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A.J. Swaby Memorial Address -1997

Hidden Treasures....A Personal View

E.J McAlister

Chief Executive Officer of Royal Zoological Society of SA Inc. and Director, Adelaide Zoo

Origins of the Australian Flora

It is now generally believed that through the Jurassic period (more than 135 million years BP) and in to the middle Cretaceous (110 million years BP) the Australian plate was connected to Antarctica and that connections with Antarctica were in existence between the Indian sub-continent, Africa and South America. By mid-Cretaceous times angiosperms were widespread and a few modern families may have existed. By the end of the Cretaceous numerous modern families were definitely present.

The evolutionary history of the Australian flora has taken place under conditions of increasing geographical isolation from other continents which once composed part of the Gondwana super-continent. Thus it can be said and easily demonstrated that numerous families are shared with, particularly, Africa and South America but speciation has allowed us to evolve our own ‘unique’ flora. One needs to be careful when using the word unique because to some extent many continents (or islands) could claim that their flora is unique. At the family level our flora could not be said to be unique because most of the families recognised world-wide are to be found in Australia. It is at the generic and species level that this uniqueness is demonstrated.

"....work by many scientists including Beadle in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s showed that this scleromorphy was a response to nutrient deficiency"

The flora is, however. unique for a number of other reasons. Among these being the fact that a very high proportion of our species are endemic to this continent. This is perhaps best displayed by the fact that less than ten species of Eucalyptus occur outside Australia. Another striking example of the uniqueness of the flora is its tendency towards scleromorphy, many of the species are characterised by relatively small, rigid leaves. Early botanists felt this to be a response to aridity, but work by many scientists including Beadle in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s showed that this scleromorphy was a response to nutrient deficiency. I well remember the simple, but elegant, experiments performed by Professor Beadle, which demonstrated the response in leaf size by plants when given some phosphorus and the dimunition in size as this was withdrawn.

European Discovery

While most people immediately think of James Cook and his voyages of discovery when they think of the discovery of Australia, there had been previous visits to the western coast of Australia by various mariners. Among these visitors was the scholarly pirate William Dampier who visited the WA coast in 1688 and again in 1699. Dampier collected plants and flowers and forty specimen from his second visit are preserved in the herbarium at Oxford University.

William Dampier was the first European to collect the spectacular Strut's desert pea.
Select the thumbnail image or highlighted name for a higher resolution image (43k).

The first great collection of Australian plants was that of Banks and Solander in 1770. Not all of Banks' comments were complimentary, e.g. on 25th April, Banks wrote: "The countrey tho in general well enough clothd appeard in some place bare; it resembled in my imagination the back of a lean cow, coverd in general with long hair, but nevertheless where her scraggy hip bones have stuck out farther than they ought accidentle rubbs and knocks have intirely bard them of their share of covering."

Given the time of year in which they were collecting, the following comment made on May 3rd 1770 is most interesting: "Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner exposd the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the quires in which were plants inside out."

As an aside, it is worth noting that on Sunday 6th May the sailors returned "having caught two stingrays weighing near 600 pounds". Cook writes, "The great quantity of New Plants & ca Mr Banks and Dr Solander collected in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Botany Bay".

What happened to all of the specimens collected by Banks and Solander and drawn by Sydney Parkinson is the subject of a lecture in its own right. Suffice to say that it was almost 200 years before Banks Florilegium saw the light of day.

"Fewer than 1% of the 932 species of Australian plants and seeds taken back to England aboard the Endeavour were ever grown."

Fewer than 1% of the 932 species of Australian plants and seeds taken back to England aboard the Endeavour were ever grown. In 1788 a London nursery was selling just five Australian plants. At Kew Gardens, only eight plants were Australian, three of them collected on Cook's second and third voyages.

European settlement

When the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, it lacked two essentials – a trained botanist and some information on the Australian flora. Australia contains about 25,000 species of plants (approximately 10% of the world's flora), but for a group of newly arrived Europeans, precious little in the way of sustenance. The aboriginal inhabitants had long since learned to forage for "bush tuckka", but for white sailors who did not know these secrets, Australia was regarded as the Scurvy Coast.

