Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged botany

  • Stars on the Dark Forest Floor

    Stars on the Dark Forest Floor

    This is the sassafras tree in flower. A native to wet forests in south-east Australia, especially in Tasmania, this sassafras is in no way related to the homonymous trees in North America.

    (How many times in writing a natural history have I had to explain this! The northern hemisphere exiles, invaders, and migrants of the late 1700s and 1800s were so desperate to make sense of this antipodean foreignness that the first English names they received were those of trees from elsewhere, of which they were very roughly an equivalent. Our sassafras, for those keeping track, has the Latin binomial of
    Atherosperma moschatumand to clear up these confusions is why the botanical names exist.)

    These are my favourite flowers. They bring me a great deal of pleasure, both for their aesthetics and for what they offer my imagination. Generally speaking, it is more common to find the flowers on the ground, fallen; as they exist in the rainforest, often the flowers are at the top of the tree, receiving daylight. Sometimes you are lucky and find one in bud or in blossom, usually in a clearing, such as where a landslip has occurred. But to be honest, I’m just as happy seeing them star the dark forest floor.

    White forest flowers mean a lot to me. In particular, I attribute great significance to three different species that give white flowers in the high country at different times of the year. September’s sassafras signals the incipient end of winter; in early summer, especially around the longest day of the year, smoky tea-tree flowers fill the landscape with grey-white clouds; leatherwood flowers are a sign of the end of summer, and despite their beauty and their exquisite aroma, their arrival around February or March brings me great sadness.

    I feel lucky to be here for the sassafras bloom. I live my life in seasons, and it’s never quite clear what the next season will bring. I spent most of the winter away this year, but managed to get home in time for the seasonal change. You will hear Tasmanians whinge about the weather, but I can’t say a bad word against it.

    The snows have fallen hard and low on the multitude of mountain ranges; I have been fortunate to crunch across the Cradle Plateau and the Western Tiers and Mount Wellington, to see the peaks of the Hartz Mountains and the massifs of Ben Lomond and Black Bluff bold and white on the horizon. I have woken to frost on my tent; my boots have frozen stiff; I have sheltered in mountain cottages and highland huts while rain comes pattering down.

    Then again, as I noted with a mate at a wake the other day, winters can be long and Septembers seem to often bring tragedy. Sometimes the colourless days, the bitter cold of solitude, the shrunken hours of daylight are hard to bear.

    Soon enough it will all be gone. Snow can fall in the mountains of Tasmania at any time of year, but the seasons are so distinctly different. Sassafras flowers will seem like a dream. Long sunsets will stretch out, filling the olive buttongrass tussocks with the blackest of shadows. Lakes will beckon swimmers’ bodies.

    Everything is different as the seasons change. As I washed the dishes this morning, I watched fairy-wrens flirting.
    Elsewhere boobyalla brightens the coasts. Grey baby swans dot the estuary’s waters.

    Yes, it’s cold again today, but the season is not defined by the temperature. The silver wattles were early this year; the blackwoods have their bommyknocker buds exposed too. I walk down to the creek and sassafras flowers are strewn everywhere, amidst the moss, beneath manfern fronds. Have hope: it is spring.

  • The Baron in the Mountains

    The Baron in the Mountains

    Tasmanian national parks celebrate their 100th birthday this year. In 1916, two inaugural national parks were gazetted after promotion by pioneer supporters of tourism and conservation; a century later, national parks cover nearly a half of Tasmania’s land mass.

    Mount Field, 70 kilometres north-west of Hobart, was one of these first parks. In its early days, Mount Field was a hub for skiing and memorabilia still remains from the days when social Hobartians dragged the necessaries for a gala ball to a hut above Lake Dobson, and skated on the frozen lake.

    Snowfall is less common in Tasmania these days; the ski lift still operates occasionally during winters at Mount Field, and in the summer time, thousands of tourists flock to the park for short walks or multiple-day hikes, taking in the waterfalls, the giant swamp gums, the flowering heath, or the broad alpine vistas.

    An early tourist to Mount Field was Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.

