Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Southern Tablelands Ecosystems Park; a tucked-away treasure

In the last days of 2001 fires roared through exotic pine plantations scant kilometres from the centre of Canberra. Just 13 months later a far greater conflagration swept away 500 homes and most of the vegetation of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) south and west of Canberra. In the aftermath, in the midst of the recovery process, it was decided to replace the pines with an international arboretum - a sort of tree zoo. It is a large area, covering 250 hectares, and comprises a series of approximately 100 single-species plantations of trees, planted in neat grid lines. It opened in early 2013 and has since consistently attracted large numbers of visitors.

In general I've not been among them. In saying so I'm not being critical of the concept or its implementation, which has been highly professional and well-funded. It's just a personal preference; I actually think we've got enough exotic monocultures and when I get time to go out I'll always opt for one of the many natural areas enhancing Canberra, or the nearby and superb Australian-only National Botanic Gardens.

Having said that, there is one too-obscure corner of the arboretum which regularly draws me to inspect its progress; this is the Southern Tablelands Ecosystems Park (STEP hereafter), an absolutely delightful pocket of diverse native vegetation tucked away in a corner. Effectively it is a lovely, and rapidly evolving, little botanic garden of local plants, including 16 eucalypt species; in this context 'local' means the elevated Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and the ACT. 
The STEP garden from up the slope, separated from the visitors' centre, the hub of the arboretum,
by an unwelcoming expanse of weedy open space.
The gardens are not obvious in this shot, scattered among the growing trees.
The remnant woodlands in the background are to be preserved as planned suburban development
proceeds, and are to be added to the arboretum land and managed by STEP.
The idea of a STEP garden arose quite independently of the arboretum - indeed it was being discussed even before the 2003 fires. It was proposed and championed by two local community organisations, the Australian Native Plants Society (Canberra Region) and Friends of Grasslands, following a workshop in 2002 to explore the concept. Importantly, it gained the support of the then ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, also a champion of the arboretum. Potential venues were explored without progress being made, until in 2005 it was proposed that STEP's future should be with the arboretum and subsequent planning and selection and propagation of plant species proceeded on that basis.

It is most significant to realise that the entire process has been carried by volunteers - in that context the progress made has been even more remarkable. Life was made harder for them by the fact that most of the development years were times of extreme drought. 
Tall Ammobium Ammobium alatum, on the edge of one of the diverse garden beds.
Well-attended weekly working bees are responsible for such beautiful and well-maintained plantings.
The STEP garden opened in February 2013, with the rest of the arboretum. At the time it was new and sparse-looking, and the weeds were not at all keen on being displaced. In less than three years since then it has been transformed. Let me share some images with you.
Some of the eucalypt plantings; no monocultures here, the designers have utilised the topography of the site
to plant the 16 species according to the relative situations they would occupy naturally.
Scrambled Eggs (not that I've actually heard anyone call it that!) Goodenia pinnatifida.
Trigger Plant Stylidium graminifolium.
Triggers have a remarkable pollination system; the style (which is initially a pollen presenter) is bent back
against the flower stem - quite visible above. A visiting insect releases the 'trigger' and the style whips over
and whacks the insect, either delivering pollen to it or collecting it from it.

Smooth Flax Lily Dianella longifolia, above and below.
Long in the family Phormiaceae, then shifted to Hemerocallidaceae; now some would put
it into Xanthorrhoeaceae. Take your pick.

Wee Jasper Grevillea G. iaspicula, above and below.
This is a rare and threatened shrub from the vicinity of the nearby town Wee Jasper;
the species name is an attempt to Latinise the town name!

False Sarparilla Hardenbergia violacea above and below.
A vigorous scrambling pea and an early coloniser of disturbed land.
Bulbine Lily B. bulbosa. Family Asphodeleaceae.

Rock Fern Cheilanthes austrotenuilfolia.A hardy little fern of local rocky hillsides.
Native Flax Linum marginale.

