Grampians - Spring Flowers.

Driving in the Grampians in spring can be a tricky business. The risks are many: unmade roads, damp with unfamiliar rain, feel has if they are surfaced with finely engineered ball bearings, suicidal kangaroos, often accompanied by their equally depressed friends, hop into the road with remarkable frequency, flowers. It all adds up – loose surface, crazy marsupials, flowers.

I don’t suppose that flowers make it on to the list of road hazards in many places, but here in the spring and especially after rain they most definitely are. Just as you are rounding a corner, tires only just keeping grip on the surface, you see a patch of orchids on the left hand side of the road. You lose concentration trying to get a better look, and all of a sudden the trees on the right hand side of the road are much closer than they should be. Panic. Brake. Swear. Regain control. Often not in that order.

The Grampians are famous for their spring flowers and a good way to find them is to pull into the side of the road wherever it looks like somebody else has run off it! “I swerved while trying to get a better look at some orchids” is never going to look good in a police report or an insurance claim, but a set of parallel tracks diving into the bush for no apparent reason are a good indication that you have hit upon (although not with as much force as somebody else) a botanical hotspot. Accident frequency and biodiversity seem to go hand in hand here.

If you survive the drive, the Grampians can yield wonderful finds of flowers. Thin soils formed from the sandstone rocks give rise to a rich botany. Here you do not have the fertility to allow some species to dominate, the plants are diverse, the rewards high.

I have never seen the Grampians carpeted in flowers, they seem to take on a more elusive character. This is a pointallist landscape. Small fragments of colour building to a whole. The charm of these plants lays in their scattered nature, not for them the brutal charm of the field of canola, or the slabs of blue purple in a carpeted Bluebell wood.

Finding these flowers needs a shift of focus, and while many are common and abundant they do not form the eye catching drifts of elsewhere. A single orchid – a patch of orange in a grey green bush – changes the scale at which we look. Movement on hands and knees is rewarded here; to find what you seek here you need to move slowly, watching for the star burst of colour that would be missed by the rapid scan.

When the flowers give themselves up easily as they sometimes can do, it can come as a bit of a surprise, and you realise the bush you are looking under is itself covered in flowers. Scale can be a real problem here.

Heatherlie Quarry, near Halls Gap, is an excellent place to find flowers – and it is a relief to no longer rely on road traffic accidents as guide.
The quarry has given up its stone since the 1880’s, and finally ceased production around the start of the Second World War. From that time on the bush has slowly been reclaiming the site, and now its shattered soils given up a more delicate yield – orchids and other flowers. Here we have a great case of not judging a book by its cover, or in this case a habitat by its history. It would be easy to overlook an abandoned industrial site as having little to offer – but you would be wrong elsewhere and you would be wrong here. Trees grow through the frames of abandoned stone trucks and orchids bloom in the thin soils. Greenhoods – the same genus that once lived in my nature strip – are common, Wax Lips are a burst of purple, Leopard Orchids stalk in orange, yellow and black, and strangest of all, Mantis Orchids grow with their roots in falling brickwork and broken walls. It would be fascinating to be able to watch the slow evolutionary dance that has been played out between this orchid and its pollinating thynnid wasp. Pseudocopulation by the males results in pollination and seeds follow. They grow in colonies and I found 25 flower spikes on one small back. Only 3 were in flower, but just the possibility of a patch of more than 20 of these remarkable flowers is exciting. You have to wonder what happened first – a wasp that mistook a flower or did the flower change first and lure in the male wasps. No intelligence, no design, no guiding hand: just time and the forces of nature – variation and differential breeding success. The fit beget more than the unfit, and the rest really is history.

Other flowers, stars, discs and bells of colour can be found if you look, but the orchids seem to be the stars of the show. There sheer complexity makes them attractive, but we should not overlook the more simple structures to be found in flowers with a less well developed PR department. The simple blue star of the Blue Tinsel Lilly would be a flower of renown in other places.
Grasstrees survive fires and thrive afterwards. The tallest example in these pictures is over 3m tall. They flower after fires and their tall spear like flower stalks seem to stand guard over a damaged, but recovering landscape.

Some of the most noticeable plants at this time of year in the Grampians are the Sundews, plants that are both insectivorous and photosynthetic. They fascinated my kids and time and time again they had to check if the sticky, glistening leaves would trap them. My kids are young and small, but not that small, so they always escaped. The ground hugging Scented Sundew formed most of the ground cover in some areas that had been recently burnt, while the Pale Sundew grew tall, with a thin, twisting habit. Each mining animal protein for their own use. Each seeming to contradict the common view of plants as passive, unresponsive things which are barely alive. I don’t suppose the flies being slowly digested on the adapted leaves would call them unresponsive.

The floral diversity that can be found in the Grampians is such a clear example of what evolution through natural selection can produce that they should put notices on the park boarders for creationist – “Warming: This Park Contains Materials That Will Contradict Most of What You Believe.” Or “This Park is Open – Which is More Than Can Be Said For Your Minds.” But enough.

Without question many plants were overlooked, some not yet in flower and some reduced back to bare leaves. Which is a good enough reason to come back next year and look again. Which is exactly what I intend to do.

1 comment:

RBenz said...

Great photos and your descriptions are just as vivid. I particularly liked the Mantis Orchid and your discussion of design, intelligence, nature and time. It kind of made me think of a quote I recently saw in the cartoon Non Sequitur--> "Stupid is a condition, ignorance is a choice.!"

Thanks for the tour of an incredible region. RB