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Kings of the Forest: Western Australia's tree royalty



Comparing girths with the King Jarrah at Sawyers Valley, October 2023


Way back in April 1967, when I was the district forester at the WA Forests Department’s Mundaring district, I one day visited, measured-up and photographed the King Jarrah Tree in State Forest near Sawyers Valley.


Wandering around the King and surrounding bush that day, I was engrossed with of the history of the forest and the crumbling remains of old sawpits nearby.  The sawpits dated back to the 1860s when convicts had cut timber along the York Road, and pitsawing had been the most up-to-date technology for the job. Before the invention of sawmills powered by water, wind or steam, all timber had been pit-sawn, and it was laborious work. A deep trench would be dug, a log would be man-handled onto bearers over the pit, and then a cross-cut saw used to slice the log lengthways into baulks, planks or boards. It was basically a two-man job. One man spent his days kneeling in the pit, a bag over his head to keep the sawdust out of his eyes, providing the cutting power. The other, the so-called ‘Top Knotcher’, lifted the saw and placed it on the mark for the next downward cut. Pitsawing was work for beasts of burden, especially with a tough hardwood like jarrah.


The King Jarrah at Sawyers Valley would have already been a giant tree in the 1860s, far too big and heavy for pitsawyers to tackle. Later generations of wood cutters working through this forest would have left it standing out of respect, or perhaps because they had noted the slightly spiral grain in the trunk. Timber with spiral grain is hard to saw, and almost impossible to split.


I’ll return to the King Jarrah tree at Sawyers Valley in a moment, but first a word about the other members of Western Australia’s forest royalty.


Kings of the forest


There are three King Jarrahs in the southwest forests, the one at Sawyers, one east of Harvey and another near Manjimup. A purist might argue with me here, knowing that the number of King Jarrah trees has proliferated in recent years, the title being given to any especially large tree in some bushland frequented by tourists. I discount these as imposters, as pretenders to a crown. The real Kings have been officially anointed. But they are mostly reclusive, well out of the eye of the public. Only one (the Manjimup King Jarrah) has been designated a tourist attraction, with the routine carpark, signage and walking track.



King Jarrah near Manjimup (photograph by Jack Bradshaw)

Other tree species than jarrah have their rulers. One of the most beautiful is the King of the Powderbarks in Dryandra forest. He is so secretive that his location is known to only about three people in the world (of which I am not one, although I have a photograph of it):



King Powderbark, in Dryandra forest (photo by Greg Durell)


There is  also a King Karri tree. This is located on Riverside Road near the former timber town of Shannon River. These days we know King Karri is not the tallest or largest karri tree, but it is without doubt the most regal. Like all of the forest Kings, you cannot but wonder at its venerable beauty.


A reflection on old trees


Thinking about forest royalty has reminded me of how old forests and old trees, especially big old trees, are treated like religious icons these days. The campaign to “save the old growth forest” certainly has holy and devout overtones (the forest is  usually described as “a hushed cathedral” for example).  OK, but what about saving the young growth forest? This is never accorded the same respect or affection … a subject I once wrote about it in an essay called “In Praise of Young Trees” from which this extract is taken:


... in trees, as in humans and animals, old age deserves respect and veneration.


But! I also love young trees and derive pleasure and interest from them. It saddens me to talk to people with the mindset that only old trees and only old forests are worthwhile or attractive. In locking-in to such an attitude, a delightful opportunity is foregone - the chance to cherish the wonder, vitality and beauty of young trees.


To me, young trees have the special charm and beauty of small children, kittens, foals, calves, lambs, and puppies. I find irresistible their energy and vigour, and the freshness of their form and complexion. They have an innocence and an unconscious optimism which is intrinsically beautiful. I am in awe of the way their long and challenging lives are steadfastly (if innocently) faced. Even the trays of seedlings in a nursery, with their delicate young leaves glistening with water drops, and their faces held up to the sun, fill me with anticipation. In only a few years, these young things will be tall forest trees, alive with lorikeets at the blossom, tossing their heads at passing storm or fire, and benignly watching the seasons and the decades come and go. They will know sights and scenes I cannot imagine in the 22nd and maybe even the 23d century. Planting a seedling, I sometimes think, is like launching a space probe to the future.


