Thursday, March 26, 2015

Australia: Giant Trees and Windswept Coasts

On September 11, 2013, our second full day in the far southwest of Australia, we drove eastwards from Walpole, with its attractive views of the Southern Ocean, to Albany, passing from the humid karri belt into the slightly drier jarrah.  If the trees here were not, in general, a match for the towering karri, we were still in a true land of giants.  Here were some of the largest deciduous trees in the world.
You can get from Walpole to Albany on a highway. We decided instead to take the inland route, along Hill Top Drive past one of Western Australia's most well-known tourist attractions, the Valley of the Giants in the Tingle State Forest. 

The trees here, though there are still Karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor) among them, are not the majestic columns that we saw further west.  This is slightly drier, more open forest, and the trees are somewhat more gnarled.

Red Tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii)
Red Tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii)
That doesn't mean that they are small.  This is the home of the Red Tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii), and along the Ancient Empire boardwalk there are some enormous ones.  The biggest are tourist attractions in themselves, and the boardwalk surrounds them as much to protect the tree as to provide access.

Red Tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii)
The Red Tingle is a highly-localized species, its former range hemmed in as drier conditions extended into the southwest.  This forest, part of the Walpole-Nornalup National Park, is its stronghold.  The largest trees have heavy, butttressed trunks sixteen metres and more around at the base.

Red Tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii)
The most famous is the Giant Tingle, an astonishing 24 metres around at the base and some 400 years old.  That is not old by the standards of some trees, but this is supposed to be the oldest living eucalypt on Earth.  Its centre has been hollowed out by forest fires (a not uncommon thing for tingles), but it still stands.

The tingle forest has a number of specialties (including endemic frogs and spiders), but in the understorey we found some of the same plants we had seen at Beedelup Falls:

White Clematis (Clematis pubescens)
White Clematis (Clematis pubescens)...

Tassel Flower (Leucopogon verticillatus)
and Tassel Flower (Leucopogon verticillatus), this time in full bloom.

Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides)
Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides)
We decided not to take the well-known canopy walk (well, it started to rain just as we got there and we had little desire to pay for the privilege of standing in a a rainstorm 40 metres up on a metal walkway), but I did poke around the parking lot a bit.  This Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) seemed to be doing the same thing.

White-browed Scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis)
 White-browed Scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis)
This White-browed Scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis) preferred, instead, to prowl around the edges.

Proof, I'm afraid, that not everyone appreciates birds... (it's actually an ad for a car rental company)

 As we continued further to the east the tall forest fell behind us, and we entered a belt of mallee, a type of woodland in which the trees usually lack any sort of central trunk - a considerable contrast with the columnar trees of the karri and tingle forests. This is dry, open, sunny country, and here we started to see larger numbers of of wildflowers along the roadside verges. 

A dense layer of shrubbery surrounded the trees, decorated with sprays of yellow and white flowers.

Showy Dryandra (Banksia formosa)
Among the bushes we found the Showy Dryandra (Banksia formosa), its flower heads still not fully open.  This is another of the proteas.  It is a far southwestern endemic, but one frequently planted in Australian gardens.  This plant used to be called Dryandra formosa, but all the dryandras were moved to the large genus Banksia in 2007.

Pea sp.
Beneath the shrubs was an array of wildflowers.  This is one of Australia's many pink-and-orange pea flowers, but I am not sure which one.

 In any part of the world where a burst of spring wildflowers follows a long dry season, including both southwestern Australia and the South African Cape region, bulbous  plants, which can store nourishment during long periods of dormancy, are important parts of the flora. This is an example. It is a member of the Australasian genus Patersonia, the native irises (Family Iridaceae).
There are a number of species in the  Southwest, all with very similar-looking flowers, and though I had first identified this one as the most widespread, Purple Flags (Patersonia occidentalis), it could be one of the others. I am not at all sure that this is the same species as the one in the previous pair of photographs. The area we were driving through is also the center of the range for another species, Patersonia babianoides,  and I am not sure how to tell the two apart.