While settlers were becoming established on the East coast, other explorers were busy elsewhere. A French expedition, which included the botanists Labillardiere and a gardener Felix Delahaye, came to Australia to search for the lost explorer La Pérouse, of whom nothing had been heard since 1788. La Pérouse was never found but the voyage resulted in the first book on the Australian flora Novae Hollandeae plantarum specimum and included two plants which became state emblems: the Kangaroo Paw and Tasmanian Blue Gum. Delahaye returned to France and worked for the Empress Josephine and grew many Australian plants outdoors for the first time.

Floral Emblems: Red and green kangaroo paw, Anigozanthos manglesii (Western Australia) and blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmania).
Photo of E.globulus: B.Champion.
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Other visitors to our shores were not always complimentary. Charles Darwin arrived at Port Jackson on 12th January 1836 and found the population of Sydney to be 23,000 and the town "humming with industry and wealth". He hired a man and two horses to visit Bathurst "a village about 120 miles away". Found the vegetation to be uniform and mostly woodland. He went looking for oaks and found casuarinas. On his visit to Tasmania he was impressed by finding two ferns 25 feet to the base of the fronds and 6 feet in girth. Darwin also made some interesting comments about the treatment of prisoners, aboriginals and kangaroos. He left Australia "without sorrow or regret".

Another visitor, in 1881, was Marianne North, a remarkable lady, not only because of her paintings but the amount of travelling she undertook in some most unlikely places. Miss North also made various observations about the plants and the landscape, not all favourable. She was most impressed by the Bunya pines in Queensland but commented that "great piles of sawdust and chips, with some huge logs, told that the work of destruction had begun, and civilised men would soon drive out not only the aborigines but their food and shelter." On reaching Tenterfield, in northern NSW, she said "it was what Australians call ‘a pretty place’ meaning that there was not a tree within a mile of it, and that it had a little water within reach."

Miss North continues to make a series of interesting comments. While marvelling at the profusion of flowers, she commented on the fact that pastures around Melbourne were covered with "a kind of coloured dandelion (Cryptostemma {now Arctotheca} calendulacea), brought over from the Cape only a few years before". She did not like the fact that the country was becoming "too English" and bemoaned the fact that "we have introduced all our weeds, vices and prejudices into Australia, and turned the natives (even the fish) out of it."

Description of the Flora

A large amount of botanising was done all through the 19th century and early 20th century, this of course still happens today and large areas inaccessible to early explorers are now being surveyed by botanists in most states.

Flora AustraliensisFlora of Australia

Only one Australian Flora has been completed. This is Flora Australiensis written by George Bentham, who never visited Australia, between 1863 and 1878. State Floras were being published one by one with South Australia being served by the Flora of South Australia written by John McConnel Black between 1922 and 1929. "Black's Flora", as it has come to be known, has been reprinted, most recently, edited by John Jessop of the SA State Herbarium.

Other lists of plants, censuses etc have been produced but it was not until 1968 that John Beard, then Director of Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Perth, suggested that a concise Flora be compiled. Pressure continued to mount and it is pleasing to note that, as stated in Volume 1 of the Flora of Australia "during the 1970's active support for the project also came from an active amateur group, the Society for Growing Australian Plants. The Society, its members acutely aware of the need for accurate names and data on native plants used in horticulture, on several occasions urged the Government to begin writing the Flora".

After a lot of discussion work began on the current Australian Flora in 1981. Several volumes have been produced and it is expected that when completed the Flora will describe over 25,000 species, a far cry from the 8,125 species recognised in Bentham's treatment. While a large proportion of this increased number of species are introduced plants, the vast majority represent a better knowledge and understanding of the floral wealth of this country.

Utilisation of the Flora

For a long time the Australian flora was found interesting for its curiosity value. Most gardens, both public and private, cleared native plants and strove to achieve the feeling of home. Acclimatisation societies (for both plants and animals) were busy introducing medicinally valuable plants such as the dandelion, for which a Mr Thomas Wooley was paid a prize of £40, and great enthusiasm was expressed for introductions of plants such as Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, to feed a species of silk-worm.

Gradually the flora began to be recognised for its own worth and, while the cut flower trade still largely deals with roses, carnations, chrysanthemums and the like, Australian native flowers are making inroads. The cut flower trade did get off to a slow start and countries like Israel, South Africa and some South American countries, for various reasons, "beat us to the punch". Suffice to say that the industry has become more professional. Bush picking and all its attendant environmental problems is lessening. Among the reasons for this of course is the need to guarantee quality to a discerning market.

