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Reflections on botany - an old-school dendrologist sings the blues

Updated: May 19


 

 

 


 


A magnificent red flowering gum, photographed in the main street of Manjimup by Jack Bradshaw

 

 





It was the late 1990s, and one of those monochrome autumn days on the south coast, east of Mt Manypeaks. Gray skies, gray rocks, gray bitumen roads, dripping gray-green blackbutt and woollybush scrub, and dark blue-green plantations. My mate Morts and I had spent most of the day walking through newly-planted blue gum plantations on windswept paddocks, but on the way home the clouds blew over and the sun came out. Vivid colours leapt at us from the fields, rocky hills and sandy bays, revealing the Western Australian south coast landscape in all its glory.

 

We had an hour to spare before needing to be back in Albany, so we drove into the coast to Betty’s Beach, an old salmon fishing camp on a headland. It is one of my favourite spots and Morts hadn’t been there before. There is an island offshore and magnificent views to Mt Gardner and Two-peoples Bay to the west, and to Manypeaks to the east. Huge boulders stand at the water’s edge and there is a long bay and dazzling white beach.

 

To the south, there was nothing between us and Antarctica but the deep blue Southern Ocean.

 


 

 

Betty’s Beach, and the rocky hillside beyond

 

Scrambling up the boulder-strewn hill we came across a small “eucalypt” tree in flower, at first glance a dwarf mallee form of Eucalyptus ficifolia, the red flowering gum [see Endnote].

 

On second glance the little tree did not appear to be E.ficifolia at all - it looked like something else altogether, with quite different buds and fruits from the species we all know so well. Were we onto something? Was this the type specimen for a whole new species of tree, perhaps Eucalyptus underwoodii?

 

I am very familiar with Eucalyptus ficifolia, the red flowering gum. It is one of the most widely planted ornamental trees in southern Australia. Moreover, when I was a boy, there was a beauty in the back yard of our family home, and another in the front yard of the house across the road. Both were large trees, and climbable by an adventurous little boy, and I spent many an hour up those “red gums”, as my father called them. Around about Christmas every year they would carry a mass of scarlet blossom, contrasting sharply with the olive-green foliage. Together with the family mulberry tree (in which I also spent many hours), these were the first trees I came to know at first hand, and decades later I can still remember the configuration of their branches, and the view from the top.

 

Later when I was working as a forester in the south-west, I came to know red flowering gum in its natural habitat on the south coast near Nornalup, in the nicely named Ficifolia State Forest (today part of a national park).

 

 




With Chris Haynes (right) amongst the red flowering gums in their native habitat, near Pt Conspicuous on the Western Australian south coast - probably about 1986

 




Later still, I was surprised to find that they are the principal street tree in San Fransisco, where I spent some time visiting my daughter Jane in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The tree is very widely planted as an ornamental in southern California, where it thrives and displays wonderful shows of a particularly vivid crimson blossom.

 

 






A red-flowering gum in California in full bloom (photo by Matt Ritter)

 

 




So, whatever the tree was that we found on the hill above Betty’s Beach, I felt sure it was different from the red flowering gums I have known all my life.

 

A specimen was dutifully collected and I dropped it off one day with Dr Steve Hopper, WA’s most notable eucalypt botanist. Steve is known as “Hopper the Chopper” in some circles, because he is one of those botanists who can take a well-known tree species and chop it up (or “reorganise it”) into several new species with new names. Some foresters, horticulturalists and nurserymen regard this re-classifying and re-naming as a game that botanists love to play amongst themselves, well aware of the angst it can cause to non-botanists, while the botanists themselves insist that science cannot advance unless every member of the plant world is “correctly” named. I have had several friendly discussions on this issue with Steve over the years, especially after he had chopped wandoo (a tree I previously knew very well) into 15 different new species (which I now hardly know at all). One of these new species can be distinguished from the original wandoo only by collecting seed, germinating seedlings and studying the colour and hairiness of the seed-leaves, a process that can take a year.

  

Steve Hopper doing what he does best: discovering a new species of eucalyptus

 

Nevertheless, I look up to Steve as a good bloke, and an expert on the identification of WA eucalypt trees. He ran his eye over the sample I brought in and declared it definitely to be the red flowering gum, Eucalyptus ficifolia.

 

“But look at the buds and fruits, Steve!” I cried.

 

“Roger,” he told me, “You are years behind the times. The defining features of this species are no longer the buds and fruits, it is the pattern of the veins and oil glands in the leaf and the shape of the seed.  This is indubitably ficifolia”.

 

I had to admit that I was still a buds and fruit man. How could I not be? In 1961 I had been taught dendrology (now known as “forest botany”) at the Forestry School in Canberra by Dr Charlie Hamilton, and our textbook was actually called “Buds and Fruits of the Eucalypts”. Charlie had to struggle with me, because like most Western Australian forestry students I had initially thought there were only a dozen or so eucalyptus species in the world that mattered. When we went to Forestry School and were confronted with the other 600 or so, it came as a serious shock.

 

I was lucky, however, as Charlie had a tradition to maintain in trying to teach me in a subject in which I was naturally untalented. His father (“Old Charlie”) had taught me art at Hale School, and never can there have been a more testing assignment. I have zero artistic ability. I can hardly draw a tree, let alone a particular species of tree. Charlie on the other hand (“Young Charlie” that is) was a wonderful artist, combining the advantages of a natural gift, his father’s teaching and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian trees. Those were the days before computers, overhead projectors, Power Point or whiteboards, and lecturers still used blackboards. During our dendrology classes Charlie would fill the blackboards with drawings with coloured chalks of leaves, fruit, buds, bark, whole trees and stands of trees.

