Blooming Brilliance

By Vicki Laurie May 31, 2017
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Step into the biodiversity hotspot of WA’s Mid West and Wheatbelt to join the hunt for beauty, rich and rare.

ON A DUSTY ROAD east of Morawa, we stopped to admire a gorgeous frill of red-pink blossoms circling a soft, green-leaved heart. It was a wreath leschenaultia, the showy emblematic flower of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt. Photographer Don Fuchs and I were feeling triumphant as we stood there. It’d been quite a hunt for this particular treasure, asking travelling caravanners “Have you seen one?” and stopping at country towns to ask plaintively “Where are they?” So when we drove past the wreath shapes growing on a gravel roadside, we hit the brakes and jumped from the car with excitement.

From June to November, progressive waves of blooming wildflowers adorn one of the most botanically rich places on the planet, south-western Australia. Some 775,000 visitors each year are drawn here like bees to nectar, visiting national parks and botanical gardens. Popular wildflower spots are scattered across the sandplain country of the Wheatbelt, east of Perth, and extend north to Kalbarri. But you need patience to find the best spots, and Don and I were determined to see more than just the carpets of papery everlasting daisies that most tourists seek.

We’d first driven north to Nambung National Park, two and a half hours north of Perth. It is home to the Pinnacles – famed limestone pillars rising from the stark landscape – but the surrounding park was our focus: low heaths of acacia and myrtle, dotted with stands of tuart. On these well-drained coastal plains, we had our first glimpse of the largest collection of wildflowers on earth. Banksias grow in profusion here: cylindrical candle, firewood and sawtooth banksias. Nurtured by a mild climate, magnificent wildflowers grow under and around the banksias, including yellow flame and toothbrush grevilleas, light blue fanflowers and bright red cockies’ tongues. Nectar flows year-round from these abundant blooms, providing food for the diminutive honey possum, or noolbenger. Large emus patrol the heathlands for seeds, fruits and flowers, and delicate western spinebills sip on beads of nectar.

Mike Newton, our guide, greeted us in his battered akubra. He worked as a ranger in Nambung NP until 1999, when he started up Turquoise Coast Enviro Tours. Mike admitted his secret love is plants, not animals. “I like wildflowers because they don’t run away from you when you try to photograph them, and they aren’t dangerous to approach.”


Sundew — The sparkling globules on a sundew (Droseraceae sp.) are not actually morning dew condensation, but sticky nectar used by the insect-catching plants to tempt unsuspecting prey. Any invertebrate unlucky enough to be caught is then ingested by the pretty carnivores.(Image: Don Fuchs)

We followed him into the roadside vegetation to look at cats’ paws – terracotta orange, tubular flowers that are smaller versions of WA’s famous kangaroo paws. “I’m campaigning to have them called ‘wallaby paws’ because no-one should call them cats’ paws,” he said. “But I haven’t quite won the fight yet.” He spotted another flash of colour, and knelt down in front of a lemon-scented sun orchid. It wasn’t quite open, so Mike gently cupped his hands and blew warm breath onto the flower bud. 

The south-west of Australia has such botanical richness because of its isolation, evolution and age. Fringing deserts and the Nullarbor Plain have kept the plants isolated from those in the moister parts of eastern Australia. Geological stability – no volcanoes or glacial activity – and the extreme age of the landmass are also factors. “It means that individual plants have had time to develop into different species from their original parent plant,” Mike said.

Our next stop was Lesueur National Park, another hour’s drive north. It’s home to more than 900 plant species, many found only in WA. We stopped just outside the park entrance because Don was already excited – across a blackened hillside, red and green kangaroo paws were waving in a stiff breeze. Amid the blackened twigs were other slashes of colour: purple fringed lilies twining upward, scarlet feather flowers (or verticordia) and yellow hibbertia.

Mike surveyed the scorched landscape springing back to life. “It was a January fire that took out 6000ha. Just when they thought they’d got it under control, wind came up and it flared up again. But then the kingia – those grass trees with pompoms on the top – all flowered four weeks later, and it was a magnificent sight. Some banksias set so many seeds afterwards that if they all grew you wouldn’t be able to walk through the bush.”


Sandy survivors — The wildflowers of WA are inventive survivors forced to diversity in order to try to survive in the west’s sandy, loamy soils. As a result WA’s wildflower endemism is second only to perhaps South Africa’s in the world of botanical riches.(Image: Don Fuchs)

We arrived at our next location – Coalseam Conservation Park, in the northern Wheatbelt between Mingenew and Mullewa – just in time. Carpets of pink, gold, cream and white everlastings rustled like paper as we moved through, suggesting they were dry and about to drop their seed heads. The colour spectacle was made more dramatic by purple drifts of Paterson’s curse, one of many introduced weeds.

