From a stroll through the leafy outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, to a bushwalk in the jarrah forests of Western Australia or a camping trip in the Tasmanian wilderness, you can easily expose your senses to the great Aussie bush! You will find many of the native species that qualify as rare exotica in Europe or in America.
The first European to appreciate Australia’s unique flora was the great botanist Sir Joseph Banks. It is a great coincidence in history that he sailed with Captain James Cook on the ship Endeavour that later led to the settlement of Australia. Not only was Banks intrigued by the incredible variety of new plant life he encountered, but he and his assistants went to extraordinary lengths to collect samples, to log descriptions and to make detailed drawings of their finds. For Banks, it was a labour of love, and it is fitting that he should hold such an important place in Australian history. The eye-catching banksia trees that proliferate along the coastline of Australia lays tribute to Banks.
It is the from the gold and green of the acacia (or wattle) tree that Australia draws its national colours. So hardy is the acacia that it is usually one of the first varieties to rejuvenate after a season of summer bushfires. In season, the acacia bathe the bush in gold with their blossoms. The acacia can grow virtually almost anywhere in Australia – regardless of climate, soil type or mankind’s presence. Visitors to Australia will also always notice the presense of the grass tree (sometimes called “black-boys”) with its spear-like vegetation that juts from the centre. Then there’s the bulbous Boab tree found in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia. The Boab tree stores water in itself and sheds its leaves when there is no water. It has its nearest relatives far, far away in Africa and Madagascar
Unlike the softwood varieties of Europe and North America, most Australian trees have very hard timbers (aka hardwood). This made clearing the land an extremely arduous task for the early settlers. When the pioneers encountered softer timber (such as cedar), they were often ruthless in their zeal to feel it. That is why cedar from the rainforests of Australia’s coastal land has virtually disappeared. The much loved and superb building timber from the jarrah tree are becoming harder to come by these days. The jarrah forests of south Western Australia are currently under threat from mining and from culling.
THE EUCALYPTUS/GUM TREE FAMILY
In Australia, the most commonly found trees are variations of the Eucalyptus tree or gum tree as it more commonly called by Australians. You will be amazed by the variety of the humble gum tree in all climates and terrains. If you know all the gum trees in the family, you will realize they are hardly humble.
There are ghost gums tree, so named because under the light of the moon they appear silvery-white. They have rock-hard irobarks capable of blunting the toughest timber saws. Then there’s the red river gum tree found close to creeks and rivers.
Some of the world’s tallest trees are gum trees. There are also monsters in the gum tree family. There is the tough giant Karri tree found in southwestern Western Australia, which can grow to more than 80m tall. It is the world’s third tallest tree, and provides superb building timber.
The world’s second tallest tree (just behind the Californian Redwood) is also another gum tree – the Australian Mountain Ash found in south-eastern Victoria. The Mountain ash nevertheless is the world’s tallest flowering tree. The tallest Mountain Ash tree ever recorded had a trunk 132.6 m (400 ft) high, and its topmost leaves reached 150 m (450 ft) above the ground! That’s about 88 times the height of an average man!
WORLD’S OLDEST TREES
From the tallest trees, we come to some of the world’s oldest. This time around, it’s NOT a gum tree – it is the mighty Huon Pine. The Huon Pine tree, found only in southwestern Tasmania, lays claim as one of the longest-lived trees on earth. The oldest living Huon Pine that has been dated (chopped down before Lake Pedder was flooded) was about 2,500 years old. Logs dated 10,000 years old have been found preserved under water. Huon pine is one of the best building timbers in the world, and especially prized by boatbuilders.
One section of Australia noted for its variety of wildflowers is the southern corner of Western Australia. The area has become so famous that commercial growing of some of the more exotic types has become a minor local industry. The best known plant of the area is the kangaroo paw, appropriately named for its resemblance to the hind paw of a kangaroo.
Among semi-desert plants, the most famous is the Sturt desert pea which proliferates with the slightest hint of moisture.