    Guided by local trappers the Rayner brothers, Baron von Mueller arrived to investigate the unique botanical characteristics of the region. Born Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Müller in 1825, the Baron relocated to Australia following the death of his eldest sister from tuberculosis. Now known as von Mueller, he and other family members joined a plethora of other German migrants in newly-settled Adelaide in 1847.

    Having been trained in botanising while working as a pharmacist’s apprentice in his native northern Germany, von Mueller gained  job at the pharmacy on Adelaide’s main street, and set about learning the local flora with journeys into the Mount Lofty Ranges, Mount Gambier, the Flinders Ranges and Lake Torrens.

    Shortly after, he received work in Victoria, and was the first curator of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne.

    It was 1867 when Baron von Mueller went with the Rayners to Mount Field. Spending a week in the foothills of Mount Field East, he observed the unique species of the region, including making the first descriptions of a variety of cushion plant (Donatia novae-zelandiae) and several eucalypts – the snow peppermint, urn gum and cider gum, as well as taking in the glacial geology of the area.

    The Rayners’ memory of the journey came through a humorous observation: the Baron, the trapper noted, “persisted in wearing his two flannel scarves”, which von Mueller (it is said) would do whether he was in the town or the bush.

  • Cheshunt Pine

    Cheshunt Pine

    William Archer’s father emigrated to Australia in 1811 and became a noted landowner and commissariat in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1820, he gave birth to his third (but second surviving) son, William.

    After schooling in Campbell Town and Longford, William was sent to the old country to study architecture and engineering, and when he returned in 1842, he worked on a number of buildings that are today still standing and recognised as significant parts of Tasmania’s colonial heritage. Mona Vale, Woolmers, and Brickendon were all part of Archer’s portfolio. He also designed his two properties that remained in his family: ‘Fairfield’ at Cressy and ‘Cheshunt’ at Deloraine.

    At the death of his father, William inherited the family’s extensive land holdings and was able to concentrate his attention on another hobby – botany.

    Both of Archer’s properties had views of the imposing range to the west, the Great Western Tiers, and it was through here that he took most of his botanical excursions. Professionally, he worked closely with Ronald Campbell Gunn, one of the island’s foremost botanists. Politically, they were at odds; nevertheless, it didn’t at all get in the way of their study of local plants, and Gunn took most of Archer’s specimens back to Kew Gardens.

    Archer also worked closely with Joseph Hooker, who produced the Flora Tasmaniae. Hooker gave much credit to Archer in his dedication of the book, crediting him for having ‘sedulously investigated the botany of the district surrounding his property.’

    His work is memorialised in the nomenclature of several plants too, including the diselma archeri, known commonly as ‘cheshunt pine’ – a low-growing alpine conifer which, although it wouldn’t have grown around his property in Deloraine, is found in the Great Western Tiers.

    “Sadly,” writes the botanical historian Wapstra, “and in contrast to his extensive contributions to society, Archer’s finances deteriorated,” partly through an unsuccessful political career, but also due to familial obligations. He was forced to give up the Cheshunt property and died at the age of just 54 years old. Twelve children, and his wife Ann, survived him.


     

    Botanist Kate Cowle married the Austrian migrant Gustav Weindorfer.

  • Richea Pandanifolia

    Richea Pandanifolia

    The pandani tree is the world’s largest heath plant; it can grow up to 12 metres tall. Richea pandanifolia was first described by the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1844, occurring in “mountainous situations” in the south-west of Tasmania. Hooker was one of Charles Darwin’s best mates. He was 40 when he married Frances Harriet Henslow. They had seven children.

    Pandani are common around Cradle Mountain and Mount Field (the latter pictured here), and although they have been found on the west coast in rainforest conditions close to sea-level, they much prefer higher altitudes. It is endemic to the island. Somewhat palm-like in appearance, the pandani has long, serrated leaves which are retained by the plant for insulation. These dead leaves can be used to light a fire in wet conditions, although only in an emergency situation, for the foliage of Richea pandanifolia is a habitat for some unique insects.

    Richea pandanifolia bears beautiful pink flowers in the summer.