Kangaroo Apple Solanum linearifolium.
A spreading shrub of rocky sites; ignore the common name, all Solanum fruit should be treated with great respect,
though indigenous Australians have long known how to separate the edible from the toxic.
Remember that while this is the family that brought you tomatoes and potatoes,
it also boasts tobacco and Deadly Nightshade.
Amphitheatre; this is the focus of STEP's education program with visiting school groups.
Introductory sign.
Already the wildlife is accumulating, though the most obvious birds are still utilisers of relatively open space. Nonetheless they are obviously homing in on the plantings and this will only increase as the garden beds mature and the contrast grows between their naturalness, diversity and dense shelter and the comparatively unwelcoming surrounds.
Plague Soldier Beetles Chauliognathus lugubris on eucalypt blossom.
At least one family of Superb Fairy-wrens Malurus cyaneus has set up a territory in
the STEP garden, and is doubtless breeding there.
Red-rumped Parrots Psephotus haematonotus are attracted to the seeding native grasses.
This Silvereye Zosterops lateralis is on a weed (Senecio sp. I think) just outside the STEP garden,
but they regularly visit the garden to feed on both insects and nectar.
As the STEP garden matures further, I will probably revisit it in a future blog - meantime though I will certainly be doing so physically. If you live in Canberra, or next time you visit, I strongly urge you to do likewise. You won't get much help in finding it - for all the clear signage throughout the arboretum, management has not invested in one to indicate that the STEP garden even exists, let alone direct us to it. Nor can I find a map on the arboretum web site. However there are clear directions here. Basically, drive up to the visitors' centre and walk down the hill to the west. (And, as an addendum, please note the Comment below from Rob, regarding a new walking track and brochure from the Visitors' Centre to STEP - a most desirable innovation.)

It is a shame that, having offered a home to such an important, vigorous and self-sufficient initiative, the arboretum has not taken the small extra step of directing public attention to it. However I have little doubt that, in time, the word will spread, and I hope I've just made a small contribution to that.

[It is important to note that while writing this I made a conscious decision not to discuss it with anyone associated with STEP, so as not to compromise either them or me. Nor has anyone involved with the project ever expressed to me the concerns I've raised above - they are solely my own observations.]



Susan said...

What a terrific addition to the arboretum. I will certainly make sure to visit when we are in Canberra this time next year. Last time we visited Canberra, a few years ago, the arboretum was fairly new and I was really struck by how postively it resonated with people. They saw it as a symbol of regeneration after the fire, which I suppose is exactly what the designers intended. It was only after I posted on the blog about it in those terms that Kathy grumped at me, pointing out the issues such as the exotic species, possible lack of drought hardiness and monocultural blocks. I had been surprised by the single species block plantings in rows, but didn't comment on it as I didn't want to sound like a nitpicker when everyone I spoke to was so positive about the place and had clearly adopted the place as a venue they really used. Having lived in Europe so long now I am much less uptight about exotics, although you do have to use them with caution.

I'm really pleased to hear there is a Friends of Grassland association. Tree planting is too often seen as the be all and end all of conservation. Grasslands in some cases have been inappropriately covered in trees by the well-meaning. In central France at any rate, flower rich grassland is the habitat most at risk -- from modern agricultural practices mostly, so it either gets ploughed up to grow cereals, 'improved' for pasture, or abandoned and scrubs over.

My congratulations to the volunteers who have made the STEP and I look forward to visiting.

Rob said...

You would be pleased to know that last week there were 3 new walking trails opened in the arboretum. One of them takes visitors from the Village Centre to the STEP garden. There is a good brochure on the new walking tracks at the visitor desk in the Village centre. There have also been a number of other tasks undertaken by the Friends of the arboretum that may interest you, including establishing kangaroo grass in forest 100 (the Allocasurinas) and planting native species around some of the rocky knolls. I work as a guide at the arboretum and STEP is one of the many features to which we direct visitors. Quite a few people go there and hopefully with the new trail even more will. The development of the garden there has been a remarkably dedicated effort from the volunteers involved

Ian Fraser said...

Susan; thank for that long comment. You must visit next time you're in town. I understand Kathy's reaction, but you're right, it does represent a symbol of regeneration. Friends of Grasslands is a well-established and very active group which has done a lot of good work over the years. They are both part of cause and effect of grasslands finally getting fairly wide recognition and respect.

Rob; thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to inform me of events there. I am of course especially pleased to hear about the new walking track to STEP - I'll point that out in the article in a moment. I am also delighted to hear of your work planting Themeda and other natives around the site. I'll be interested to hear how your KG goes under the casuarinas, which are generally very unwelcoming to understorey plants (plus of course the shading issue). Again, my thanks for your interest (and your volunteering!).