Drumsticks (Dasypogon bromeliifolius)
Some of the Southwestern specialties are downright odd. This is a dry flower head of Drumsticks (Dasypogon bromeliifolius), surely an appropriate floral name if ever there was one (it is also known as Pineapple Bush).
Drumsticks (Dasypogon bromeliifolius)
Here is a flower head in full bloom.  Dasypogon used to be included in the Family Xanthorrhoeaceae, with the equally odd-looking Australian grass trees.  Molecular studies have, however, shown that it is only distantly related to the grass trees, and it has now been moved, with a few other genera, into a new family, Dasypogonaceae.  In case you want to know, the Dasypogonaceae differs from the Xanthorrhoeaceae "in absence of flavonols, leaves with anomocytic stomata and lacking secretory cavities, the ovary unilocular or trilocular with only one ovule per locule, the seed testa without phytomelan, and the coeoptile-less seedling".  There you have it.

Bulbil Watsonia (Watsonia bulbillifera)
Bulbil Watsonia (Watsonia bulbillifera)
Bulbil Watsonia (Watsonia bulbillifera)
 A few of the most spectaular roadside plants of the southwest don't actually belong there.  This is Bulbil Watsonia or Bugle Lily (Watsonia meriana var. bulbillifera), a garden escapee from that other great repository of Southern Hemisphere wildflowers, the Cape Region of South Africa.

The name 'bulbil' refers to a peculiarity of this species (as opposed to other Watsonias).  Clusters of small corms (not bulbs) sprout along the internodes of the stem, each capable of sprouting into a new plant.  Perhaps they are a key to its success as an invader.

Pacific Heron (Ardea pacifica)
By now we were out of the forest, and back in open farm and pasture country.  We began to see a few water birds in the wetter patches of grass, including one of the handsomest of the heron family, the Pacific or White-necked Heron (Ardea pacifica).

Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes)
Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes)
In most of Australia the Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes) is the less common of the continent's two spoonbills, but not in the southwest.

We arrived in Albany late in the afternoon.  With only a bit of daylight to spare, we decided to make a quick run to Torndirrup National Park, on the rocky peninsula that protects Albany's harbour from the open sea.

Torndirrup is famous for its boulder-strewn coastal scenery, but it is a place to watch your step.  Apparently hardly a year goes by without someone being swept to their deaths from the windy sea-cliffs (a fact that Eileen continually brought to my attention).  We stuck to the paths.

Well, pretty much.

The best proof of the power of the sea gales here is the vegetation.  What shrub cover there is clings to the ground, with twisted trunks and branches that crawl over the rocks away from the force of the wind.

Where a shrub has suffered some damage, you can see its wind-adapted structure more clearly: many-branched stems terminating in clumps of densely-packed leaves, the better to keep the wind away from the plant's interior.

In more sheltered areas the bushes can be more open, but still have to deal with salt spray.  Plants with larger leaves cover them with a thick, waxy cuticle for added protection.

Coastal Pigface (Carpobrotus virescens)
A few hardy herbaceous pants manage to survive here too.  This is Coastal Pigface (Carpobrotus virescens), one of a group of plants (Family Aizoaceae) with thick, succulent leaves that can handle salt spray along coasts or the solar heat of deserts.

Pelargonium littorale
Pelargonium littorale, as its specific name might suggest, is another coastal specialist, though it does occur inland.  It is a member of the same genus as the common houseplant (which is referred to as a geranium in North America, but a pelargonium elsewhere), though the wild ancestor of that plant comes from South Africa where some 90% of the species in the genus are found.

We had time to visit the two most famous viewing points in Torndirrup before it got too dark to see.  At the Gap, we watched the sea rush into a chasm between the granite cliffs from a precarious-looking, if well-barricaded, sightseeing platform)...

... and, from a nearby point, admired a natural bridge carved by wave action from the rocks.

It's a remarkable, if cold and windswept, place.  If you go, bring good footwear and dress warmly!

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