How lucky was I, being asked to guide a birding tour to the south-west of Western Australia in September this year. As it happens, the region is also famed for its rich and diverse flora, and we were visiting in the middle of wildflower season!
The state of WA has more than 10,000 published native plant species, a high percentage of which are found nowhere else on earth. This is especially the case in the South-West Botanical Province, where endemism reaches around 79% (Beard, 2000). In fact, “Southwest Australia” is listed as one of the world’s 34 Plant Biodiversity Hotspots and the only one in the country. This listing denotes what is a double-edged sword. It carries the recognition of a high number of endemic species along with the fact that they face extreme threats from human activity. Nevertheless, good rains this year created ideal conditions and, in some parts of the state, locals were calling it one of the best wildflower seasons in years.
In seven days we visited habitats ranging from low heath to tall forests; mallee to the coast; iconic forests of karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor), jarrah (E. marginata), marri (Corymbia calophylla), tuart (E. gomphocephala) and wandoo (E. wandoo). The birding was wonderful (you can read the full trip report here), but we also managed to sneak a look at some of the botanical beauties along the way.
Of course, when guiding I’m limited in the amount of time I can spend photographing. The photos below represent the occasions when we weren’t looking at a bird, so the selection is far from representative of the botanical diversity we actually saw. Fortunately, the group was interested in plants too and we were able to spend some time looking at the flora.
So here it is, my random assortment of botanical wonders from the south-west, in no particular order.
Anigozanthos manglesii (Haemodoraceae), Red-and-Green Kangaroo Paw
When you think of Western Australian flora, chances are you’ll think of the Kangaroo Paws. They’re dramatic, sculptural and well known as garden plants far from their natural range. The spectacular Red-and-Green Kangaroo Paw, Anigozanthos manglesii, is the state floral emblem for WA, and what a beauty it is. Its flower stalks can reach more than a metre tall. We encountered these on our first morning in Kings Park, Perth.
Isopogon crithmifolius (Proteaceae), Pink Coneflower
Here in the eastern states our Isopogons (“Drumsticks”) all have yellow or cream flowers, so seeing these big pink-flowered ones in the Dryandra Woodland was a novel delight. Look closely at the flower heads. Each individual flower is a narrow tube which splits into four lobes, curling back to reveal a bright yellow style that becomes red with age. They’re named coneflowers or drumsticks after the distinctive round cone-like fruit. Western Australia has the lion’s share of the Isopogons, with 27 out of 35 species native to that state.
Isopogon crithmifolius is very similar to I. dubius, the Rose Coneflower. Growing beside it was a Petrophile with yellow flowers. Together, what a picture they made (though that one is only in my memory, not in my camera)!
Banksia grandis (Proteaceae), Bull Banksia
Nectar-feeding birds flock to flowering banksias and, along with small mammals, perform vital pollination services for this charismatic group of plants. In Western Australia the variety of banksias reaches its peak with 60 species in the south-west alone. Large and small, some brightly coloured, even some prostrate ones with the proud-looking flower heads appearing to pop straight out of the ground (perhaps evolved to tempt passing mammals or other ground-active fauna to act as pollinators).
One of the largest and most regal of the banksias is the Bull Banksia, B. grandis, with its long, toothed leaves. It grows as a shrub up to 10 metres (or more) tall. “Bull” as an adjective is sometimes used to refer to a particularly large or coarse variety of something, for example Bull Kelp, Bull Mallee (Eucalyptus behriana), bullfrog, and bull fiddle, which is American slang for a double bass. We found this Bull Banksia near the coast at Windy Harbour.
Banksia coccinea (Proteaceae), Scarlet Banksia
No-one could fail to notice the striking red flowers of the Scarlet Banksia. In eye-catching flamboyance they rival our waratahs of NSW. Like those, they attract birds to their abundant nectar. We saw them in full bloom around the Stirling Range and at Cheynes Beach.
Banksia ilicifolia (Proteaceae), Holly-leaved Banksia
A most unusual banksia with its flower-heads arranged in a dome shape, rather than the more usual cylindrical spike. This gives it some similarity to the dryandras (which are now also included in the Banksia genus) but unlike those, the flower-head is not surrounded by bracts.