Further north in Kalbarri National Park, senior ranger Mike Paxman was pulling weeds out from between boulders. The day before, he’d met a plant fanatic who had driven around the park for eight hours looking for the Kalbarri spider orchid, a unique local species. “Other people drive through the park and simply enjoy the sights from their car window,” Mike said.

Switching to four-wheel drive as we headed down a sandplain track, Mike explained that the plants thrive in poor, ancient soils that few other countries’ plants could survive in. The soil is deficient in “practically everything”, Mike said. “Nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, a lot of trace elements are missing. The native plants here have learnt to make the best of a bad lot. They form a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi that produces nutrients that can be fixed by the roots. These are subtle relationships that we’re only just learning about.”

At the Kalbarri Wildflower Centre, biologist Wendy Payne loves explaining the relationship between flowers and other species. “The blue colour of this snake bush, or Hemiandra, tells us it’s inviting in insect pollinators,” she said. “Insects see better at the blue end of the spectrum, birds at the red end.”

Wendy led us to a handsome white smokebush and invited us to look closely at its strange woolly flowers. “Can you see the size of the flower is absolutely minuscule? A European bee simply can’t get into the flower, only native bees are the right size to crawl in there. We have more than 2000 species of native bee – without them, these plants can flower and look fantastic, but not produce seed because they haven’t been pollinated.”

The next plant was a vanilla bush, which lures insect pollinators with its heady smell. “And that grevillea is called ‘old socks’,” she said, pointing to a tall, triffid-like plant. “Its night-time scent calls in a scarab beetle and a moth that are only active at night.”

Wendy stopped in front of a garish spread of feather flowers to explain its dense crown of yellow flowers dotted with a few red ones. “With a lot of native plants, the flower will start bright yellow, then the insects will come in, take the pollen away and the flower centre will turn dull red. The message to insects is, ‘Don’t waste time, because there’s no more food here for you’.”

Our quest for the elusive wreath leschenaultia took us inland through Wheatbelt towns like Moora, Coorow, Carnamah and Three Springs to the south of Mingenew. We found tantalisingly vague clues on maps and wildflower bulletins: “small cluster spotted at the side of the road, just east of Rabbit Proof Fence” and “starting to flower near the power lines and at the 18km point from the highway”. 

On the way we spotted caravans parked by the roadside. Melissa Moore and her parents Rob and Carol, from New South Wales, were wandering through the low scrub with heads bowed. For them, coming to WA in the peak of wildflower season was a happy coincidence. “And then we got the best year – we’re so blessed,” Rob said.

At the tiny hamlet of Canna, wildflower enthusiast and shopkeeper Paul Offszanka thoughtfully left a sheaf of his own wildflower maps in a basket outside. We followed Paul’s map to a wide, newly scraped dirt road. Wreath leschenaultia is often described as a ‘disturbance opportunist’, as if it has done something faintly naughty, but it means it often grows beside roadways with recent earthworks or other soil disturbance. And there they were – a dozen perfect wreaths in full flower, our disturbance opportunists growing along the well-drained gravel verge.

Lying on his belly, Don prepared to capture his prized shot when – bam! – a laden truck from a local mine thundered past his nose. It was a sobering reminder that in WA’s Wheatbelt, many threatened plants are found only along road verges – one swipe of the grader’s blade and a species could disappear.


Smoking bush — The woolly, wispy heads of grey and blue smoke-bush flowers (Conospermum sp.) sway in the wind like clouds of smoke. (Image: Don Fuchs)

On our homeward journey, we pulled into Hi-Vallee Farm, near Badgingarra. At the homestead, Joy Williams served tea and cake beside a vase of pink dryandra, a pretty cone-like flower with a pink blush. Joy and husband Don are successful sheep and wheat growers who refuse to bulldoze any more native bush to increase yields. They have preserved hundreds of hectares, and botanists from around the world turn up on the Williamses’ doorstep, begging to be shown around.

“In the 1960s [WA premier] Sir Charles Court’s catchcry was to clear a million acres a year,” Don explained. “We had to clear 10 per cent a year for five years.”

“The dreadful lands inspector would come to see if you were up to scratch,” Joy said. “They’d give you one warning, but take the land off you if you couldn’t keep up.”

By the end of five years, half their property was cleared. Today, about one-third remains as virgin bushland. “By the mid-’70s, we were appreciating the bush more and we’d met botanists who thought it was important,” Don said. “Not many farmers were very interested; they were keen to get it cleared.” Now those same people ring them up when they find plants they don’t know, adds Joy. 

