The sun is warming as the spring equinox approaches and Australians feel the renewal of their spirits as we watch regrowth and flowering in gardens and forest, road sides and bush. I was lucky: my botanist mother showed me many wildflowers when I was a young child and I believe it’s why I now have such a strong feeling for my own patch of precious bush and nearby areas with similar flora.
Many wildflowers appear magically in winter, notably Victorian Heath (Epacris impressa – and impressive it is), a little shrub with tubular bells of white, soft pink or deep raspberry-pink; continuing through spring, it is said to attract birds and butterflies. Straddling the seasons too is my favourite wattle, Cinnamon Wattle (Acacia leprosa), a tall shrub with an elegant, weeping habit and plenty of scented, lemon balls.
But spring has arrived! So I shall look in nearby pockets of bushland for patches of wildflowers: white, purple-banded Early Nancies, gold Guinea-flowers, Fringe Lilies of purple-pink, Milkmaids, Purple-flags and cerulean Blue Stars. Below our house the well-named Butterfly Flag (Diplarrena moraea) displays flowers like hovering, dazzling white butterflies while deep blue fleur-de-lys flowers of Lobelias appear where it’s shadier. Bright lemon, starry Bulbine Lilies (Bulbine bulbosa) flower on 60cm stalks for a long period and the tubers – swollen roots – are edible (if you grow your own); Native Bluebells (Wahlenbergia) embroider the forest floor with azure stars each spring.
For me a favourite is deep pink Trigger-plant (Stylidium) which has a fascinating flower, many to a spike: each contains a sensitive column. When the pollen is ripe, this column springs up at a touch, thereby dusting a visiting insect with pollen or picking up pollen, with its sticky stigma, from another flower. Needless to say, once shown this trick by my mother, I was a convert to this game and even teenagers enjoy it. Fortunately the triggers reset – a couple of times – to increase pollination.
Clumps of pretty Creamy Candles (Stackhousia monogyna) are to be found in many areas, right through spring, while dainty little mauve-and-white flowers of Ivy-leaf Violet can be found in cool, moist spots, usually in some shade, throughout much of the year, but particularly from June to March. Best of all is the vanilla scented, pink Chocolate Lily which mingles with native grasses on the forest floor. Many of these wildflowers can be seen along the sunny orchid-rich roadside of Baluk Willam Nature Conservation Reserve (in Belgrave South) and there are other reserves to be found.
Patches of the shrubby White Star Bush (Asterolasia asteriscophora subsp. albiflora) are welcome: almost all lost, now when found they are precious indeed. The flowers are pure white, 5-petalled with contrasting gold anthers and a pretty alternative to its more common lemon-flowered relative; it has been named the flower for Emerald.
In the Eltham and Greensborough areas, Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) is an important habitat species which displays a dusting of pretty white flowers; the larvae of the threatened Eltham Copper Butterfly feed nocturnally only upon the leaves of this shrub.
Search in early spring for a wonderful tapestry of wildflowers. Wild orchids are exciting too; resonating differently, as if other-worldly, miraculous. The flowers are highly evolved and complex and the colour range wonderful. Brown Beaks are subtle russets, golden Donkey Orchids may be unmarked or be flushed chocolate while sun orchids range from lemon to deep sky blue and may be spotted. Spider orchids of burgundy and green vie with Greenhoods, those shy flowers of lettuce-green while Pink Fingers may be pale lavender or delicate pink. Bird Orchids, seemingly with mouths agape for feeding, are lime green-centred and russet; pink and white Rabbits Ears appear to be listening with attentive burgundy ears.
Wild orchids are exciting too; resonating differently, as if other-worldly, miraculous. Sun Orchids are the showiest ones I know. Frustratingly closed (and self-pollinating) on rainy days, they can dazzle when responding to spring sunshine by opening. Near my home in the Dandenong Ranges are Blue Spotted Sun Orchids of a slightly smoky blue on tall stems, breaking the tough soil near where horses were allowed for a couple of seasons, near Messmate Gums; nothing can tolerate the compacted soil but nearby when the orchids come, almost phoenix-like, it’s both affirmation and reminder (if we needed it) to keep away hard-hoofed creatures from remnant bush.
Nearby, under Mountain Grey Gums, are patches of tall Cinnamon Bells, spikes of showy waxy urns of cream flushed with a light dusting of ground cloves, many to a stem; impressive. Later come the saprophytic deep pink Hyacinth Orchids (Dipodium punctatum), many 80cm-high stalks in just a few square metres in good understorey under the Stringybark Gum trees below our house and along the road edges, stunning.
Last of all – bar a few wattles – is Victorian Christmas Bush (Prostanthera lasianthos), a small tree which grows in the cool moist soil along our neighbouring creek. At Christmas time – although blooming earlier and earlier these days – soft blossom floats above: white flowers with soft lilac spots; ethereal yet showy.
These are just a few of the wealth of flowers we are fortunate to find in remnant bush, road edges and forests. As custodians of precious and vanishing bushland, consider not just the attractive flowers but also the habitat for native birds, frogs, butterflies and animals which need the food and shelter these plants provide. And so I am just pleading for a little corner where real bush (not just gum trees but precious understorey too) may cling on, that it not be tidied causing habitat loss. If you have or live near a pocket of bush, hopefully free of pines, ivy and blackberries, consider fencing livestock off to protect wildflowers. When the grasses grow tall wait, if you can, for all the flowers to set seed before mowing (if you must); this is possible in the cooler, wetter springs, and then these gems may multiply to become wonderful patches of glory.
So search in early spring for these treasures, weekly if possible, keeping out a keen eye and you will, I hope, see a wonderful tapestry of wildflowers.
Words and Photographs by Jill Weatherhead.
Jill Weatherhead is a garden designer in the Dandenong Ranges, Melbourne and surrounds.