The first photo (above) shows a flower-head with the individual flowers still unopened, while the second (below) shows one with the flowers opened. As the flowers age they become redder. We saw these near Windy Harbour, where they were attracting Western Spinebills.
Hakea francisiana (Proteaceae), Emu Tree
Western Australian flora doesn’t do things half-heartedly. This hakea is big and flashy. Its many common names include Emu Tree, Cork Tree, Grass-leaved Hakea, Bottlebrush Hakea, Pink Spike Hakea, Pink Pokers, and Narukalja. Its distribution extends from the Wheatbelt, east through the more arid regions into South Australia, but unfortunately it has become a weed in parts of Western Australia outside its natural range. I wonder if this is the case where we found a grove of them at Harrismith, which appears to be just outside their range, according to Florabase.
The plants were variable in their flower colour with the styles ranging from deep to pale pink, but the almost-white styles on the one below made it particularly striking. Purple-crowned Lorikeets were feasting on their nectar.
Synaphea sp. (Proteaceae)
The genus Synaphea contains more than 50 species and is endemic to the south-west. In other words, this group of plants occurs nowhere else on earth. They can be difficult for the casual observer to identify, as it may depend on the shape of the tiny pollen presenter. The Synaphea are thought to have a pollen release mechanism similar to Conospermum, whereby an insect triggers a sudden explosion of pollen onto that insect (described by P.F. Yeo, 2012). The photo shows one we saw in the Stirling Range.
Grevillea tenuiflora (Proteaceae), Tassel Grevillea
I love the hidden colours in these grevillea flowers, which at first seem all-white. The purple-tinged styles and fawn ends to the buds, together with glimpses of green stem create a subtle kaleidoscope within the tassel-like flower heads. Another one from the magical Dryandra Woodland.
Lawrencella rosea (Asteraceae), Lindley’s Everlasting
While we didn’t travel north of Perth to where the postcard-style fields of everlastings famously occur, there were some beautiful patches of daisies carpeting the ground in parts of the Dryandra Woodland, near Narrogin. These little pink and yellow everlastings captivated me as I tried not to tread on them.
Lechenaultia formosa (Goodeniaceae), Red Leschenaultia
Although it was late afternoon and dusk was starting to descend, the sheer redness leapt up from this ground-hugging plant and stopped us in our tracks. It’s impossible to imagine a redder red. No photo can do it justice. We admired this one at Old Mill Dam in the Dryandra Woodland.
Conostylis setigera (Haemodoraceae), Bristly Cottonhead
Lining the pathways at Stirling Range Retreat was a diversity of wildflowers which happily distracted us during every wander, such as this one. Conostylis is a genus endemic to the south-west and is related to the kangaroo paws. The flowers in this photo are only about 10 cm tall. They’re adorned with a few strands of native Dodder Laurel (Cassytha sp.).
Diplolaena dampieri (Rutaceae), Southern Diplolaena
We found these lovely “feather duster” flowers growing by the beach at Hamelin Bay. Gently rubbing the leaves released a fragrance reminiscent of something that I couldn’t quite bring to mind. Spicy…citrus…floral? Was it bergamot? The divine scent lingered on my fingers for hours. Such aromatic foliage is no surprise when you realise this is in the family Rutaceae, which also includes citrus and boronia.
Boronia alata (Rutaceae), Winged Boronia
Many bushwalkers are familiar with the distinctive scent of boronia foliage wafting up when you brush against the plants. Some species also have sweetly perfumed flowers, and this is one such species. Boronia alata is a coast-loving shrub. Easily recognised as a boronia by the four-petalled star-like flowers with eight stamens, we saw this one at Hamelin Bay. The flowers are so perfect they remind me of fondant cake decorations — though you’d probably be disappointed if you tried to eat one!
Peas, family Fabaceae, subfamily Faboideae
The south-west has an eye-popping range of native pea flowers. If you look closely you’ll find some radical colour combinations which take us way beyond the eggs-and-bacon*! Below are four of the prettiest, plus one of great ecological importance.
* a common name for many yellow-and-red pea flowers throughout Australia
Gompholobium polymorphum (Fabaceae), Twining Gompholobium
This little plant scrambles over neighbouring shrubs and would be overlooked if not for the vibrant flowers. The photo above was taken in the Stirling Range.
