine). I wonder what story the old maps here tell of this species?
Hi Perpetua, Steve Sinclair at ARI in Melbourne has being doing lots of fantastic work collating all of the old maps across the western basalt plains, and he may be able to help interpret some old accounts. Bursaria spinosa was sometimes called ‘prickly native box’ in the 1800s. I remember puzzling over it too when I investigated vegetation changes at Ocean Grove years ago (in Aust J Botany in 1998). Thanks again, best wishes Ian
Great piece Ian. Suggestive of ways to gather history through team-work – your acknowledgements are great. Much exciting new stuff in both history and conservation coming through community initiatives!
Hello Libby, I’m old enough to still think the potential of the web is amazing (whereas my kids thinks it’s boringly normal). It’s great to be able to build on information kindly provided by others, and even better to prompt great feedback like Gerry’s great photo and the many comments above. Best wishes Ian
In addition to the comments above, I just received an email from Neville Scarlett which reads, ‘it is amazing how rare a once common tree (B. marginata) has become. An elderly farmer from Benambra told me that his grandfather said that the honeysuckles were “all over the Omeo Plains”. Today they survive in two small areas, one above Swift’s Creek on the right of the road, the other on the Nariel Road north of Benambra near Livingstone Creek (mostly moribund).’ I wonder if anyone knows of any other stands of old tree banksias in Gippsland?
This is a great article Ian. Ever since I found an old parish map of Mandurang that had a Honeysuckle Creek/Valley (memory is fading) on it, I’ve tried to include them in my plantings. Allocasuarinas too! The acacia’s mentioned are not so hard to find. Cheers!
Hello Ben, I’m glad you liked it, thanks very much. I hope all your plantings fare well and more plants can be grown from the seeds they produce. Cheers Ian
Great post Ian, really struck a chord with me.
Hello Duncan, thanks very much, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m sure many readers will also enjoy lots of your posts about Gippsland’s natural history at http://bencruachan.org/blog/ Best wishes Ian
Thanks for your posting Ian. It has been advertised widely, and will no doubt be read by many.
I must do some further investigation of the earlier distribution of Honeysuckle across the northern Wimmera and Mallee. I have a block in the northern Wimmera (southern Mallee) with a few mature Silver Banksia trees on it, but I am seeing very little of this species across this landscape and wonder if they are also forgotten.
Hi Chris, there is is an old vegetation map drawn in 1869 which may be useful for you, as it covers the whole of Victoria. ‘Honeysuckle’ (tree-form Banksia marginata) is shown as it’s own map unit (in blue). You can download a copy of the map from this link: http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/7375460?l-format=Map&l-format=Map%2FSingle . I considered including the map in this post, but the colors were too hard to see without a lot of manipulation. However it should be useful if you have a specific area you want to look up. You may be surprised how many areas are mapped as being dominated by Banksias. Best wishes Ian
Hi Ian, Thanks for a most informative post. Further to Gerry’s early contribution there is another Banksia marginata, albeit smaller, growing in the area which is located on a small creek adjacent to the Sutton Grange road at the base of Mount Alexander. A few years ago following contact from the landholder on whose property it occurs, I was able to scratch together some funding and fence the creek off and the landholder undertook some complimentary planting with tubestock from a distant provenance. I have photos if you wish to include in your post which I can provide. It is also worth noting that members of the Banyton-Sidonia Landcare group, a bit further south, have been actively propagating and revegetating Banksia from seed collected off a few old plants which are still hanging on in their area.
Hello Adrian, thanks heaps for the update, that’s great to hear. I just did a quick Google search on Banksia and Baynton and found two great articles from the Baynton-Sidonia Landcare Group describing their great work. They’re currently planting out 900 Banksia marginata seedlings which is a fantastic achievement. There are two great articles in these newsletters: (1) http://northcentral.landcarevic.net.au/baynton_sidonia/newsletter/BSLCG%20Spring%202013%20newsletter%20.pdf/at_download/file and (2) http://northcentral.landcarevic.net.au/baynton_sidonia/newsletter/BSLCG%20winter%202012%20.pdf/at_download/file Its great to hear of all the hard work to improve these landscapes! Best wishes Ian
Hi Ian. Another very interesting article, thanks. I was reminded of the very distinctive vegetation growing on the Coolac Serpentinite near Gundagai which, historically, seems to have been dominated by Silver Banksia and Allocasuarina verticillata, with White Box at lower altitudes and Long-leaved Box higher up, which, as far as I know, is unique in the upper slopes subregion of the South West Slopes. One of the serpentinite ridges is actually named the Honeysuckle Range. The sheoaks are still dotted through the landscape but the Silver Banksias I think are now confined to a couple of road reserves and a TSR. While the veg on the serpentinite in NSW is probably quite different to the Victorian communities you mention in the post, I thought it worth a mention all the same.
