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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Strine Outback Bush Walk – Part 3

Fabulous Fitzgerald, Heavenly Hakea, and the Best Banksia

By Jim Bishop.

This is part three of a series about a Sept 2016 trip to view the wildflowers and scenery of Western Australia.

The next day, we set out for Fitzgerald River Park a UNESCO Biosphere site. Unfortunately, the bridge across the mouth of the estuary had been severely damaged by a storm surge earlier that winter and it was closed to traffic. Luckily, a local we met at breakfast told us that you could still cross the bridge on foot and access the park. So, Scott and I set out on our own with the entire park to ourselves. The road into the park climbs a steep quartz mountain that rises abruptly out of the ocean and contains 1800 species of plants. The minor difference in the soils and climate, accounts for 62 species of plant found nowhere else but inside the park. As we crossed the cracked bridge and headed up the hill we almost immediately encountered the first of these, Hakea Victoria, the Royal Hakea. It has an upright structure up to about 9 feet tall with large thick, kale-like looking leaves around a central woody stem. Due to the growing conditions in the park, the leaves at the top are often white and cream changing to more of tangerine color lower on the plant. This plant can be grown elsewhere, but rarely does it show the bright coloration of plants in the park.

As we continued our walk we soon encountered Pimelea physodes, commonly known as Qualup bell. It is the most spectacular member of the genus due to its large, pendant bell-shaped pink and soft yellow flower heads.

We had planned to spend the next day in the more western part of Fitzgerald River Park almost a full day’s drive away. However, the road was closed either due to flooding or an outbreak of the plant pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomic, dieback disease. About 40% of the plants native to Western Australia are susceptible to the disease. All trails we visited in Western Australia had brushes their entrance for removing dust from your footwear. Several parks require that your car has been recently washed including the tires. They believe that more frequent visits from tourists driving from eastern Australia has facilitated the spread of the disease to new areas. Many of us know the Phytophthora in our own gardens that causes otherwise healthy plants to suddenly wilt and die. Many of our California native plants are killed by infections that occur after a watering in summer with warm soil. In southwestern Australia, the disease has devastated entire areas of native plants.

As we continued our drive west, we saw still more and previously unviewed wildflowers. Since the beginning of the trip we were amazed at the variety and number of banksias in Australia. They varied from large stands of small tree shaped ones to very low growing species that send up almost foot-long brush-like flowers away from the central bush. However, we knew that the one we had been wanting to see was in the area around Bremer Bay. And sure enough, there growing in the ditches alongside the road to Bremer Bay was the Banksia coccinea, the scarlet Banksia. As the name suggests the flowers are scarlet. However, they are also white and it looks as though thick red and white yarn had been croqueted together in cornrows to create the conical flower. It must be one of the most beautiful flowers in Australia. Growing nearby were several other species of banksia, which if not for being overshadowed by their showier cousin would have been stop-worthy in themselves.

The next day we headed back inland to Stirling Range National Park. The mountains and hills look a lot like Arizona, but with an entirely different plant pallet. From a distance the short growing plant communities that hug the hillsides covered with mallee-heathland look a lot like our own native chaparral. However, as is the case with many Australian national parks, ninety plant families, 384 genera, and over 1500 plant species occur there, 87 of which are found nowhere else. Most notable to us was species of grass tree, Kingia australis, that grows taller with a long trunk and multiple flowers heads as compared to the grass trees from lower elevations. Cycads, terrestrial orchids, and a few more variations on banksias and pea bushes also caught our attention. On leaving the park, we encountered our only viewing of an Emu running down the road and quickly disappearing into the bush. A short while later, we stopped to get a closeup look at Eucalyptus tetraptera. As the name suggested, it has 4-sided flowers that are bell shaped and also are an eye-catching scarlet red.

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