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ASBS Newsletter – Book Review

Pre-European Vegetation of Adelaide: a Survey from the Gawler River to Hallett Cove

written by Darrell N. Kraehenbuehl

(From ASBS Newsletter Number 93, December 1997)

Publisher: Nature Conservation Society of South Australia Inc., Adelaide.
Published: 1996.
Specifications: Hardback, vii & 317 pp. ISBN 0 949751 24 3.
Price: $50 from the publisher.

The River Torrens as I first saw it in the winter of 1837 was very pretty and picturesque, high and steep banks on either side, closely covered with beautiful shrubs of all sorts; splendid gum trees also were growing on the banks, and in the streams, overhanging the water which was narrow and deep, small fish were plentiful, and that strange creature the platypus was occasionally seen on its banks. But some stupid people cut away the shrubs and trees that still held the banks together. Consequently the soft alluvial soil fell away and the river became broad and shallow and very ugly. After this the winter floods carried away the banks that remained, making it a most unsightly spot for many years, and entailing an enormous expense to restore it to anything like beauty, though it will never be as picturesque as nature made it. [Helen Mantegani 1902]

Soon after I first became interested in plants, around the age of 14, I learned to cherish relics of native flora. Here and there one could find small treasures. A white goodenia on a road bank that somehow escaped the grader; a round-leaved acacia in a nature strip that hadn't been converted to lawn - yet; or a patch of danthonia in a sea of annual brome and salvation jane on a sheep-grazed hillside. In most places, I could only guess what the original vegetation looked like - almost all of it had long since been removed and replaced by a mediterranean exotica: olives, aleppo pines, fennel, artichokes, wild oats and a riot of weedy annuals. This obsession with relics seems to have been the common experience of botanists growing up in South Australia - unless they were horn during the 19th century. It seems that the colonists, who first began to arrive in 1836, were zealous in their intent to convert the alien landscape into an intensely cultured 'English' countryside. Inadvertently they recreated the Mediterranean, because it was the introductions from that region that succeeded. As a student I was required to read Meinig's (1962) excellent account of how the colonists' naive attempts to transform the semi-arid landscape was at first facilitated and then defeated by the El Nino cycle. The devastation of that landscape is still painfully evident today. Sadly, it is only in the late 2Oth century that the mistakes of the previous 150 years are beginning to be rectified.

Darrell Kraehenbuehl is a little older than me, and therefore lucky because he has seen more of the original flora of Adelaide than I. (The last major period of its destruction was during my childhood.) This book is clearly a labour of love - his life's work. He began seriously exploring the remnants of original vegetation around Adelaide soon after the second world war nearly 50 years ago. Since then he has meticulously documented every little bit that remained over a 500 square km wedge-shaped belt that comprises greater Adelaide. This area is bounded by the Gawler River in the north, St Vincent Gulf in the west and the escarpment of the Mt Lofty Range in the east and south. All these relics are documented by speciinens lodged in the South Australian herbarium. The study is a masterpiece of rigour and detail; there can be few as thorough from anywhere in the world. Even significant individual plants have been recorded. This work has a strong historical element too - many of the remnants documented by Kraehenbuehl have vanished even in his lifetime.

The meticulous detail with which Kraehenbuehl has reconstructed the original vegetation of Adelaide from these fragments is astonishing. One just has to stand on the hills escarpment and survey the urban sprawl to appreciate this feat. It seems that even the bits of open space that are not covered by tar and concrete are given over to manicured lawns and exotic gardens. Yet hidden in this vast suburbia are odd trees, shrubs and even stands in cemeteries, wild corners of council parks and along the few creek lines that have escaped 'beautification'. From this vantage-point, only a few majestic river-red gums give any hint of the primitive vegetation. All these remnants are recorded in the book.

These field observations are backed by painstaking research in libraries, herbaria and archives. Some of the most reliable data come from the collections and diaries of early naturalists and professional botanists, such as James Backhouse and Ferdinand von Mueller. The latter first settled in the Adelaide hills before moving to Melbourne. However, much of the vegetation was destroyed even before Mueller started collecting there in 1847, scarcely 10 years after settlement. Kraehenbuehl has been just as thorough in researching historical records. He has extracted early descriptions of flora from ordinary colonists' diaries and books, and unearthed old photos which give background glimpses of original trees. The field naturalists society, who were very active in the late 19th century, provided much valuable documentation.

