Do trees have personalities, do they exude a sense of spirit, is it right to think of them as having a personality, of having an identity of some sort, probably not, but maybe if we thought more about them as a having a personality of sorts we might care more about them. It might be easier to empathise with their plight in this the Anthropocene age and we need to care if we are to have any hope of managing the devastation of climate change and the extinction event we are facing.
May Gibbs understood that the Australian environment could be charismatic and alive with personality. Those of us who grew up with her stories about the gumnut babies know that the bush is full of whimsy and charm. We know that Australian trees can sprout characters that live in our imaginations, sometimes even haunt them. May Gibbs’ big bad banksia men were such characters. I must confess I was always rather fascinated with the big bad banksia men and never really found them frightening, if anything they were more interesting characters than the innocent and infantile gum nut babies. It seems a little unfair to vilify such a beautiful tree but I can see how easy it is to see gruff and slightly villainous faces in those visage like seed pods.
This is my second arboreal themed post and I am choosing to celebrate another tree that is characteristic of Queensland coastal regions and specifically the Burrum coast region; Banksia serrata and the wallum banksia or banksia aemula. To be honest I find it hard to tell the difference between serrata and wallum banksia they are very similar in appearance, the only really obvious difference being that serrata is a little larger. I tend to think of both species by the common name “old man banksia”. Like casuarinas these banksia’s thrive on dry sandy soils and can tolerate salt spray. Resilient has to be the first word you would use to describe a banksia. If you want to experience a banksia habitat then the Burrum national park is a good place to do it, as large sections are characterised by wallum bushland.
I think Australia has around 170 different types of banksia, (wikipedia), they display the typical dramatic and showy flowers of the Proteaceae family, in the case of banksia serrarta, large spikes of distinctive limey yellow flowers. Positively phallic in their dramatic erect appearance. The Banksia is of course named for Joseph Banks who with Daniel Solander were the first Europeans to identify the plant, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banksia). And Banksia serrata was one of the first species found by Banks. I would politely suggest it is appropriate that such a plant should be named in honour of Joseph Banks who despite his many remarkable achievements could still fairly be described as being a bit of a prick.
James Cook may have declared Australia Terra nullius but it was largely Bank’s opinions on Australia and her first nation people that influenced British attitudes to the country and its potential benefit to Britain, justifying dispossession of first nation peoples. This article quoting historian David Hunt explains far better than I can: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-15/sir-joseph-banks-truths-uncovered-in-new-podcast/6540262: If you want an entertaining introduction to Australian history I can recommend Hunt’s ABC podcast Rum, Rebels & Ratbags.
Banks is an undeniably fascinating figure and far from the conservative image of a member of the establishment, his adventurous southern journey with Cook reveals a young, enquiring, libertine, for a more sympathetic brief introduction to the career of Joseph Banks I can recommend Richard Holmes’ excellent account of the age and its leading figures in; The Age of Wonder. Holmes devotes the first chapter to Banks and it makes for an eye opening introduction to a man who is such a significant figure in the history of this country. Banks own journal of the voyage is freely accessible through project Guttenberg and makes for fascinating reading, especially the Tahitian section of the journal. For the curious you can view a digitised version of the original journal via the State Library of New South Wales.
Enough of Joseph Banks and back to the tree in question. Banksia’s are famous for their ecological adaptation to fire. Those striking seed pods are designed to open when heated to a certain temperature. Generally the pods will store the seeds in their insulated bunkers until fire causes them to open, the seeds are further protected by a membrane that opens in response to rain. These cleverly adapted plants have evolved to store and protect their offspring until the environment is ripe for them to be released into the soil, firstly with fire instigating the opening of the pods and secondly with rain loosening the membrane when moisture is present to kick start growth.
Resilient is the one word that really sums up the Banksia. Not only do they rely on extreme events such as fire to assist in germination but the trees themselves are incredibly tough, with adult trees able to regenerate epicormically, that is to regrow from a bud that is protected under tough bark. The mature banksia serrata develop this tough, gnarled, cork like bark which protects such buds, so after a fire goes through, as long as it is not so catastrophic as to totally destroy trees, that new growth is just waiting to burst forth. It has even been suggested some resprouting banksias are “immortal”, some species are certainly long lived, (Protecting offspring against fire).
We should not take it for granted that these wonderful trees will survive in our climate changed environment of increased and more intense fires. The kind of environment they evolved to flourish in had irregular fire events with such events perhaps not occurring for several years, long enough between events to allow the juvenile seedlings to reach a level of maturity that gave them the hard protective bark. Seedlings do not survive fires. Just as even mature trees may not survive the super intense fire storms we experienced last summer. There are sections in the Burrum national park that were left in a state of absolute devastation, where trees not so much burnt but exploded, leaving tracts of wallum bush land utterly destroyed, patches of silent, stark devastation. Thankfully the environment is recovering, some patches faster than others. Those sections where something was left, burnt but still able to sprout epicormic buds and beneath those trees new seedlings are also now emerging, for those seedlings to survive to maturity it will be essential that they are not subjected to another major fire event for several years.
Those glorious dramatic flowers are great sources of nectar so the trees are loved by birds, parrots and honey eaters especially, bats, possums and bees. The seed pods are loved by cockatoos and both the flowers and the seed pods are admired by the imaginative everywhere. What child could not be fascinated by the banksia, even without May Gibbs help. Every Australian garden should have at least one member of the banksia family growing in its soil, to feed the birds and the imaginations of children. I have a banksia in my front garden not a serrata or a wullum banksia, I think it is a banksia integrifolia another hardy common species, every garden should have something of the magic that is the banksia.