Appreciation of spring bloomers
With spring having just sprung, it’s hard to ignore the presence of blooms and blossoms bursting everywhere. Daffodils, azaleas and magnolias are out in force. So, too, are the flowers of some Australian species – wattles, callistemons, grevilleas, eucalypts and others. And yet, of course, there is a difference. The former are exotics and the latter natives.
The arrival of Europeans in Australia in 1788 began a profound ecological upheaval with existing plants and animals being replaced by introduced flora and fauna. Usually this was intentional as the familiar flowers and creatures of ‘home’ were transplanted to the new land to make it more productive and less alien. Sometimes the interlopers were unleashed unintentionally. Black and brown rats are the obvious examples.
The north shore of Sydney Harbour escaped the clearing for longer than the south side. But after the establishment of regular ferry services in the 1860s, the population skyrocketed. With that, land was progressively cleared. The new form of land tenure which replaced the wide-ranging territories of displaced Aboriginal groups was often segmented with paling fences, made from the sawn timber of the trees being replaced – if not locally then elsewhere in the colony. The gardens and backyards that replaced the forest and heath were usually modest and productive. Vegetables and fruit trees were grown where possible.
By the end of the 19th century, there was some appreciation of the native flora that survived. Spring ‘wildflower shows’ were so popular that some feared the extinction of species such as the flannel flower, Christmas bush and waratah. In 1910, Wattle Day was established on the first day of spring, as a way of expressing national pride. People wore a yellow blossom or a tin badge with a picture of the same. Florence Sulman published a two-volume popular guide to native flowers in 1914. She had grown up in a still forested Turramurra and may have become familiar with remnant patches of harbourside forest and heath such as at Balls Head in North Sydney, after her parents (her father was the famous architect John Sulman) moved to McMahons Point.
But there was still a difference between domestic gardens and the land beyond. Lovely though wattle and waratah may have been, familiar European plants were still typically grown around the house. Hydrangeas and roses were favourites and remained so well into the century. It was only in the 1970s that native plants started to make inroads into private gardens. Such is the market for hybrids and other varieties that very few are endemic, or local, to the areas they now inhabit. The popular ‘Robyn Gordon’ grevillea, for instance, is a hybrid that appeared first in central Queensland. It defies the seasons and flowers all year round. The various councils around the North Shore provide information on what species are local and when they flower – many are spring bloomers.