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Rediscovering Western Australia's rarest tree








The marri pinkie on Great Eastern Highway near Mundaring














I was driving back to Perth from the Avon Valley one Christmas a few years ago when my eye lit upon a magnificent tree. In a paddock right by the side of the Great Eastern Highway was a superb pink flowering marri (Eucalyptus calophylla). Marri usually has creamy white blossom, but every now and again you get a pink flowering one – I had seen them before in the bush, but not often: they are rare, but not that rare. I have since found another beauty in the Wireless Hill park, not far from our home in Palmyra.


I showed the photo to my forestry colleague and eucalypt expert Ian Kealley. Little did I know but this was the start of a fascinating little botanical and historical journey, which I will now recount.


In the pride of place in his father Gordon’s photographic collection (said Ian), was a colour photo of a jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) tree, covered in blossom. Gordon, incidentally, had been one of WA’s most experienced apiarists, and had spent a lifetime “chasing blossom” for his beekeeping business.


Gordon Kealley, famous Western Australian apiarist amd incomparable bushman


Gordon was more than a beekeeper, however. He was an experienced bushman, with a lifetime in the wildlands of WA behind him, from the capstone hills of the mid-west to the karri forest of the south, to the goldfields of the east. He knew the jarrah and wandoo forests like the back of his hand. When not actually working the bees or gathering the honey, he would be out exploring, not just looking for blossom for his bees, but at anything that captured his interest and love of the bush.


So, one day, travelling between apiary sites with his son Colin and grandson Jeremy, in mixed jarrah and wandoo forest in what is today the Wandoo National Park, it was not unusual for Gordon to spot a flowering jarrah tree, and to stop and take a look. What was unusual was the colour of the blossom – it was vivid pink, in complete contrast to the normal brilliant white or creamy colour of jarrah blossom. Gordon had spent a life-time in WA’s south-west forests, and was part of the close-knit community of beekeepers, all pre-occupied with the subject of blossom and nectar, but he had never before heard mention of a pink-flowering jarrah, let alone seen one.


Realising the significance of his discovery, Gordon contacted a friend, Lee Allan, at that time the Senior Apiculturist with the Department of Agriculture, stationed in South Perth. He took Lee to the spot, and several colour slides were taken.


Alas, the photographs taken that day have since been lost, but prints survived – the photographs given to Gordon by Lee, and later by Gordon to Ian. One of these is reproduced below. The exact date of the pictures is no longer known, but it would appear from Lee and Gordon’s records to have been about 1995.


The pink-flowering jarrah discovered by Gordon Kealley in 1995. Photograph by Lee Allan


Alas also, neither Gordon nor Lee formally surveyed or recorded the exact location of the tree. Over subsequent years they never revisited it, and it was largely forgotten.


In 2019 when Ian told me about his Dad's pink-flowering jarrah I was at first sceptical. I had never heard of such a thing, and neither had any of my old forestry mates. Then Lee Allan’s photograph was resurrected and our doubts faded … but not completely. Clearly the tree must be relocated and re-photographed. This could be Western Australia’s rarest tree, perhaps one of the rarest trees on earth, and its day in the sun was overdue.


But where was it? All we had was a photograph, and a verbal description of how to find it, passed on to Ian by his father, based on bush memories from 30 years ago. It was “out in the Dale”, Gordon had said - an area of several thousand hectares of jarrah and wandoo forest, roughly east of Perth. To a layman this might sound like an impossible task – looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, or even harder, a specific piece of hay in a haystack. But we were undaunted, and we were confident of three things. First, we knew that Gordon Kealley had been an incomparable bushman, and that his memories and description would be accurate. Second, we knew that if the tree was still standing, it would not look very different today than it did then, jarrah being so slow-growing in its eastern distribution. Third, we had the photo.


Two years passed, and for one reason or another the project stalled. Ian had retired, and was in the process of moving from Kalgoorlie to Busselton, and I was busy on other projects. Then there was a summer when no jarrah trees flowered, and another when we had our hands full with bushfire issues.


Finally, everything came together. It was the summer of 2021/22 and around Christmas there was a good (if patchy) flowering of jarrah in the northern forests. Plans were made, survey instruments, tree-measuring gear, a GPS and cribs assembled, and on Australia Day, 2022, three old foresters (Kealley, Underwood, and our good friend Frank Batini, a one-time forest inventory specialist) headed out for a day in the bush. We were determined to find Gordon Kealley’s tree.


Early signs were discouraging. Reaching the Dale, it soon became clear that we were maybe 2-3 weeks late and the jarrah flowering season was almost over. Here and there we spotted the odd jarrah tree, or clump of jarrahs whose crowns were white with blossom, but mostly flowering had finished and the trees were moving to the next phase of their floral cycle.