Hello Steve, thanks very much for writing in. I’ve seen the old sheoaks near Coolac while driving along the Hume Hwy, but haven’t explored the area and didn’t know about the Banksias. I wonder if other readers can shed some light on this population? This might be one of the most westerly populations of Silver Banksia in NSW perhaps. It used to occur near Deniliquin, but that population is now extinct I think. Thanks again for writing in, and drawing attention to the ‘forgotten woodlands’ of yet another region, cheers Ian
Hi Ian, I loved reading this evocative piece on species that have also virtually disappeared from landscapes around the granite-strewn Strathbogie Ranges. The farm l live on has one remaining (sterile) Banksia marginata clinging on for dear life, perched high on a dry bank. I tried getting cuttings from it this autumn, but sadly none took. As a child l recall a few more trees dotted in cleared gullies-now gone. Nowadays, locals can almost refer to remaining specimens by name; fortunately because of them being revered, some on private land have been protected from stock, while others hang on along roadsides with their own name tags provided by Landcare. The recent death of a magnificent old Banksia tree on the roadside at Ruffy was mourned by many in the district. Black Sheoaks and Drooping Sheoaks share a similar status, despite them having been abundant according to early anecdotal records. A couple of populations of Black Sheoaks growing in roadside remnants are discrete but significant features in the area.
On a more positive note, in our region there have been concerted efforts to reintroduce the species. The Euroa Arboretum has established a Banksia ‘orchard’, or seed production area, that holds a collection of seed and cutting raised trees collected from across the Goulburn Broken catchment, thanks to the efforts of those involved in this project and funding from the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority. I believe that tubestock using seed from this orchard is then distributed for local revegetation projects. Local landholders have also made efforts to reintroduce Drooping Sheoaks propagated from local seed in their revegetation/restoration projects. Drier conditions have perhaps made it more difficult to re-establish Banksias…? That said, l recall going on a walk with locals to a south-facing dry, ironstone scree gully that was swathed in a dense thicket of Banksias near Highlands. They were obviously adapted to dry conditions!
Cheers and thanks again for your thoughtful post
Hi S2, thanks very much for your great comments. I had to chuckle at the idea of putting individual name tags on the last veteran trees (Honeysuckle John, meet Honeysuckle Sue). It seems reminiscent somehow of nailing plaques to fallen soldiers along Avenues of Honour – reverential memorials to the living dead : ) The Euroa Arboretum work sounds fantastic. Like the work of the Baynton group mentioned above, it’s this kind of ‘up-scaling’ that is really needed to crank up the scale of activities, from stretching out the life of the last veterans to promoting big stands of inter-breeding fertile offspring. It’s wonderful to have attracted so many responses from groups across the countryside. I wonder what mechanisms exist for local groups to swap stories and learn from each other’s experiences normally? Thanks again, best wishes Ian
Hi everyone, thanks so much to everyone for circulating this post on Facebook, Twitter, email and other networks. It’s now been read over 500 times in just two and a half days, which sets a new record for this little blog site, and is very humbling. I hope everyone enjoys the wonderful feedback from so many readers in the comments, and that the post re-energises those who are doing so much hard work across the countryside – not that many of you need re-energising. Thanks again and best wishes, Ian
And here’s some wonderful feedback from Armidale NSW, via Twitter…
G’day Ian thanks for your great work, I have been visiting Mount Alexander at least once a month for the past 2 years and have noticed a big increase in the germination of blackwoods and black wattles, both species have produced large amounts of seed over 2 seasons. The mountain is going through a big regeneration event at the moment. There have been sightings of wombats too which is very exciting.