I first crystallised these thoughts half a century ago on a trip to the Shannon River forest, deep in the karri country. I was with Jack McAlpine, a famous forester. Today the Shannon is a national park, but in those days it was a remote and little known State Forest, centred on a bustling little settlement, a sawmill and a forestry headquarters. Jack had lived and worked at the Shannon for many years and he knew every tree in the forest for miles around. I was the newly appointed district forester.


"Have you ever seen the King Karri on Riverside Road?" Jack asked me that day as we were driving out to the bush to work. No, I hadn't seen the Riverside King Karri, so a detour in that direction was planned for later in the day.


We parked the jeep and walked in. "Well, what do you think of 'im?" Jack enquired.


"It's a big tree all right."


"No, not the big one! What do you think of the guyte further on?"


I knew immediately what he meant. "Guyte" is a bushman's term for a superb young karri tree - immature, but straight, clean and handsome. Just beyond the massive King Karri stood the finest guyte I had ever seen. It took my breath away as would a prancing chestnut colt, had one suddenly emerged from amongst the trees. The tree was perhaps 50 or 60 years old, beautifully proportioned and as clean as a whistle; it went straight up at the sky for at least fifty metres, yet somehow you sensed it was stretching, to see over its neighbours.


Jack and I spent several silent minutes looking at the two trees, prowling around gazing up from different angles, drinking them in. Both were awe-inspiring. Later, trudging back to the vehicle, we speculated about their ages, and whether they were related, and on the nice thought that when the time came, the King's crown would be assumed by the maturing young prince......perhaps then that famous cry would echo through the forest: "The King is dead, long live the King!"


Jack was as tough a man as I ever met, but our reflections on the old and the new that day showed me that like most bushmen he had a soft side to him, and he could be touched by beauty and intrigued by the poetry and the visions of the bush ....



King Karri at Riverside Road (photo by Lachie McCaw)  


Prince Karri at Riverside Road – the guyte who is King Karri in waiting (photo by Jack Bradshaw)


Back to 1967 and King Jarrah at Sawyers Valley


I had been to the tree once before, and knew how to find it, but we still came across it almost by accident. There it stood, absolutely massive, and dominating the straggly surrounding forest of young jarrah and sheoak.  It was  a weekend, and I had my wife Ellen with me, and our dog Cassius. I asked them to stand by it so I could take their photograph, a picture I still have:




Ellen and Cassius (crouching at the left) and King Jarrah, Sawyers Valley, 1967



The years passed ("I could not stop them", as Spike Milligan once observed). In 2013 Ellen and I (alas, without Cassius) visited the tree again, 45 years since that 1967 visit.  As was the case in 1967, the tree is not signposted, nor is it marked on maps, and it took me a little while to find, as the track in from the Kalgoorlie pipeline I had originally used had been closed. But my bush memory served me well, and we eventually found it, having walked cross-country from another track to the east. I was pleased to see that the tree is in wonderful condition, with a healthy crown and a rich covering of stringy bark.





A lovely scene re-created: Ellen and the King Jarrah at Sawyers Valley, January 2013


We revisited the tree yet again ten years on in October, 2023, and I am happy to report that the King is healthier-looking today than I have ever seen it. Back in 1967 it was scarred, pitted and partly dry-sided, which I took at the time to be the outcome of a bushfire. But there is no sign of recent bushfire damage. The surrounding forest is also looking very nice – fairly recently subjected to a cool prescribed burn for bushfire mitigation, and alive with birds and wildflowers.


You would think that the public would enjoy an opportunity to visit this venerable and wonderful tree. No doubt most would. But it remains a recluse, the location a secret. No effort is made to look after it, for example to minimise compaction by vehicles that can drive right up to the trunk. The policy seems to be that the King Jarrah is too vulnerable to be exposed to the hoi-polloi. Unfortunately some of the hoi-polloi already know it is there, and their impact needs to be managed, not ignored.


