I’ve had a long-lasting love affair with wild flowers. It probably started many years ago when we lived in Europe and were in Switzerland on holiday. We climbed up to the high pastures in summer where cows with quietly clanging bells browsed among dandelions and buttercups. Weeds, you might say. But they had their own kind of beauty.
Years later we moved to Central Otago and I was amazed by the mauve-blue of viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) filling paddocks and cursed by the farmers no doubt, of brilliant orange California poppies, false valerian (Centranthus ruber) and wild thyme, spreading over the rocky hills. Cultivated flowers are beautiful but seeing flowers in their natural habitat has a fascination all of its own. Especially when they are species of the hybridised plants we grow in our gardens.
In the past we’ve gone searching for wildflowers in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, in the European Alps, in Patagonia, in the Pyrenees, and in the wilderness of Eastern Turkey. Recently it was Western Australia.
September and it’s allegedly hot – though not as hot as we had been led to believe. But there is no exaggeration about the wealth of wildflowers. Probably no where else in the world is there such a variety of species that are endemic to one area. Unlike alpines they are not necessarily small plants. They range from trees, such as banksias and shrubs like tall willowy grevilleas that grow over a wide area and display gorgeous golden fronds waving in the wind, to compact clumps of bright flowers squatting in the gravel beside the road.
Wildflowers have come to represent tourist dollars in Western Australia. Information on the internet and brochures in all the towns where we stop, advertise specific trails or routes where various species can be seen. The season runs from July through November, and extends over hundreds of kilometres starting early in the north with the height of blooming gradually working its way south as the weather warms.
We see our first wild flowers in the city of Perth, not the sort of environment you would expect to go looking for wildflowers. In King’s Park, high on a hill above the CBD, there are sheets of pink and white everlasting daisies, a garden filled with a variety of endemic species and Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthus) scattered about. Anigozanthus hybrids are often favourites of New Zealand gardeners in frost-free areas but the red and green species we see in Perth and further north are one of the 12 species found only in Western Australia. This one is the State’s floral emblem. The common name derives from the appearance of the flower which is shaped like the front paw of a kangaroo, complete with soft, bristly fur. In a small town north of Perth there’s a civic garden where dramatic black Kangaroo Paws alternate with the more common red and green species.
As soon as we leave Perth and head north the countryside is awash with the gold of acacia trees or wattle as they are more commonly known in Australia. Some look familiar to New Zealand eyes – many I haven’t seen before. Like gorse or broom in New Zealand they dominate certain areas of the land but the big difference is that they are natives here. Although acacias are found in other countries, notably Africa, the vast majority of species are native to Australia – some say as many as 900 species. I especially like the jam wattle (Acacia acuminata) which has slender leaves and cylindrical blossoms of the signature golden-yellow. And no, it’s not used to make jam. The common name comes from the smell of its newly cut wood which hints of raspberry jam.
Each town on our way north advertised the species of wildflowers predominant in that area but the brochures could be misleading and we went on a couple of wild goose chases looking for wild flowers at Le Sueur National Park where we followed a road for kilometres and really didn’t see anything that made me want to stop and take photographs. Another day we set out to walk to Lake Logue where there were supposed to be orchids. The track was soft sand and exhausting to walk in. It was baking hot and flies attacked us continually. We walked and walked without seeing one orchid, or the lake! In disgust we finally turned around, retraced our steps and climbed thankfully aboard the camper. In fact orchids seemed to be rather elusive though we finally found some near Hyden on a pathway at the renowned Wave Rock. Tiny, dainty flowers growing in small patches amongst the grass it would have been easy to miss them altogether.
It was at Kalbarri National Park, about 600 kilometres north of Perth, where we saw the greatest proliferation of wildflowers. The route into the park is long and straight and the scenery to a New Zealander’s eyes, not at all notable. But the wild flowers are amazing in their diversity – tall bushes, trees, tiny roadside flowers and wattles without number. Pinks, golds, yellows, white, orange, purple, red. I wanted to photograph them all.
What is it about amateur botanists, that they always want to know the name of every plant they see? It’s almost a disease and it’s affected me in the past. But on this trip it seemed as if it would be a mission to nowhere. The plants are too numerous for me ever to remember and virtually impossible to grow anywhere but in Western Australia. One book claimed there are over 12,000 species in the state!
When we turned south again and headed back to Perth by an inland route, the flower species were less numerous. Their place was taken by fields of wheat stretching to the horizon or paddocks of cape weed (Arctotheca calendula) and canola that turned the countryside a bright citrus yellow. This is huge country. But once through the Wheat Belt we found ourselves in a more varied landscape where the vegetation turned to open forest of eucalyptus and grass trees with their tall dark flower spikes pointing up towards the sky.
There was a time when I was always attracted by the most complicated flowers in any family – voluptuous peonies, bright bombastic lilies and double dahlias with pompom centres. But my tastes have changed. Given a choice, I now tend to bypass highly bred cultivars and opt for flowers in my garden with simpler shapes – species and their near relatives whose genes have been manipulated only by the wind or roving insects. Perhaps it’s the sense of wonder they evoke, the continual feeling of amazement that nature, unaided, can produce such perfect works of art. Where else but in the wildflowers of Western Australia is there such a profusion of nature’s inventiveness?