The next morning, Don loaded us into his ute. After a sprint through cleared paddocks, we were soon into rolling hillsides of dense, low bush. On top of a ridge, under moist, grey skies, we surveyed a garden of breathtaking beauty. At our feet were pink petrophile, pale blue conospermum, deeper blue leschenaultia, pink melaleuca and taller yellow dryandras. Honey possums, native rats and 12 species of legless lizards.

Live here – a brave blue-purple Burton’s legless lizard wriggled between our feet.

This is ‘kwongan’ heathland (see page 47), “an Aboriginal word, which roughly translated means a bloody prickly, no-go area,” Don joked. He led us to a pegged-out section, 10m x 10m. “In a really diverse area, you can get 120 species within just that area, but 60 or 70 is quite normal. People talk about wildflowers on sandplains, but this laterite has the highest diversity. It takes a couple of hours to identify and then count every plant in a quadrat like this.”

Earlier, he’d taken us to a coppice of gums. “Right here, we’ve got one of our star turns, Eucalyptus leprophloia, which is a declared rare flora, or DRF,” he said. Within a few hundred metres’ radius were two more rare plants found only at Hi-Vallee – a rare yellow dryandra, one of 21 varieties on the property, and a white-flowered coneflower.

“We have seven DRFs and about 30 priority species here,” Don said. “Our diversity is related to the mosaic of soil types we have – gravel in some parts, sandy soil, more fertile silt, and 2m of iron on the top of one mesa. There’s aeolian sand, blown in by wind and 15m deep. This is also a crossover climate zone for different plants.”

Our last stop before we headed back to Perth, Western Wildflower Farm, was a beauty. There, Rhonda and Arthur Tonkin dry native flowers. During the wildflower season, coachloads of tourists arrive for a wander through the drying-shed. Hanging suspended was an upside-down carpet of pink everlastings; in racks to the side were arrangements of honey-hued banksias and feather flowers. At our feet were rows of buckets containing glycerine and water that the plants drink to keep them supple.

WA provides about $4 million of Australia’s $7 million flower exports a year, and much of that is wildflowers. Rhonda has customers in Holland, Germany, the USA, Japan, Italy, Korea, Singapore, Canada, China and Poland. Each nationality has its favourites – Germans like big, bold banksias; the Japanese prefer daintier blossoms in pretty colours, like the feather flowers.

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Kingia — The bulbous flowering head of the kingia (Kingia australis) sprout after fire, their growth likely triggered by the release of ethylene gas, according to Dr Kinglsey Dixon, the director of science at Kings Park and Botanic Garden in Perth. Endemic to south-west Western Australia, this slow-growing, silvery-leaved plant has a thick, often blackened trunk that reaches 4-8m tall. (Image: Don Fuchs)

The Tonkins were initially going to use their entire 7300ha farm for wheat and sheep. “I could see people next door struggling to grow wheat on poor sandplain soil and not making any money,” Rhonda said. “So I thought, ‘There must be a way to make money by harvesting what nature has out there.’”

“People used to come here to pick banksias, and Rhonda thought, ‘Well, if they can pick them, so can we,’” Arthur said. “At that stage there were three or four wholesale exporters in Perth, and a major importer came here with a Dutch trade mission and it went from there… We’re not allowed to clear any land in the Moora shire, but we harvest from it.”

We toured the property and Arthur pointed out purple calytrix and pink feather flowers that will be picked when they’re taller. “Most of this ridge is poor farming country, deep sand-drifts on top of the subsoil,” he said. Rows of soft, orange Hooker’s banksias that the Tonkins hand-planted are being harvested by pickers. “Pretty much anything that will hold its form, like banksias, are sought after by the flower trade.” So how many other farmers see value in their bushland as a partial income source? “Very few,” said Arthur, shaking his head. “Most people think Rhonda is strange and I’m stranger for letting her do it.”

“We say, ‘We’re pruning, not ruining,’” said head picker Sally, as she gathered up armfuls of banksias. Sally grew up with WA wildflowers. “Dad worked for the Main Roads [Department] and he’d bring home heaps of everlastings and banksias.” But she had no idea about WA’s species richness until she started picking. 

Sally is a convert to the subtle variety of kwongan heath, the beauty of banksia woodland and open sandplain. “We get tourists saying, ‘We want to see the wildflowers, so where are they?’ All they want to see is acres of everlastings. But they only have to stop by the roadside, have a little walk around and just look.” And, as Don and I discovered, joining the hunt for WA’s botanical treasures is half the fun.