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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Strine Outback Bush Walk – Part 1

By Jim Bishop.

This is part one of series about a September 2016 trip to view the wildflowers and scenery of Southwestern Australia.

At the end of September, after attending a Pacific Horticulture tour of Singapore and Bali gardens, I met up with Scott Borden for a tour of Western Australia…or as they might say in the land down under, a Strine outback bush walk. We didn’t pick up much Aussie slang, but we did see an incredible number of blooming plants. With over 12,000 species of wildflowers in Western Australia it is the largest floristic kingdom on the planet. We were also fortunate to arrive in the middle of the peak blooming season following one of the wettest winters Australia has experienced in decades. Almost everything was in bloom. We recognized many of the common plant families that we grow in California such as eucalypts, myrtles, proteas and acacia, but there were many, many more that we had never seen.

We started the trip after a short flight from Bali, flying over the vast deserted sienna and terracotta colored plains of Northwestern Australia. As we got closer to Perth, hills plus wheat fields and denser vegetation began to appear. Just before landing we noticed many bushfires, which we assumed were controlled burns to prevent future large fires that Australia regularly experiences. Upon arrival in Perth, we headed straight for Kings Park and Botanic Garden located above the Swan and Canning Rivers with a display of over 3000 species of the unique flora of Western Australia.

We entered the park on foot from the undeveloped side and almost immediately noticed the bright and unusual blooms of a fuzzy red and bright green kangaroo paw, Anigozanthos manglesii. We would soon learn this unique plant is endemic to Western Australia and is the floral symbol for state. It only got better from there, as we noticed small terrestrial orchids and then much larger banksias, callistemons (bottlebrushes), hakeas and grevilleas all in bloom. We headed to the central area of the park where large flower beds showcased an overwhelming display of native plants. We spent several hours exploring the plants and names, many of which were new to us, as well as the large colorful and sometimes loud birds, mostly parrots, cockatoos and magpies.

The next morning, we headed out via car through the hills east of Perth to start our exploration of some of the many national parks in Western Australia. We would cover 1200 miles in just a little over one week. The freeways and roads use mostly native shrubs and trees for landscaping. Entire roadside banks were covered with waxflowers, (Chamelaucium), acacias, and other native bush in full bloom. Further east we entered hills covered with Eucalyptus forests which gave way to sheep farms and eventually wheat and canola fields that we had seen from the air the previous day. Perhaps most notable though was how green everything was and that everything was in bloom at once. A quick look at average rainfall totals showed that various areas in around Perth receive between 20 to 40 inches and 2016 has been a very wet year. In fact, even the driest places we visited still had more than San Diego’s average 10 inches. Consequently, there were large ponds and shallow lakes in many areas.

At first we had a bit of difficulty finding native plants. Like much of the U.S. plain states, large tracks of land had been plowed for farming, most notably wheat and canola. We didn’t see much irrigation, so most of it appears to be dryland farming dependent on the annual rainfall. I would also later learn that the original settlers had difficulty growing anything at all due to the lack of nutrients in the soil. In fact, some soils in Western Australia have only trace amounts of phosphorus. However, once farmers learned to add nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil they found that farming was possible. Unfortunately, this practice is fatal to many of the native plants that evolved over millions of years in soils without phosphorus. As we headed east and entered several preserves and national parks, the landscape was soon dominated almost entirely by native plants.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next month.

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