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.
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