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Issue 17

Some thoughts about embracing and enhancing the Indigenous perspective.

 Ron Mitchell, Moreton Institute of TAFE

Why should we plant natives?

In these times there is an increasing emphasis on cultivating native plants in our suburban parks, gardens and farms. The use of native tree and shrub species in revegetation projects on post-mining and degraded farming landscapes is now a well established protocol in the South East region.

In the urban landscape, the practitioners of amenity horticulture utilise native plants in two main ways: by planting selections of natives (and exotics) as the 'soft' component of landscaping projects into cleared sites; or by the retention of remnant semi-natural and natural vegetation on sites undergoing development and within or adjacent to cleared open space and cultivated gardens.

There are a number of very sound ecological reasons for the planting or retention of native species in the urban landscape. Native plants provide food and shelter and the preferred habitats for our native fauna. The importance of the hollows in large trees is but one of the essential habitat requirements for many species of native fauna that should not be neglected. Native plants have evolved over millions of years in response to Australia's unpredictable and unreliable rainfall and generally nutrient-deficient soils; because of this there are inherent tolerances and adaptations of many native plant species to various types of environmental stress when planted in difficult sites.

The planting or retention of native plants in buffer zones and corridors environmentally enhances the health and vigour of ornamental plants by creating a diversity of habitats for the natural enemies of serious insect pests. Planting natives into the urban landscape is also a way that we can ensure the survival of certain species that are threatened or endangered in the wild. Native plants within their natural range of distribution will generally not escape cultivation to become bushland weeds.

The cultivation of native plants also makes sound economic sense for urban gardeners and landscapers. Native species are generally easier to plant and maintain, and less demanding of water and nutrients than exotic species. The retention of the undisturbed understorey of large eucalypts creates a 'low maintenance' environment that can inhibit the growth and spread of garden weeds. Native plant species are considered pest and disease hardy, and generally their cultivation and maintained health is less reliant than exotics on pesticides. Native planting material is now readily available, and at reasonable cost from specialist plant nurseries. There is a steadily increasing availability of specific information and industry expertise and advice relevant to native plants.

There are also a number of functional and aesthetic reasons for planting native species.

A large number of native plants have ornamental attributes; the spectrum of our native flora includes a diversity of size, shape, colour and appearance. Many native sclerophyllous species are cultivated for export as Australian wildflowers. Native rainforest plants are well known and popular in cultivation because of their glossy foliage in spreading canopies, colourful and fleshy fruits, and attractive flowers.

One of the great traditions in the Australian urban landscape is the ,native garden'. It is a relatively recent tradition however. By the mid nineteenth century in Australia, the advent of the gardening tradition for a increasing influential and affluent `backyard' culture, coincided with the re-introduction of formality into landscape design in Europe. The 'native garden' tradition is well established in Australian horticulture.

Why did it take us so long to plant natives?

At first of course the emphasis in gardening and farming for European settlers on in Australia was purely on survival. While many settlers welcomed and felt secure with the appearance of the woodland and grassland landscapes created by indigenous `firestick farmers', the denser `bush' instilled a classical Judeo-Christian fear of the wilderness and an inherent instinct to manipulate and dominate natural ecosystems.

Meanwhile the settler's garden styles for the affluent reflected a European focus on the classical tradition, with its rigid structure and order, architectural symmetry and the intensive maintenance of easily manipulated manicured domesticated exotic plants.

Under this formal condition, it was thought that the urban landscape should be as perfectly composed as a painting.

Apart from the indigenous Araucarian conifers, most of the Australian native plants seemed alien to the gardening ethos of our colonial horticultural forebears because of their harsh and disordered appearance in the wild.

It is probably fair to say that for a long time after initial European settlement in Australia, the native flora species, including `bushfoods', were ignored. To European eyes the native Australian landscape was as inhospitable and alien as perhaps Mars is to us today. In order to seek familiarity and order in the new landscape a long way from home and with little prospect of return to the 'old country', the European settlers relied almost exclusively on Northern Hemisphere biota in farming and gardening. The 'acclimatisation societies' of the 1860s reinforced the zeal of many Europeans to recreate their European home here with imported economic and ornamental plants and animals to an almost obsessional and evangelical extent and to as we now know, the ever lasting detriment of our native biodiversity.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the increasing influence of the middle class and the democratisation of gardening. The greater public interest in horticulture and the freedom from stylist restraint and architectural pragmatism ensured a more eclectic approach so that formality or informality in garden design was now a matter of choice. The widespread embrace of the Australian 'cottage garden' style with its characteristic crowded simplicity and diversity of useful and functional plants, promoted probably our out shear necessity for the first time the study of the horticultural attributes of the indigenous flora. At this time, landscape designers were also increasingly influenced by earlier informal traditions of the eighteenth century.

The 'wild garden' style was rediscovered and popularised by the influential European landscape designers William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. With its emphasis on the planting of hardy indigenous species in a

free-growing created wilderness, the 'wild garden' tradition was reflected in a more naturalistic garden design in Australia, and the intentional incorporation for the first time of native species in landscape design. Into the early twentieth century, the utilisation of native plants became more widespread, although plant selection lists were still dominated by exotics. It wasn't until the 1930s that native plants were readily available to hobby gardeners from plant nurseries.

Perhaps the most important advocate of the use of native plants in the urban landscape this century was the Australian landscape designer Edna Walling, who in the post-war era established a tradition of utilising native Australian plants in totally informal 'bush gardens'. These gardens stated to include Australian native food plants.

After all, it makes sense to plant natives ...

Certainly the original European settlers not only misread the climate and the soils of Australian landscapes, but also ignored and underestimated the attributes of native plants.

The movement to grow exclusively Australian native plants in gardening did not originate until gardening the 1950s and 1960s.