  


 Karri forest

Oil painting by Charles Hamilton, my dendrology lecturer at Forestry School. This painting became the frontispiece to the first edition of Forest Trees of Australia

 

 I will never forget one lecture in which Charlie took us on an imaginary journey across southern/central Australia from east to west, drawing for us the typical forms of the trees on the transect, from shrubby coastal species to the tall forests of the Dividing Range, to the inland woodlands, the desert mallees and then back up through the same sequence as the other coast approached. Seeing the images emerge from his fingertips as he spoke made it more memorable.

 

Charlie’s drawings had great vitality and simple beauty, as well as botanical correctness. He didn’t just draw a tree, he drew a particular species of tree; it was recognisably a red stringybark, or a yellow box, a mountain ash or a karri. This conjunction of science and art, leading us to appreciate both, added an extra dimension to our forestry education. Only years later I realised that we were privileged to have been taught in this way. Although Charlie Hamilton’s works of art were swept aside by the duster at the end of each lecture, they lived on in the memory, and they brought an air of creativity to what otherwise could have been a rather dry subject.

 

How sad it would be for Charlie (and his students) if he was still teaching dendrology today and was confined to having to draw oil gland patterns and seeds. Remembering Charlie, however, I imagine he could have brought a touch of artistic flair to it and would not have been able to resist the temptation to bring to life a glimmering stand of rose gum or Gympie messmate on his blackboard.

 

 


 




WA students at the Australian Forestry School, 1961, with Charlie Hamilton, who had worked as a forester in Western Australia before becoming a university lecturer.

 







Thanks to Charlie Hamilton’s inspirational teaching, I have enjoyed a lifetime interest in botany, especially dendrology. I especially thank Charlie because my pre-Forestry School botanical studies at the University of WA in 1959 and 1960 had mostly had the opposite effect. As part of the forestry curriculum, we were required to take two full years of Botany at university, but the lecturers, who were undoubtedly wonderful botanists, were mostly uninspiring teachers.

 

There were two exceptions. The first was Miss Alison Baird, one of those fervent lady botanists who devote their entire lives to plants. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, striding through the bushland at Kings Park or clambering over the dunes at Swanbourne, heavily booted, with her ankle-length tweed skirt and woollen cardigan blowing in the wind, identifying plants to left and right with joyous abandon. She was known to us all as “Jungle Jill”.

 

 




Alison Baird, a photograph taken in the 1940s, when she was a brilliant mathematician as well as an outstanding botanist






Miss Baird was a spinster in her mid-50s, but a gentle and friendly woman, and we forestry students were all very fond of her. Once in second year she took us on a walking tour of the university campus and the gardens at Matilda Bay. She identified the various exotic trees and gave us a potted botanical history of each – this was our first lesson in dendrology, and she did it expertly, opening our eyes to a new aspect of the familiar world around us. It was not done as part of the curriculum, just as her way of sharing her botanical passions with us.

 

The other favourite with the forestry students (we were aged 17 or 18 at the time) was Marion Blackwell, an attractive young woman, probably aged about 30, who came in once a week to work as a special instructor in the lab sessions. As well as being an accomplished botanist and a good teacher, she had a lively personality and enjoyed working with students. There was not one of us who did not fall in love with her. Thirty years later I found myself working with Marion, by then a famous landscape designer and a member of the National Parks and Environmental Protection Authorities, and I still enjoyed her sparkling eyes and peals of laughter as she solved the problems of the world.

 

Now, all these years later I find myself confronted by increasingly complex processes for identifying and naming trees. In some cases, you can now only determine the correct name for a species by examining bits of it with an electron microscope or by arranging DNA analysis.

 

How superior was the approach described by Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock in his Manual of Education: “Plants are divided into trees, flowers, and vegetables. The true botanist knows a tree as soon as he sees it. He learns to distinguish it from a vegetable by merely putting his ear to it”. Or that of the great literary favourite of my youth, William Brown. He and his friends Ginger, Douglas and Henry, known as The Outlaws, were not interested whether a tree was an oak, elm, pine, or whatever – they divided all trees into two categories, those that could be climbed and those that could not.

 

The new approaches to identifying a tree is resulting in a decline in my interest in the botanical aspect of forestry, at least that branch of the subject dealing with plant names and classification. I prefer to be an old-school forester who can tell the name of a tree at a glance (or indeed, by putting my ear to it), or by looking up a picture in a book. The need for a forester or field naturalist to carry a microscope around the bush, or to send off samples to have the DNA analysed so as to find out the name of a tree familiar since childhood, seems to me to be taking botanical science beyond the point at which it has practical application.

 

 

 

Endnote

 

There will be readers who will protest that I have used the botanical name Eucalyptus ficifolia for the WA red-flowering gum throughout this story, instead of Corymbia ficifolia as it is now called in some quarters. I have never accepted the new name and choose not to use it. Ironically, red-flowering gum was recently selected as Australia’s 2024 “Eucalypt of the Year” indicating that other people share my view that this beautiful Australian tree should be known as a Eucalypt, not a Corymbia.

 

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