Welcome CVE, that’s great to hear. I guess the granite hills would have been very dried out during the long drought, so it’s great to hear the wattles are regenerating well in the better seasons recently. Many readers sent in lots of observations of recent regeneration a few months ago, which I collated in a recent blog, ‘The big wet regeneration pulse‘, which you might find interesting too. Best wishes and I hope the wombats thrive! Ian
Thanks Ian for another very interesting and relevant disusscuion. I have thought about the missing woodlands in the Tasmanian context as we too have Honeysuckle Creeks (with banksias non-evident these days) – indeed, on an early map I saw the region of Evandale referred to as Honeysuckle Banks.
Much of the Banksia woodlands are on basalt soils (therefore fertile and “improved” early, often by 1820’s) and on windblown Holocene sands forming lunettes etc. They are often associated with cabbage gum E. pauciflora woodlands (the mainland’s “snowgum”), often with a suite of threatened plant species such as endemic grassland orchids, daisies etc. In Tasmania we still have a small number of very old decrepit Banksia stands – forests of the “living dead”. There has been no regeneration for >100 years. There are concerned landowners who have tried to get some regeneration (grazing exclusion, crash grazing, mechanical disturbance, burning etc – all to no avail). One grazier has set aside a banksia grove in the Eliza Furlonge Reserve on ‘Kenilworth’ (I think), outside of Campbell Town in the Midlands. Eliza Furlonge was an early founder of the wool industry (along with the celebrated John Macarthur at ‘Camden Park’, NSW), bringing Saxon merinos into Tasmania, part of the original merino bloodlines. Some of these contain huge gnarled individual specimens.
There are also some big old Banksia groves associated with coastal Holocene sandspits and tombolas (such as the white gum-banksia woodlands at Dolphin Sands ….all dying of old age). Other species? I think it was Pep Turner who noted big old Bursaria spinosa individuals – I have seen a couple of huge ancient giants in the Tasmanian Midlands but they have now gone (changing baselines – there is no evidence of them, only fading memories). I don’t really have a picture where there might have been more extensive-oak and bull-oak woodlands in the Midlands. Sorry to be lengthy, but at least it gets it out there so the Tasmanian info is not lost!
Hi Louise, thanks very much for the detailed info from Tasmania. It sounds like the Tassie situation is very similar to that in Victoria. Big old Banksias are a very iconic tree, and I hope that landholders and community groups can propagate and re-plant large areas, before more of the veteran trees finally die out. Best wishes Ian
You’ve certainly struck a nerve with this post! As you know, there are several patches of remnant Silver Banksias in the Strathbogie Ranges, Vic, and, from your post, I now also know that this is the case in other landscapes. Our local quandary relates to the habitat/niches that Silver Banksias once occupied and where they ‘should’ be planted now (both from an ecological and survival view point). Our remnant Banksias grow either along streams, or on the edges of wetlands (ground-water dependent), so the simple conclusion to draw is that it’s these habitats (soil moisture?) that were the preferred ones – but who knows? They do quite well as garden plants, but don’t seem particularly long-lived. Locally, we can get plenty of Banksias for reveg projects; the issue is that they’re very palatable and heavily browsed when young. Rabbits might be an issue in some areas, but up here it’s a combination of Swamp Wallabies (in natural areas), Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoos and deer (rubbing and browsing- massive problem). And to sheep, they are just irresistible. However, if they can survive the first few years, they have a chance.
Hello Bert, thanks for writing in. In a conversation the other day a colleague wondered why it was that Banksias had declined to such an enormous extent in so many areas, and I think your observations probably explain that – everything loves to eat them! It certainly makes it a big challenge for replanting schemes. One question that I wonder about is – to what extent is the habitat of remnant trees representative of the range of habitats that honeysuckles occupied originally? Given that 99.999% of trees have disappeared, and so few survive, there’s a high likelihood that the species originally occupied a wider range of micro-habitats than now. As you note, we might prefer to plant them in some areas more than others, because survival is higher (or for other practical reasons). But we are likely to under-estimate their original tolerances if we judge habitat suitability from the locations of the few plants that still persist. One of the things that so amazed me when I wrote this post was how widespread and abundant honeysuckles were. It makes me think that they would once have had very broad tolerances. Perhaps we should plant much more broadly than we’d otherwise intend? Thanks again, and best wishes with all your plantings, Ian
For those interested in reading more about early records of Banksias in central Victoria, Bert has posted a blog about honeysuckles in the Strathbogie Ranges area on the ‘Strathbogie Ranges – Nature View’ blog site: http://strathbogierangesnatureview.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/mysterious-honeysuckle/#more-4894
And here’s some more great observations which arrived by email from Bindi Vanzella from Greening Australia in NSW:
Hi Ian, here is some additional comment for your blog Forgotten Woodlands. A bit of a snapshot from the NSW south-west slopes to support Steve Priday’s comments and quite depressing…
Coolac Serpetinite: Totally agree with Steve. I collected seed from a site at Tumorrama years ago. Not sure if this population still exists and the area has undergone massive pine plantation, e.g. Red Hill.