It was largely encouraged by the formation of the Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP) formed in 1957.

Since that time the of the 'native garden' in Australian landscape design and as a garden style in its own right, provides a contrast to other highly developed and intensively maintained garden styles dominated by exotics and has aroused and perpetuated a sense of  'Australiana' in the urban landscape and popular culture.

After all, Australian natives have a quiet and understated beauty and asymmetry in form that blends in with the surrounding bushland. And distinguishes them from the more ordered,  spectacular and flashy exotics.

.Increasing environmental awareness during the 1990s and a reaction to the excesses of unbridled development has seen a greater emphasis on the cultivation of native plants

 in the urban landscape not just because they blend into the urban landscape but also for the scientific conservation and fauna habitat value.

The 'low maintenance' and 'lazy gardener' aspects of easily established and maintained time-efficient native gardens are also important considerations. Don Burke, Peter Lundell and others advocate that appropriate organic mulching will diminish the requirement for expensive and time-consuming on-going inputs of weed control, fertilising and irrigation in native gardens. The present trend of 'low maintenance' native gardens in landscape design has been enhanced by busy lifestyles, an awareness of the ecological and economic costs of reticulated water, and the increasing influence of the landscape design profession.

Lawns do not have a role in native gardens...being exotic in origin, and excessive consumers of irrigation water and inorganic nutrients far in excess to the growth requirements of native plants.

There is also a re-examination of the horticultural attributes of natives in the need to conserve water. Many native species   are truly drought tolerant and suitable, along with exotic xerophytes, for water-efficient xeriscape plantings.

The term 'dry' garden usually infers the use of 'drought tolerant' species from dry sclerophyll, woodland and heath vegetation communities. The best known tree and shrub genera representative of these vegetation communities - including Acacia, Eucalyptus, Hakes, Grevillea, Banksia, Callitris and Casuarina - with their characteristic foliage and

flowers, probably best epitomise the unique and harsh Australian bush environment.

The term 'native garden' can also include native rainforest plant species in cultivation, many of which and perhaps surprisingly are remarkably hardy and adaptable - far more so than many people realise - even though the various rainforest ecosystems from which they are derived are fragile and often finely balanced. In particular the well known native 'vine scrub' species including, Kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus), Silky oak (Grevillea robusta) and Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) are remarkably drought

tolerant and water efficient in cultivation. The range of available native rainforest species, apart from their aesthetic and functional attributes, also has a number of advantages compared to bushfire-prone sclerophyllous plants. Rainforest plants, with their non-flammable foliage and moist leaf litter upon maturity and canopy closure, are important functionally, and provide a fire-retardant buffer zone.

Why `bushfoods' are an important component of our natural heritage

Our island continent has a unique predominantly endemic floral biodiversity. Historical development of the 'native garden' concept, particularly in the past 20 years, has promoted the utilisation of a large range of native plants - not just 'bushfoods' but also wildflowers, herbs, groundcovers, climbers, trees, shrubs, fruits, ferns, palms, cycads, orchids, conifers, ornamental grasses and water plants - with the horticultural attributes and versatility to qualify their contribution to the urban landscape and the world of ornamental horticulture.

With the new millennium, there is an ever-increasing interest in, and emphasis on, planting natives.

`Bushfood' species are representative of practically all of the vegetation communities in Australia, and there is now also an increasing commercial interest in the domestication and improvement of selected species of Australian native plants as `bushfoods'.

There are about 250,000 species of higher plants in the world. Given this biodiversity it is perhaps surprising that with 10,000 years of settled agriculture and 'civilisation' only about 100 species have been developed as commercially significant food plants, and only about 20 of these constitute the staple foods of the developed and developing world. These commercial food plants have had a history of selection and improvement in continuous cultivation from the time of the agricultural revolution. However most of the world's traditional wild foods, and particularly those associated culturally with the world's indigenous peoples, have been virtually ignored in terms of research and development, and have been generally excluded from agricultural commerce.

Australia's biological resources are unique, and Australia has an international obligation as a responsible world citizen and signatory to relevant international conventions (such as the 1992 Biodiversity Convention) to enact legislation to protect endangered ecosystems and species and to conserve our unique genetic resources.

In fact Australia is one of the 12 'mega-diverse' regions on the Earth, which account for 70% of the world's total biodiversity

Australia has about 10% of the world's biodiversity of higher plants (upwards of 20,000 species) in natural ecosystems. Some 85% of these species are endemic (meaning that they occur nowhere else). Australia's natural biodiversity and high rate of endemism is a result of a geological history characterised by evolution in isolation, as much as the continent's extensive latitudinal spread creating a range of climatic zones. During its 40 million year postGondwanan geological history, marine barriers isolated Australia and prevented genetic exchanges with other continents.

Furthermore the eastern and western coasts of Australia were isolated from each other because of an internal desert barrier.

Most commercial food plants cultivated in the world today are of Mediterranean or tropical origin, and are not inherently adapted to the harsh climates and variable soils of Australia.

The cultivation of these exotic crops demands high inputs of irrigation, nutrients and pesticides and in combination with imprudent Eurocentric land management practices and attitudes over the past 200 years or so has been associated with the 'mining' of water and soil resources, thus resulting in severe land degradation.

Apart from their enhanced and concentrated nutritional qualities, wild foods under commercial cultivation are most often a genetic reservoir of

inherent adaptability to environmental change, hardiness to adverse climate and soil conditions, and tolerance to native and exotic pests and diseases.

Copyright Ron Mitchell November 2000

Ron.mitchell@defir,qld.gov.au Ph: (07) 3826 8434

Next Issue - Part Two:

Potential for sustainable bushfoods industry Aboriginal participation Intellectual copyright