Chorizema aciculare (Fabaceae), Needle-leaved Chorizema
The Flame Peas (genus Chorizema) are known for their clusters of brilliant flowers. C. aciculare can be pink or orange but this one from the Stirling Range was simply stunning.
Isotropis cuneifolia (Fabaceae), Granny Bonnet
Granny is obviously into psychedelic headwear! These are apparently common after bushfires, though we only saw one on a roadside in unburnt habitat near Windy Harbour.
Gompholobium scabrum (Fabaceae), Painted Lady
How apt that this dazzling butterfly-like flower has the same common name as a beautiful butterfly, though the colours are very different! This pink/purple and cerise-coloured form (with a spot of yellow in the throat) was flowering at Cheynes Beach.
Gastrolobium microcarpum (Fabaceae), Sandplain Poison
Gastrolobiums contain the poison sodium monofluoroacetate, better known as 1080 (pronounced “ten eighty”), which plays a role in protecting native fauna of the south-west from the devastating threat of foxes (see The plants that saved the numbat). Note how the leaves in the photo below have been nibbled by something, perhaps an insect larva which might have in turn been eaten by a native vertebrate, most likely with few ill effects. The native Western Australian fauna have evolved a high degree of tolerance to the poison.
We found this G. microcarpum in the Dryandra Woodland, one of the last remaining places where numbats can still be seen.
Dampiera fasciculata (Goodeniaceae), Bundled-leaf Dampiera
Western Australia has the bluest flowers I’ve ever seen. Lechenaultia and Dampiera are two related genera which include species with intensely blue flowers. We encountered this Bundled-leaf Dampiera growing by the roadside in the mallee near Lake Grace.
Eucalyptus marginata (Myrtaceae), Jarrah
Jarrah is usually a tall forest tree, famous for its beautiful timber. In the Stirling Range, however, the harsh conditions have sculpted it into a stunted mallee, putting the flowering canopy closer to eye level. In the photo below you can see the opercula (bud caps) about to pop off some of the flower buds to uncover the stamens and style. Flocks of Purple-crowned Lorikeets are attracted to the blossom.
Calothamnus quadrifidus (Myrtaceae), One-sided Bottlebrush
Calothamnus gives us an interesting variation on bottlebrush flowers. The stamens are bundled into claw-like structures often lying on one side of the stem only; they look like a floppy bottlebrush. The genus is endemic to the south-west. C. quadrifidus is very widespread within this area and is widely cultivated. Like the related Callistemon bottlebrushes which are found in all Australian states, they’re loved by honeyeaters.
Hibbertia cuneiformis (Dilleniaceae), Cutleaf Hibbertia
The guinea flowers are something we’re familiar with in the eastern states, but Western Australia has some very showy species of its own. The big yellow flowers almost glow like a gold coin — hence the name “guinea flower”. Hibbertia cuneiformis is a sprawling shrub common in coastal areas and karri forest. I found this one along the road to Windy Harbour.
Stylidium schoenoides (Stylidiaceae), Cow Kicks
Trigger plants have a nifty mechanism for pollination. The stamens and stigma are fused into a column which is a movable part. It sits pointing backwards in readiness until an insect lands on the throat of the flower. This triggers the column to suddenly flip over and pop a parcel of pollen onto the unsuspecting insect, which then flies off to transfer the pollen to another flower.
Cow Kicks have the largest flowers of all the trigger plants. The name comes from the supposed violent force of the trigger mechanism. Perhaps a slight exaggeration! I photographed this one near Bluff Knoll in the Stirling Range. In the photo below, you can see the lowest flower has been triggered.
Andersonia caerulea (Ericaceae), Foxtails
This little upright shrub caught my eye in the kwongan heathland at Cheynes Beach. I can’t think of another flower which combines the same shades of blue and pink, but the combination is as pretty as could be. The flowers themselves are blue fading to white as they age, while the surrounding bracts are pink. Andersonia is yet another genus endemic to the south-west.
Finally, there’s one extraordinarily diverse and fascinating family that I haven’t mentioned yet: Orchidaceae — the orchids. These will be covered in a separate post, so please stay tuned! Meanwhile, here’s a sample.
Caladenia falcata, Green Spider Orchid
Thanks to Follow That Bird for the opportunity to do this trip — and get paid for it! You can check out their tours at followthatbird.com.au.