Wagga region: Known to have grown on the sandhills in central Wagga Wagga and likely up and downstream of the city on the sandhills parallel to the Murrumbidgee river. It was a key resource for the Wiradjuri people. Nectar was used to make a drink like cordial and dry cones to carry fire embers In 1997 Banksia marginata became the floral emblem. Unless someone can correct me there is no remnant tree left anywhere within the region. I certainly haven’t found any on TSRs or private land that have had access to over the years. Hope that this is not the case and there is a pocket hiding out there somewhere.
Batlow- Upper Gilmore catchment: I remember seeing some scraggly Banksia about 10 years ago in some old gold mine sites in a gully that feeds into the Gilmore Creek at the top of the Gilmore Valley near Batlow. At first I thought maybe they had been planted by gold miners as they seemed out of place but soon found out they were local to the area and remnants of what could have been larger populations cleared from gold mining and then farming.
For another update on Banksias in the Strathbogies region, a new post by Janet Hagen at “Strathbogie Ranges – Nature View” gives an update on the status of all of the known Banksia populations in their region, including more great pictures of big old trees: http://strathbogierangesnatureview.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/silver-banksia-populations-in-the-strathbogie-ranges/
The following great comment was sent to me by email. I wonder how many community groups have found rare plants while abseiling! This is another fantastic example of hard work by local groups to save our threatened species, Ian …
“We have just ordered 1000 Banksia marginata tube stock grown from the most recent provenance we have “discovered” for planting out in winter 2014. And we also found some Grevillea rosmarinifolia growing on a ledge (inaccessible to rabbits or sheep) over the Pohlman Creek that we abseiled down to earlier this year because we could see banksias growing there and wanted to collect the seed from them. We have just taken cuttings from those plants and a nursery is growing 500 seedlings for us from that material for us to distribute to keen local landholders. We haven’t seen grevillea growing anywhere else in our district. Then next year we hope to turn our attention to Dianella amoena which grows in just a very few, and mostly vulnerable, sites in the local area. We hope these plants will not now go locally extinct, but we also recognise that this kind of program has value in simply persuading our community to notice and value indig veg! We live in hope! Best wishes Clare”
Great article. Remarkable how many comments reflect similar experiences regarding the continuing loss of Banksia marginata across the landscape. For the sake of completeness, my comments on Silver Banksia from the western Victorian basalt plains are in the comments of another of your posts: https://ianluntecology.com/2013/09/29/drought-dieback-and-insect-attack/#more-7680.
Hi Scott, thanks very much for adding the link to your great comment on the earlier post. Best wishes Ian
Hi Ian, your article if fantastic it explains really well exactly what I have been trying to tell people for years. We have established a seed production area [SPA] for a range of species in order to supply seed to a range of people (indigenous nurseries and private) in order to reduce the amount of seed being taken from the natural environment. We collected seed from 5 different population of the Tree form of Silver Banksia and we now have over 300 plants in our SPA and we are collecting heaps of seed. We have to separately bag the cones with cloth bags or the beautiful Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoos take them all before they are ripe.
The local nursery tells us that our seed grows faster and better and grows lovely plants compared to all the others they have grown. We would like more people to grow our seed and include it in their plantings as it may help people to form more sustainable populations over time.