Never mind, we said to each other, there is nothing better than a day in the bush. Tradition demanded that morning tea was taken at 10 am, sitting on a log, before the real work began.








Smoko: Frank Batini, left, and Ian Kealley.










Gordon, then 95 years old, had given Ian a very rough location for the tree during a visit to the Dale in 2020. This narrowed down our search to a few hundred hectares. And it was a perfect summer day, warm and sunny, with crystal-clear forest air.


Beginning the search, we systematically quartered the forest in which we believed the tree was located, each of us carrying an enlargement of the Lee Allan photograph. We had worked out that the photo was taken looking west, so that our surveillance focused on walking lines with the morning sun behind us.


Ian, being younger and fitter, covered the ground like an emu, bounding over logs and gullies, searching here and searching there. My work was hesitant, limping pathetically on my wonky ankle, and having to look where I put my feet, rather than up at the trees. But Frank, the former survey and inventory specialist, worked slowly and methodically, counting paces and pausing every few metres to align the scene before him with that in the photograph.


Slow and methodical won the day, and after about two hours searching, there was a murmur of triumph. We gathered, consulted, studied the scene from several angles, and checked the grass trees in the foreground and the leaning marri tree beyond. Yes, there it was. Indubitably the tree before us was the same tree discovered by Gordon Kealley and photographed all those years earlier by Lee Allan.


Ian Kealley with his father’s pink-flowering jarrah, Australia Day 2022


But the scene before our eyes was not identical to that in the photograph. There was one important exception: the tree was not covered with vivid pink blossom. Flowering had finished, maybe two weeks ago. There were some faded gingery blossoms on the ground at the base of the tree, and on one inaccessible limb high above us.







Faded gingery blossom gathered from beneath the Gordon Kealley Tree








So, while we couldn’t be sure the tree had flowered pink, we agreed that it definitely had not flowered white. There were other jarrah trees in the vicinity, all with brilliant white blossom in the crown or on the ground.


We measured the tree’s height and diameter (well, we were foresters), and we GPS’d its location so we can readily find it again. And we resolved to come back next summer, this time coinciding our visit, if possible, with the optimum jarrah flowering time for this part of the bush. At that time, we would have a ladder so that botanical specimens would be taken, for archiving in the WA Herbarium.


Several questions remain.


For example, is this one of those plants that flowers one colour one year and a different colour another year? This is not unheard of in horticulture, but none of us could recall an example from a forest tree. And are there any others? I consulted WA’s premier botanist Alex George, and he told me that he had discovered a single pink-flowered jarrah in the Perth suburb of Forrestfield many years ago, maybe in the 1960s. He collected a specimen and this is archived in the WA Herbarium. Sadly, Alex told me, when he went back to check on the tree some years later, he found the whole area had been cleared and developed for housing, and no jarrah trees with blossom of any colour remained.


Perhaps observations and locations of other “pinkie jarrahs” will come to light when this article is circulated. To date I have not heard a whisper of one from any of my hundreds of forester-colleagues.


Finally, we asked ourselves whether the unusual colour of the blossom on this tree was heritable, or whether it had been a once-off “sport”, responding to some ephemeral feature of the environment. At this stage, it is only possible to speculate.


Later it will be interesting to collect seed from this tree, or to clone it, and then observe the colour of the blossom in the progeny. This of course, raises the question of commercial propagation and “cashing-in”, neither of which prospect interests us. On the contrary, we are concerned about this, and do not intend to make the location of the tree known until we can be sure of its security – both from exploitation, and from vandalism. I recently read John Vaillant’s book The Golden Spruce, a terrible story about the wonton destruction of one of the rarest trees in Canada, and the thought of something similar happening to “our” jarrah tree was deeply disturbing.


So, although it was disappointing not to be able definitely to say that we had rediscovered a pinkie jarrah, we definitely rediscovered the tree in question – a minor triumph of bushmanship of which we were quite proud. And best of all, we now have further adventures ahead of us, revisiting and studying The Gordon Kealley Tree (as we have named it) in the years ahead.



Foresters Roger Underwood and Frank Batini, with the Gordon Kealley Tree



Postscript

1. Gordon Kealley died in Perth on 6 January 2022, aged 97, only a few days before the rediscovery of “his” tree. I dedicate this story to him and his wonderful bushmanship.

2. I revisited the tree in January 2023, but it was devoid of any blossom, of any colour.

3. Thanks to Ian Kealley and Frank Batini for helping me with this story.





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