The death of Honeysuckle Creek

Gabriel Knight gully erosion 1
‘Gully erosion’ #1 by Gabriel Knight. Original photo from the State Library of Victoria.

Picture a place called ‘Honeysuckle Creek’. I hope it looks better than this.

I wrote a post a year ago on vanishing honeysuckles; about the tree form of Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata), which was wiped out across much of south-east Australia. The story was one of the most popular I’ve written, and prompted lots of feedback. Many readers had collected seeds and planted seedlings to save the last of their local trees.

What do vanishing banksias and eroding gullies have in common? I found the photo above by chance on Trove. It is from a glass negative, perhaps 100 years old, and is labelled ‘Gully Erosion’. The depth of the gully is hard to fathom until you notice the footprints. The photo is striking but not remarkable; the next photo in the series is more interesting.

Gabriel Knight gully erosion 2
‘Gully erosion’ #2 by Gabriel Knight. Original photo from the State Library of Victoria.

The lone tree on the crumbling pillar of soil caught my eye. It’s unmistakably a Banksia, as shown in the close-up below. And it’s presumably among the last of the honeysuckles on this deathly creek. I wonder if the photographer knew?

The photos were taken by Gabriel Knight, who lived from 1876-1946. Knight left 182 glass negatives and photographs to the State Library of Victoria. His Town and Country Views in Victoria, ca. 1890-1921 collection can be seen online.

Gabriel Knight Banksia
The last of the honeysuckles. Is that a Chrysocephalum in the foreground too? Close-up of original photo held by the State Library of Victoria.

Knight was a school teacher, and taught at Cressy in western Victoria, Welshpool in South Gippsland and Towong in north-east Victoria. He took photos in each region, including well-known shots of she-oak woodlands on Mt Elephant in western Victoria. Those woodlands too have since disappeared.

According to the label, the photos of the eroding creek were taken in the period 1890-1896, over a century ago. But the date, like the locality, may be wrong. Knight was just 14 years old in 1890.

Where was the Banksia?

The full label of the erosion photos reads, ‘Gully erosion, possibly taken near Beechworth’, but I doubt the photos were taken there. Only four photos in the Knight collection are from the Beechworth area, and all are labelled ‘possibly taken near Beechworth’.

My guess is that they were taken in the upper Murray River region near Towong. The hill behind the eroded gully resembles the background in a few of Knight’s photos (here, here and here), including this picture of a herd of cattle.

‘Herd of cattle in a hillside paddock, possibly in the Upper Murray area’. Original photo from the State Library of Victoria.

If the gully was near Beechworth, then the lone honeysuckle would definitely be Banksia marginata. If it was in the Upper Murray area, it may be Banksia canei (Mountain Banksia), which was split from B. marginata in the 1960s. Either way, the photo epitomizes the tragedy of the once-majestic, honeysuckle woodlands.

Have you worked hard to save the last of your local tree banksias from a fate like this? Then pin this photo to your wall to remind yourself – and everyone else – how your great work is saving a once-abundant tree from extinction.

Hopefully one day we can all visit a Honeysuckle Creek that looks way better than this.

Have you helped save your local banksias? Please write a comment below to inspire others by your recent achievements. And, of course, keep up your amazing work.


Acknowledgements

I have increased the contrast and sharpness in the photos above. The originals can be seen on the State Library of Victoria’s web page.

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21 thoughts

  1. We have had good results growing B marginata on sandy soil on a lake edge at our “arboretum” at Tilba on the south coast. But they are often trashed by yellow-tailed black cockatoos, still they seem to fight back and many of the several thousand we have grown are now over 5m and flower profusely, producing huge numbers of wattle birds and other nectivores.

    1. Hi Max, thanks very much for sharing your experiences. I just read back over the comments on last year’s blog post on the vanishing Banksias and two readers noted that Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoos ate their young banksias too – one observation was from the Strathbogies in central Victoria and one was from the Victorian western basalt plains. Banksias have a really hard time don’t they, getting eaten by everything on the ground and from the air too! I hope your plantings prosper and provide lots of seeds for future plantings, notwithstanding the cockatoos. Best wishes Ian

  2. I’m documenting a number of Banksia stands in Western Victoria at the moment and the absence of recruitment is noticeable and seems to have been a problem for a number of years in some stands. Some sites are still successfully producing small seedlings but getting to the sapling stage seems to be a problem for them. I’ve also heard lots of others tell me about problems with Black Cockies, mainly feasting on infructescents before the follicles open up but it’s the first time I’ve heard of them smashing the seedlings though!

    1. Hi Simon, thanks for your observations from WA. I wonder if the recruitment problem is due to the protracted dry period there? I think that most of the black cockatoo observations from eastern Australia probably do refer to the birds attacking the fruits and branches around them, rather than the seedlings as a whole. I hope you get better recruitment soon! Best wishes Ian

      1. Simon is looking at Western Victoria : ) I’ve also seen Black Cockatoos do their ‘feast and destroy’ act on Silver Banksia fruit in my parents backyard in suburban Camperdown, Victoria.