We went to so much trouble because we want to see this species returned to all the areas where it used to be (we make very little money from our seed – this is not our motivation). I work on grasslands in the VVP and we have included some grassland species in our SPA. I would like to see our Silver Banksia planted on the VVP because it will improve the genetics but I am concerned about planting plants from further away. Our seed is from Baynton and Tooborac and Spring Hill and we grow them on a property near Daylesford on mostly red volcanic soil. If you have time to look at our website: http://www.victoriannativeseed.com.au/ you can see what we are doing. I would love to know what you think and to send you a picture of one of the amazing trees we collected seed from but I do not know how to attach a picture to this. Best Wishes and thanks again for your great work. Libby and Steve
Hi Libby, thanks for your great email and – more importantly – for your great work. I’m staggered by the response that this story prompted. On one hand the comments highlight that lots of people are doing so much fantastic work but, on the other hand, it seems that many groups had little idea of other activities, or that their work was contributing to a much bigger cause. It’s great to have been able to play a small role in linking together so many wonderful initiatives. Unfortunately I can’t embed pictures in comments (which is quite a nuisance) but I’d encourage everyone to visit your web site. Best wishes with your great work, I hope you continue to grow 1000s and 1000s of seeds from your tree banksias. Yours, Ian
Thank you so much for your article. I’ve been researching the early vegetation of our property, near Mansfield. Recently I came across a map dated 1864, which notes the vegetation along our creek as ‘lightly timbered with white and red gum and honeysuckle’. At first I thought ‘honeysuckle’ might be Bursaria spinosa, but you have solved the mystery for me. As it happens, I have some Banksia marginata growing in my landcare areas. They were propagated from seed collected from local remnant trees in 2005. I have provided seed from those remnants to Jim Begley for his Silver Banksia project and to Euroa Arboretum for their banksia seed orchard.
My banksias flower, but do not set seed, I guess because of lack of honeyeaters. At a seed collector’s meeting with Jim a couple of years ago I asked if banksias can be hand pollinated. No-one knew. I’ve tried but had no success. Do you know anything about hand pollination?
On the map I found it also notes white gum as growing thickly in a wet area near the current Mansfield sewerage farm. To my knowledge, the only swamp gum which grows around here is E camphora. Can you shed any light as to what species this may have been?
Hello Erika, thanks for commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’m not sure why your banksias don’t set seed but I’d be surprised if it was because of a lack of honeyeaters. I imagine that insects would pollinate many flowers, but I don’t know a lot about pollination I’m afraid. Jim Begley will be more helpful than me.
Bursaria was sometimes called ‘native box’ on some of the old maps. It’s hard to know what ‘white gum’ refers to as the same, general common name probably referred to lots of different gum-barked eucalypts on the old maps. Your best bet would be to take a pick based on remnant trees in your area, as you’ve done with E. camphora. Best wishes with your plantings, I hope they all grow well. Cheers Ian
Great article and very important what you point out. I have said for years that most ecologist have very little idea of what the landscape looked like at the time of European settlement, because they do not read historical accounts. For example, there are several accounts of Glossy Black Cockatoos in coastal sheoaks (A.verticillata) on the Mornington Peninsula, yet the species disappeared so early (probably before 1850) that it is not recognised as having occurred in central Victoria. The Glossy Black is a sheoak-specialist, and a clue that it was found in Victoria should be that a remnant population survives in Sheoak woodlands on Kangaroo Island!
As for Banksia woodlands, on French Island we have the opposite ‘problem’. With the cessation of widespread burning in 1980s, much of the sand heath is senescing and falling over, what will replace the teatree and bracken? Small woodlands of Banksia marginata are appearing all over the island – some are pure stands – which we have puzzled over. Your article sheds some light on what we might expect! 🙂
Also, Black Sheoaks are appearing in many places where we had not recorded them before 1980s, but they are slow to appear… usually about 30 years after the last fire.
Finally, Bursaria is called ‘Box Myrtle’ or ‘Honey Myrtle’ by old timers here. Many old trees along the coast were cut down for the boat-building industry, as the bent, fine-grained wood makes excellent ‘knees’ for boats. This ‘resource’ was already identified by Blandowski in his expedition to Western Port in 1855… sadly.