For the European palate and stomach, Australia is remarkably lacking in food resources. Only one species, the Macadamia, has made it big on to the world market. Other species are being promoted, among them the quandong, muntries, Davidsonia, lilly-pilly; but at this time they are still something of a novelty and only filling a niche market. I do not decry the value of these and others that I could name but simply state the current situation.

Personal Observations

Despite having the evidence of history to call upon, the European settlers did an inordinate amount of damage to the environment. Rainforest was cleared and unfortunately is still being cleared in some places. Only about 10% of our rainforest is left. Eucalyptus woodland and mallee was destroyed, afterwards the timber was stacked and burned. The pastoral area and arid area were overstocked and consequently overgrazed. Clearing has led to salinisation in many areas, a problem which has long term implications.

"It is somewhat sad that two of the species which give the Flinders Ranges their attractive appearance, Salvation Jane (Paterson's Curse) and Rosy Dock are introduced ........"

We have paid a terrible price in loss of species because of this, and are still paying this price as species, both plant and animal, become extinct. Introduced animals such as the goat which have wrought great destruction in the Flinders Ranges and "the grey scourge" - the European rabbit - have out-competed native animals for food and shelter. Introduced foxes have played havoc with our smaller marsupials, the cat has wrought havoc on birds, reptiles and small marsupials and introduced "weeds" have blighted our landscape. It is somewhat sad that two of the species which give the Flinders Ranges their attractive appearance, Salvation Jane (Paterson's Curse) and rosy dock are introduced and the beautiful yellow carpet which covers our vineyards is a South African Oxalis.

The introduced rosy dock Rumex vesicularis is widespread in the Flinders Ranges.
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But fear not, all is not lost. I have stood in wonder in areas where a fire has gone through and watched the epicormic shoots make their presence felt. I have seen the Xanthorrhoea send out new leaves followed by an immense spike of sweet smelling white flowers much loved by birds. I have watched the seed leaves of banksia push through the sand and marvelled at the way in which the ground becomes covered in new life.

How well I remember standing in the native section at Mount Lofty Botanic Garden after the 1983 bushfire and photographing the swards of Caesia parviflora which were then followed by seedlings of Acacia myrtifolia "as thick as the hair on a cat's back". It was here that I saw my first plant of Brunonia australis which until the fire had been hidden by other plants.

I have seen what can be done, even in areas as dry as Leigh Creek, when the will is there. Quite often a little bit of help and a couple of good seasons will go a long way towards reversing the damage. It will, however, take generations to restore, if ever we can, the damage caused by lack of thought.

"....but the understorey and the ground flora is, at least, as important."

Organisations such as Trees for Life, Coolibah Club and Greening Australia do wonderful things in encouraging people to plant trees, but the understorey and the ground flora is, at least, as important. This is where I believe this organisation can make its major contribution. By promoting the benefits of growing Australian plants, by encouraging their cultivation for pleasure and for profit, by educating the public both here and overseas about the wonderful range of plants this country possesses, our Hidden Treasures will gain their rightful place among the other jewels of the plant kingdom.


  • A Vision of Eden (1980) – The Life and Work of Marianne North. Published in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Webb and Bower, England.
  • George, A.S. (1981) Flora of Australia Volume 1 Introduction. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
  • Hamilton, J. (1987) Sowing the seeds of failure. The Bulletin June 1996 pp 26-27.
  • O’Brian, P. (1987) Joseph Banks. A Life. Published by Harvill Harper Collins.

This article is a reproduction of a paper presented at the ASGAP 19th Biennial Seminar, Adelaide, South Australia, 1997.

Ed McAlister completed a certificate in Horticulture in Northern Ireland in 1961 and following industry experience, migrated to Australia in 1967. After commercial horticultural experience in NSW he worked on the technical staff at the University of New England, Armidale and also enrolled as a part-time B.Sc. student. He graduated in 1977, majoring in botany and Ecology and in 1979 he was appointed Horticultural Botanist at the Adelaide Botanic Garden and Assistant Director in 1981. He took up his duties as Director of Adelaide Zoo in 1991 and has been instrumental in developing a master plan and facilitating considerable improvements at Adelaide Zoo and Monarto.

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Australian Plants online - September 1999
The Society for Growing Australian Plants