Two years ago, I ventured into the paddock across from my 1970s house, on the edge of Altona, and I did something I had done dozens of times previously. I got my hands dirty and planted tube stock seedlings. This, though, was the first time I learnt about the paddock I was in. And it opened my eyes.
Altona sits smack on the Western Volcanic Plain—the world’s third largest volcanic plain. It extends from the rocky shores of our edge of Port Phillip to near the South Australian border.
This plain gives us the features that inspire and confound us—abundant basalt (the bluestone that forms many a garden border, building and gutter across Melbourne), heavy clay soil (to be coaxed and loved into production) and wide gently sloping plains (that hold more life than would be apparent).
The Western Volcanic Plain, as I began to discover that fateful day in the paddock, is also home to one of Australia’s critically endangered habitats, the temperate grassland.
Temperate grasslands are dominated by…grasses. Some of these, the nodding red heads of Kangaroo Grass Themeda triandra, give the grasslands their rusty tan colour in summer. The fluffy, buff coloured seed heads of Common Wallaby Grass Rytidosperma caespitsum and the straw like mass of Common Tussock-Grass Poa labillardierei add to the golden tapestry of the landscape. But, it’s not all about grasses here on the temperate grassland.
Lemon Beauty-Heads Calocephalus citreus Image Credit: Colleen Miller http://victorianflora.com
These swathes of grass grow alongside spectacular wildflowers, fascinating herbs and native orchids. Too many to name and describe, these incredible plants are worthy of a wander through a paddock or two. The surprise of a patch of tiny Lemon Beauty-Heads Calocephalus citreus or Pussy Tails Ptilotus spathulatus popping out of the sun-baked clay makes it all worthwhile. There is a chance you will come across the critically endangered Spiny Riceflower Pimelea spinescens or an endangered Sunshine Diuris Orchid Diuris fragrantissima.
Add the fauna that call this place home and the grasslands become even more spectacular. The vulnerable Striped Legless-Lizard, a native lizard that gets mistaken for a snake, unless you see the ears and remnant hind legs. The endangered Golden Sun Moth, so colourful it is often mistaken for a butterfly and the Plains Wanderer, a vulnerable quail-like bird that lives across this landscape. All of this makes a place worth exploring and understanding, starting now.
These inhabitants and this landscape are critically endangered—according to the government definition that means they are “an ecological community facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future (in the next 10 years).”
What was once the dominant habitat of this vast area of Victoria, covering nearly a million hectares, is now estimated to be at less than 2% of the original coverage. Grasslands have been reduced to fragmented plots, often on private property and threatened by invasive plant species and the rapid residential and industrial expansion of the west.
Altona is home to a number of these fragments—Doreen’s, off Grieve Parade is where my grassland learning began. This paddock is unofficially Doreen’s, thanks to Nature West and an EPA fine. Doreen lived in Altona and as a child in the 1940s, would paint, collect and press the wildflowers she found. Her journal came to light recently and contains plants that are no longer found here. Places like this have been recognised as significant and given some protection, but mostly they quietly go about their grassy-business without much interest.
That day in the paddock sent me off into other paddocks and thinking about the value of this incredible landscape.
These grasslands have been significant for a long time, possibly 60,000 years. The first Australians of this place cultivated the land long before the colonial invasion. A whole range of grassland plants make great food—the Murnong or Yam Daisy Microseris sp. for example was known to be carefully cultivated, harvested and traded because of it’s delicious, potato-like tuber. This cultivation included what we would now consider ‘sustainable practices’, taking only what was needed, harvesting at particular times and improving the soil as it was worked.
The grasslands are also the reason this part of Australia was settled. When the colonizers first saw the gentle, undulating, grass covered plains they saw grazing land, ideal for cattle and sheep. The landscape became the source of economic wealth for pastoralists, squatters and convict workers. Unfortunately, this vision means the landscape as it once was barely exists and is rapidly disappearing.
So, from a simple tree planting in a paddock and two years of paying attention, I see these paddocks that surround Altona in a completely different way. I love that I live amongst this and know more about my place than ever before. I hope you do, too!
Things you can do…
Plant local natives in your garden. These can be sourced from wonderful nurseries around the west. What could be better suited to the local soil than plants that are made for these conditions?
Check out the world of grasslands by visiting some. Nature West will advertise walks around October, when the grasslands are in full flower.
Explore the local landscape. Look closely at an apparently empty grassy paddock and maybe you’ll see more than you ever have before.
Koorie Use and Management of the Plains by Beth Gott, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Monash University http://www.iffa.org.au/IFFA-files/GPCconf/Gott.pdf
Start with the grasslands by Adrian Marshall http://vnpa.org.au/admin/library/attachments/PDFs/Reports/Start%20with%20the%20Grasslands_Final%20Draft-1.pdf
Plants of Melbourne’s Western Plains, A gardener’s guide to the original flora by the Australian Plants Society, Keilor Plains Group Inc.
The Sunshine Diuris Orchid Diuris fragrantissima Image Credit: Colleen Miller http://victorianflora.com