Minor royals – the WA “named trees”


The King Jarrahs, King Karri and King Powderbark rule benignly over their forest kingdoms. But there is a handful of other wonderful Western Australian forest trees, minor members of the royal family of the forest. They are not at the royal pinnacle it is true, but they are aristocratic nevertheless. These are the minor royals, the “named trees”. There are several scattered through south-west forests, but three stand out. Their status and names, I should point out, are not official; they are not to be found in the annals of the State Nomenclature Committee or in some silvicultural equivalent of Debrett’s Peerage. But even so, people like me bow before them.


In the top rank is Don Stewart Tree. It is a karri, growing a few km southwest of Manjimup and named after the famous pioneering forester (and “father” of the karri tree lookouts), Don Stewart. It is thought to be the tallest tree in Western Australia, standing 85m tall, and it is claimed (I’m not sure by whom) to be the 14th tallest tree in the world.


Don Stewart Tree - difficult to photograph, for a good reason

Don Stewart Tree is almost impossible to visit, let alone photograph, especially if you are elderly and arthritic (likeme). Firstly you need a guide to take you there, because it’s location is a closely guarded secret, and it is growing deep in the bush, far from the nearest road.  There is no carpark, no walking track, no signs. To get to the tree it is necessary to cross a gully, climb a stiff rise and struggle through dense and prickly head-high scrub.  Who could dream of the scale of this anonymity! In any other country in the world, Don Stewart Tree would be a significant and proud icon.


George Brockway Tree,  on the other hand, is proudly signposted and seriously promoted. It is a magnificent salmon gum, located on the Yilliminning Reserve and nicely managed by the Shire of Narrogin. It even features in a little book, available to tourists. This beautiful tree is named after another of WA’s pioneering professional foresters. George Brockway was a man who should himself have been knighted and elevated to the peerage, his work in forest conservation being so noble.




George Brockway Tree at Yilliminning

Proudly signposted

Des Donnelly Tree is also named after a famous Western Australian forester. This is a tuart located in the Ludlow Forest near Busselton, an area closely associated with the passions and dedication of Des.  No-one has done more than he to conserve the Ludlow Forest and to preserve its history and biodiversity – mostly in  his own time, supported by his happy band of volunteers.



Des Donnelly Tree in the Ludlow forest (and Des).

I have heard about a move to promote and rename this tree King Tuart, to give it royal status alongside King Jarrah and King Karri, but because it is growing within a national park, the approval of about nineteen people, a referendum and possibly a Social Impact Study would probably be required, so the move will undoubtedly lapse. In any case, I prefer Des Donnelly Tree as its name. I still remember the day Des was my right-hand man when we were fighting a nasty bushfire near Northcliffe, and also his work during Cyclone Alby. Most firefighters and field foresters go unsung. The Des Donnelly Tree can represent them.


My final entry in this story is Roger and Anita Phillips Tree. It is not quite yet posted in the silvicultural Debrett, and it may never make it.  I admit I found and named the tree myself, and Ellen and I are the only two people in the world who know where it is. It is not a super-tree, notable for extreme height, girth or age, but simply a shapely eucalypt on an ironstone ridge, providing an island of shade on a hot summer day. Roger and Anita, for whom the tree is named, themselves have never visited it, and their chances of doing so are slim, living as they do in Canada. But they know it is there, and they know we visit it annually on their behalf and pay our respects. I will never forget how they befriended me when I was a raw newcomer from the Australian bush, starting out on my forestry studies in the Douglas-fir forests of the Pacific Northwest back in the 1960s. They have remained our lifelong friends.



Roger and Anita Phillips Tree - somewhere in the wandoo country


Finally, did I forget to mention the Roger Underwood Tree? In fact there are two, although the one in Beedelup National Park was renamed by the National Parks Authority in 1980, and I am about the only person left who remembers the tree by its original name. The other one is actually called Roger and Ellen Underwood Tree and I have only seen it in a photograph. But I know it is a Douglas-fir, is growing in British Columbia near Vancouver, is marked on a map, and is reported to be a beauty.


I doubt I will ever see it, but I am happy to know it is there, and even if some Canadian of the future, gazing at the plaque at the foot of the tree, will have no idea who 'Roger and Ellen Underwood' were, I like to think someone told the tree its name, and the tree will remember.


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Jan 08


...and yet another epic entry.

Thank you for a very enjoyable read.


Todd Brittain

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