      2. Oh dear, my mistake! Sorry about that! I have “fixed” my reply by adding lots of over-strikes above. Thanks for pointing out the correction, best wishes Ian

  3. Hi Ian, Thanks for your thoughts and comments on being wary about nailing spatial and temporal details too tightly based on old records. A great reminder to always use multiple lines of evidence and always leave the door open to new as yet undiscovered information. Like you I would love to get the geocoodinates of the site and go and walk the area to see what has happened in the intervening period. It would also be instructive to have a stab at what the reference state for the plant community type was. Cheers Richard

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for writing in. If someone was really keen I suspect they could work out the possible locality of the site by driving around the region and comparing the background views of the hill slopes. Many of the other photos from the Towong region show more of the hills so it would be possible to locate many of the photos accurately and others a bit more approximately perhaps. Many of the eroded creeks in the area were stabilized with willows long ago, so the actual creek line (assuming it is near Towong) may look very different from this now too. Best wishes Ian

  4. Here’s another comment from another social media site, Linked In. Simon Heyes wrote:

    “Quite a few old giants have been disappearing in the Western District of Vic lately, Dundonnell and Illabarook to name a few. I’m about to start a masters with John Morgan at La Trobe and will be looking at Recruitment Ecology in Tree Form Banksia in a few months. I’ve been doing some documenting of sites and what I’ve seen so far is that we have these lovely big trees and maybe some smaller trees but very few to almost no saplings or seedlings. Obviously not all sites but of the ones I’ve visited so far the bad outnumber the good.”

    A number of readers sent in similar observations in last year’s blog post about the vanishing honeysuckles, https://ianluntecology.com/2013/10/13/forgotten-woodlands-future-landscapes/

  5. There are still some quite good stands of large old trees along the south coast from Tilba south. As well as B integrifloia.

  6. I’ve planted some Banksia marginata from a Bendigo provenance on my acreage 30km south of Bendigo. Unfortunately they seem to take several years to harden up to extreme weather conditions and most died during the last two summers which were even drier than the millennium drought.

    A neighbour planted a couple of tree form Banksia marginata that are now tree size and that produce a good number of seedlings but they all die because the new property owner mows over them.

    I also planted some Banksia integrifolia, which are not indigenous to the area, but these were all ring barked, presumably by cockatoos after grubs.

    1. Hi Melaleuca, that all sounds very frustrating and depressing! I hope you have more luck in the future, plus we get some good rains to keep everybody’s seedlings alive this summer. Best wishes Ian

  7. Well Ian, I’m not giving up! I’ll try long stem planting B marginata and amazingly all the ringbarked B integrifolia survived.

    The fact that the neighbour’s mature tree form B marginata withstood the last two brutal summers and produced good numbers of seedlings is also very encouraging.

    I would like to use sugar to suppress exotic annual grasses in my mixed wallaby-grass spear grass area. Can you suggest a rate of application? Thanks.

    1. Hi again Mel, that sounds much more encouraging! I hope you have better luck next time. I’ll reply separately about the sugar. I’m away at the moment & is hard to write in detail on my small phone screen. Thanks again for writing in, best wishes Ian

  8. I’m in Bacchus Marsh. Some of the maps I’ve looked at online suggest the area around here – around the south of Mt Cotterell, on the volcanic plains, to be exact – had sheoke woodlands originally, and I wonder about the B. marginata population as well; the APS book on “Plants of Melbourne’s Western Plains” indicates the tree form used to be more common around the area. Anyway, I got some seed off victoriannativeseed.com.au who left a comment on your earlier article, and have been growing it. After an initially disappointing result, on the 2nd batch I have had a reasonable germination rate, so will be giving these to friends around here (and anyone else nearby who asks – email ben.courtice@foe.org.au). If anyone has seed from a more local provenance, especially of the tree form, I’d be interested in that too of course for the next batch!

    1. Hello Ben, my sincere apologies for not replying earlier to your comment, but I missed it when it came in. There is a great map and report on Banksias and other original vegetation in the Werribee Plains area, south of Bacchus Marsh, in an interesting paper by Steve Sinclair & Keshia Atchison, which came out in 2012. You can download a copy (for free) from this link: http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/121413/Cun123sin213.pdf . I hope your second batch of Banksia seedlings are growing strongly, and survive through the summer and beyond. Thanks again and best wishes Ian

    2. Hi Ben, there are still trees around in plantings that are descended from original trees on mount Mary near Werribee, collected in the 1980s. If you contact me I can put you on to a seed supply. The form is a large tree. Unfortunately the last wild tree died in 2012 or 2013. Also, last time I looked there were still a couple of old trees on an escarpment in long forest near Melton. Again, I can give the details. Steve

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