Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Lost Rocks of Sydney...


 Some of the enduring features of Sydney are the wonderful sandstone outcrops which are dotted around the city and suburbs. In fact, this metropolis is built on top of a giant swathe of sandstone around 50 metres thick. The eroded matter was brought here around 200 million years ago, in the form of sandy deposits, by an ancient river. Many of Sydney’s iconic old colonial buildings are made from this attractive yellow-brown material.

 Immense bulky formations of sculptural sandstone sit heavily at the end of cul-de-sacs, hover broodingly over backyard gardens or majestically frame our beaches. They were mostly too hard to shift when the bulldozers came through, so they were often skirted around and left in a lumpen "too hard basket". Today they are somber and silent reminders of a lost landscape, a forgotten time, an ancient past. 

 These rocky edifices also harbour some of our last remnant suburban biodiversity; ferns, trees and bushes that tenaciously cling to the surviving islands of undeveloped land. The outcrops don’t have a lot of naturally occurring plant-life on them but the species that do (or should) exist, are critical to the fauna of these nutrient poor and thermally stressed environments

  Almost from day one, post European settlement, these native plant refuges have been under siege from invaders. Tenacious weeds were unthinkingly brought here from overseas such as English Ivy, Morning Glory, Asparagus fern, Mother of Millions, Lantana, Honeysuckle and Agapanthus. These, and other opportunistic plants such as Fishbone fern are now blanketing the rock faces and crowding out the indigenous specimens.  Chances are, most of Sydney’s signature rocky outcrops are all but invisible, literally buried beneath a festoon of introduced species.

  One example, among a multitude, is the towering rocky cliff featured below. It was blanketed by a thick green curtain of weeds, but the promise of something special hiding unobtrusively beneath was still evident.
The guys from Rock Face Renaissance decided to move in for a exercise in rejuvenation. Check out what happened...

This was the subject rock face before the "renewal" 

The weeds were gradually peeled back to reveal some hidden natives

.. Eriostemen...
...and a glorious grass tree emerge "gasping" from beneath the Fishbone ferns
The giant curtain of ivy is also slowly drawn away and underneath is...
Indigenous but barely surviving, Coral fern 
...and an ancient Fork-fern

(Skeleton Fork-fern (Psilotum nudum) is one of the most primitive and simple plants around and its descendants can be traced back 410 million years. They are truly living relics. Amazingly you can still see them on the rock face adjoining the Opera House and on Cockatoo Island..most passers-by wouldn’t give them a first glance, let alone a second one).
An unusual looking Skink also enjoys the new found light 

Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum advises that this is an “interesting one” and is  known as a gully skink, (Saproscincus Spectabilis/Galli)

Meanwhile, this juvenile southern leaf tailed gecko shows off its amazing camouflage
There are many other similar sandstone formations on the Northern Beaches (see examples below) and across Sydney that could also urgently do with some TLC.  Email me at  if you have some examples.

A rocky, but weedy, headland at Queenscliff
A rocky but  weedy "Welcome to Warringah"
A rocky, but weedy streetscape in Manly Vale

 Check out this blog next time to see how our subject rocky outcrop has been amazingly resuscitated and rejuvenated after decades of neglect. 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Edible reminders of an unpalatable truth.

 The reality of residing in Sydney’s “Northern Beaches” area, is that we are here "living the dream" at the expense of a society that has been almost totally expunged. 

  At the time of European settlement, this region was known as Guringai country, the land of the Garigal or Caregal people.  Manly itself was occupied by the Cannalgal and Kay-ye-my clans who had been here for around 20,000 years, well before even Sydney Harbour was formed. This beautiful "water feature" was created at the end of the last ice age, around, 6,500 years ago when, what was a deep river valley, was breached by the sea. 

 When the Europeans came in 1788, they brought disease, such as smallpox, to which the locals had no resistance. In less than a year, over half of the indigenous people living in the Sydney basin were dead.

There are approximately 5,000 registered Guringai sites (rock engravings, shell middens, grinding grooves etc) in the Sydney metro area, all plaintive reminders of a rich culture. But most of their history, knowledge, beliefs, customs and way of life have been sadly lost.  We have a very limited awareness of some of their medicines and food plants..most of which can be grown in your own garden if you live around here.  Spare a thought when you're tasting "bush tucker" for a proud people who lived in harmony with this land and who met such a sudden, harsh and undeserved fate.  


Burrawang/Macrozamia Communis
This Cycad is a truly ancient plant that has been around for up to 200 million years. The red seeds are rich in starch and were a staple for Aborigines.  Be very careful though because they need to be pounded and soaked in water for a week to remove toxins.
Cabbage Tree Palm/ Livistonia Australis
The tips of the plant (the cabbage) can be ground up and eaten.
Blue Flax Lilly/ Dianella Caerulea
The purple berries can be eaten raw or cooked (although too many may have a laxative effect).
Sandpaper Fig ( Ficus Coronata)
The small dark fruit is edible but the furry skin should be peeled first. The sap can be applied to wounds to assist in healing. (The leaves are so rough they can be used to smooth wood)
Warrigal Greens/ Tetragonia tetragoniodes
The leaves are best blanched or boiled as they can be bitter if eaten raw.
Scurvy weed/Commelina Cyanea
The leaves can be used as a vegetable, raw or cooked. Because of its high vitamin C content, it was used by early European settlers to avoid scurvy.
Mat Rush/Lomandra Longifolia

Aboriginal Australians ground the seeds to make damper and also chewed the watery base of the leaves to avoid dehydration.
Sydney Golden Wattle/Acacia Longifolia

The seed pods can be eaten green, raw or cooked..or dried, roasted and ground. Bush bread can also be made using the seeds.