Hello Chris, thanks very much for your wonderful observations. I had a look on the Atlas of Living Australia web site (http://www.ala.org.au/) and it shows an old (undated) specimen record of Glossy Blacks from Mt Macedon too, which was a surprise to me too. The emergence of Banksia woodlands on French Islands is fascinating – lots of other groups will be very envious of this 🙂 Thanks to for the note about Bursarias being used for boat building, I hadn’t heard about that. This honeysuckle blog post certainly has triggered a lot of amazing observations from across the countryside! Thanks again for writing in, and best wishes, Ian
Thanks for your most informative article. Only in recent years, as my tastes have matured, have I developed a real appreciation for Banksias – there’s something about those fresh, lemon-lime inflorescences, and the contrast of spiky silver-sided green leaves, that just really appeals. Only King Proteas have a similar level of charm for me – or is it charisma? Anyway, I was delighted to discover that the Banksia Marginata is likely to withstand the frosts on my little acreage beside the Coliban River in Malmsbury. I’ve just ordered 50 tube-stock specimens at just $1.50 per plant from A & B Trees in Heathcote – that’s a vast improvement on the two larger pots I picked up at a Newport native nursery a couple of weeks ago for close to 10 times the cost! I knew they were a rarity in my region, but how wonderful to learn what an important ecological place they once occupied and how many birds, bees and other insects I may now attract to my garden. I am hoping they won’t grow too tall as hope they’d replace a small forest of (somewhat stunted) Hawthorns I’ve just had removed from an escarpment rising up from the floodplain. I’ve developed more confidence from the descriptions and photo of the old Banksia in this article. Can anyone suggest how far apart I should plant them on the sloping rock and volcanic loam soil, about a metre above flood level, if I want them to mature to less than 3m? How close is too close? Do they need initial protection from frost; and is my Landcare friend correct in warning that roos and wallbies love to nip off their tips if not guarded?
Kind regards, Nichola
Hi Nichola, I can’t comment on the best spacing but they will definitely need to be protected from rabbits and wallabies or you may find you lose them all. I hope they all survive to create lots of food for birds and insects down the track. Best wishes Ian
What a blessing to read your thoughtful article, Ian, after an ecologist friend pointed me your way. Three four species you highlighted (Silver Banksia, Drooping Sheoak, and Lightwood / Blackwood) feature prominently and intentionally in the 2700 seedlings we planted last year as part of a multi-year reforestation project on a former 28ha grazing property at Guildford, south of Castlemaine. I’m new to ecology, but it was these very species (among a few others in the mid-storey category) that sang to me as I went through species selection lists with a botanist and the tree planter and was then introduced to them in the field. It was more than just EVC. It was these kind of trees I wanted to sit beneath, listen to wind in their boughs or reach and an touch – and which are so visibly absent even in the remnant box forest copses on our property. So, your article, helped me draw a more stable arc through my feelings, our pre-Settlement history and our emergent plans for the future. With generous summer rain and an decent Autumn break, our seedlings are thriving. Deep ripping the compacted open paddocks we selected for the first tree belts has helped too. The next challenge will be how to reintroduce these and other midstorey species back into box forest areas where saw and hoof have denuded them. In these areas, the eucalypts are now dominant and shrubs will find it hard to compete. Ripping won’t be an option because of root damage. So to give the shrubs a fighting chance and to to mimise attrition, we think we’ll target gaps in the eucalypts, auger holes for them, and colonise out from there. Tactically, it’ll be a different and more nuanced game than in the open paddocks. Finally, thanks again for your wonderful piece.
Hello John, thanks very much for your kind comments. I’m glad you found the post useful. Best wishes with your great work, I hope your seedlings grow strong and tall. Cheers Ian
I love your article Ian. We live on 270 acres on Taungurung country at the boundary of Kyneton/Pastoria.
There are no Banksia and She-oaks and barely any understory plants here but many remnant eucalyptus. After reading Holmgrem’s Trees in a Treeless Landscape, I realised that we don’t have much knowledge about what this area looked like pre-settlement.
We are slowly trying to change that and have started to plant out tube stock of Banksia, Casuarina, Bursaria among other plants, from local seed stock. I get my plants from A and B growers in Heathcote who use seed from a Victoria Native Seed also will happily propagate any that I manage to harvest from our land.
I struggle to visualise where these plants would have been situated and how they may have been grouped, so it is of great benefit to me to read the descriptions painted in your article. I shall now attempt planting in rocky granite outcrops as a result. I can picture how beautiful that scene might one day become
I’m encouraged to read the other comments and I look forward to a future where these valuable plants will be a common sight once more.