Early accounts (extensively quoted in the book) evoke a stunningly beautiful landscape. Many lament its too rapid destruction. The region was a meeting point of very different vegetation associations, brought together by dramatic gradients in climate and soil where hills, plain and sea intersected. The central plain including the site of the city was mostly open and parklike with groups of trees dominated by blue gum (E. leucoxylon, grey box (E. microcarpa) and, especially along the streams, river-red gums (E. camadulensis). To me - and to these writers - this is the most beautiful of trees. The writers enthuse about the abundant wildflowers and bird-life. Most interesting are the description of the kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) that dominated the ground-layer. It was so abundant that it was mown for hay, and grew taller than the men who were cutting it down. The grass is perennial, and would have been active in summer, presenting a totally different landscape from the annual grasses that have replaced it. Today it has all but vanished, except in a few tiny reserves.

The environs of the 'River' Torrens, which flows through the centre of the city, were by all accounts, magnificent. But within just a few years writers were lamenting its degradation by tree-felling and floods brought on by clearance of its catchment. Today it is a silted-up billabong surrounded by manicured lawns and exotic flower beds which mock its original beauty.

The plains were set off by the back-drop of the hills, well-watered and densely clothed with 'stringybark' forest (Eucalyptus obliqua and E. baxteri; not covered by the book). The ominously named 'black forest' was a belt of grey box in the south-east, just below and spreading onto the hills escarpment. People avoided this sombre woodland, or cleared it quickly, and it is very poorly documented. Two suburbs (Black Forest and Blackwood) are named after it. Interestingly, there were patches of mallee, one immediately west of the city, now the site of the main city cemetery, which is now more famous for murders and vandalism than its curious relictual flora. In one photo, graceful quondongs overhang broken headstones. Several sites around the city had outliers of this more arid flora of the interior. The seasonal streams running down from the hills did not empty directly into the sea, but fed a string of small lakes surrounded by melaleucas, Typha, Phragmites, and of course river red gums. The colonists deprecated these as the 'reedbeds'. It must have been a superb wetland, teeming with wildlife, but sadly was rapidly destroyed by semi-feral pigs and cattle, then filled in and 'developed'. However, it was hardly documented at all before its destruction. The Westlakes development of the 1970s and 80s took the last remnant. Between the coastal dunes and reedbeds were old red sand dunes, clothed with an interesting scrub of Callitris, Casuarina, Banksia, heathy shrubs and herbaceous perennials. These have mostly given way to golf courses. White sands at the base of the Adelaide hills carried a rich heathland of a different composition, abundant in orchids - now almost completely gone. Finally there were the coastal floras - shrublands on cliffs and dunes, and mangroves along the Port River.

The book opens with a concise historical account of the destruction of the original flora. It makes depressing reading. Most of it went before it could be documented properly. This leads on to a description of the environmental setting of Adelaide, and then a history of botanical exploration. This contains some extensive quotations from the diaries of early naturalists, such as Backhouse. Then follows the main part of the book: a chapter on each main vegetation type, citing early descriptions, reconstructing its composition and distribution as far as possible, describing extant remnants in detail, listing species, and making recommendations for conservation. These are copiously illustrated, mostly with photographs by the author, many showing sites that no longer exist. Each of these chapters ends with a comprehensive species list giving locations and conservation status (these differ in detail and content). The chapter on the reedbeds contains an account of an old controversy on whether the celebrated 'old gum tree' near Glenelg is really the original site at which the colony was proclaimed. The final chapter makes recommendations for replanting the original flora according to location. At the end of the book are several appendices listing vegetation types, significant trees and stands, threatened and extinct species and all species occurring in the region.

I have some minor quibbles. The main one is a lack of rigorous editing. The structure of the book is rather loose, confusing in places and repetitive. For instance there are long lists of species in the general text that make dull reading and duplicate the appendices (which are excellent). An omission is the near absence of any discussion of the abundant and diverse weedy flora that has largely replaced the natives. Very conveniently, the end-papers contain a reconstructed vegetation map of the region, but this sometimes conflicts with the descriptions in the text. For instance, several quoted descriptions evoke the dominance of kangaroo grass on the plain, but this does not appear as a mapped unit. It seems to correspond with 'Stipa and Danthonia grassland'.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed reading this book. Perhaps this is because it concerns something special to me - the flora on which I cut my teeth. But I think it has a more general appeal and significance. First as a superb piece of historical research, accurate to the smallest detail. Second as a creative and vivid reconstruction of a lost jewel of our natural heritage. Third and most importantly, as a rare example of the kind of information that Landcare groups need to do their job effectively. Are there any Darrell Kraehenbuehls out there in the rest of Australia? I sincerely hope so.

Reviewer: Mike Crisp
Botany & Zoology
Australian National University


Meinig, D. W. (1962). On the Margins of the Good Earth: the South Australian Wheat Frontier, 1869-1884. (Rigby Limited: Adelaide.)