Incidentally, I once asked an Aboriginal Australian if there were any indigenous vegetarians.  He looked at me with bemused incredulity.  Since then, however, I have come across many who are concerned about the plight and demise of wildlife in this country, are campaigning for conservation and are careful not to eat many species that would once have been considered delicacies.  Kangaroo, for example, formed an important part of the traditional diet but many "traditional owners" are aghast at the huge industrial scale killing of this animal currently occurring around Australia and are trying to stop it. Elders v Kangaroo Killing industry

Thursday, 29 August 2013

What nice orbs you have...

  British comedian, Ricky Gervais, recently said that Aussies were the “coolest people around” because we have the “deadliest snakes, spiders and jellyfish on the planet” yet “walk around drunk all the time in flip-flops”.  Most Aussies actually have a morbid fear of spiders which is probably the reason for our national drinking problem.

 To be fair, in Sydney there are a couple of deadly arachnids such as the Funnel-web and the Red back but hardly anyone every gets killed by them. In fact since antivenom became available, no fatalities have been recorded.

Most of our spiders just go about their business, weaving ingenious webs, waiting patiently for a feed and clinging tenaciously to existence in a arachnophobic world. To me, spiders are fascinating; they’ve been around for 400 million years and can be found in every natural environment on earth (except the deep oceans). Here are a couple of my favourite local species which are almost harmless...unless you annoy them to the extremes of spider tolerance. (mildly numbing bites have been known!)

Golden silk orb-weaver.
These spiders build some of the largest webs in the land made from silk with a golden hue  (hence the name). It seems that the silk's colour may ensnare bees that are attracted to the yellow's not unknown for small birds or even snakes to be caught in this golden trap! In dappled light the web blends in to the background and acts as camouflage. The spider can actually adjust the pigment intensity. 

 Sometimes you can see rows of these spiders in concurrent webs slung across or above pathways. (They normally soon learn by experience to build them out of harm’s way). The weird thing is that the females, with grey bodies and black and yellow banded legs, are quite large (up to a 9cm leg span). But if you look closely at the web you’ll often see a number of tiny black spiders lurking at the fringes ..those are the males waiting for a chance to mate! You may also see some other small spiders (such as the Quicksilver) which “pirate” some of the smaller insects caught in the web. 

  As winter approaches, just before the Golden-orb succumbs to the colder weather, you’ll see her wrap her eggs in a mass of golden web and hide them amongst leaves or twigs away from the nest..ready to hatch in spring.

Leaf curling spider

 Leaf curling spiders have long legs and plump bodies but in the day time you’ll rarely see them. They’ve devised an ingenious solution to keep themselves safe from predators such as the Noisy Miner and parasitic wasps. As their name suggests, they haul a leaf into their webs, curl it over, line it with silk and use it as a protective haven (which also shelters them from the elements). They’ll then sit in this cylinder with just their feet protruding, which will sense the vibrations of prey, caught in their web

 The leaf, or another curled leaf additionally becomes a nursery for the spider’s eggs. The male of the species is also much smaller…and it dies after mating! an Aussie, it’s your job to be hospitable to spiders and to act nonchalantly around them… (but we must continue the pretence to English people, that we live amidst poison-soaked agents of the devil).

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Time to visit "new" climbs

  Plants are much like people..some like to stand strong, alone and proud. Others like something (or someone) to crawl all over.  Climbing plants do a wonderful job of disguising ugly structures or shielding you from the gaze of over attentive neighbours.  
 The horticultural industry has been bountiful in providing us with gorgeous climbers such as star jasmine, golden trumpet vine, white potato creeper and wisteria. These plants  are tediously ubiquitous in backyards, coast to coast across Australia.  The trouble is, none of them are native to this land and, just like cuckoos they’ve pushed our endemic species right out of the “nest”.

 If you live in Sydney sandstone country, there are some spectacular native climbing plants, many currently in flower that are not only a joy to behold but are an important component of our local eco system. Here is a quick glimpse of a few which deserve to be seen more. You can purchase  them at an indigenous plant nursery such as  Indigo 

Kennedia Rubicunda (Dusky Coral Pea)
 Aborigines used the vine as string and sucked nectar from the flowers.
 Clematis (Old Man’s Beard)
Aborigines cured headaches by crushing the leaves and inhaling the strong aroma.
A sweet tea can be made from boiling the leaves
Hibbertia Scandens (Golden Guinea Flower)
Eustrephus Latifolius ( Wombat Berry)
Smilax Glyciphylla  (Native Sarsaparilla)
 The new leaves have a sweet sarsaparilla flavour and made a popular “Bush” tea in pioneering days
 Pandorea Pandorana (Wonga Wonga Vine)


Thursday, 15 August 2013

Tongues out in the suburbs.

  To live in Warringah and still have “dinosaurs” roaming around your garden is something of a modern day miracle.  But Eastern Blue-tongue lizards have somehow adapted and to some extent, flourished in the Sydney suburban sprawl. Blue-tongues (there are six types across Australia) are the largest member of the skink family and grow to around 60cm in length. They love eating the slugs and snails which abound in most backyards and will also eat caterpillars and beetles making them a boon to gardeners.  

  Blue-tongues are shy, gentle, harmless creatures that love to bask in the sun. They find shelter under rocks, in woodpiles or in discarded drainage pipes. Their vivid blue tongue is just a “bluff” mechanism to frighten off potential predators. So, if threatened, they’ll poke it out, hiss and look as intimidating as possible.  They also use their tongue to “smell” the air for food. They don’t like being handled so it is best to just let them be and observe from a distance.

The female of the species tends to hang around home base but the male will roam across an area the size of approximately 15 house blocks keeping visiting several “ girl friends” on his rounds.  Unlike most reptiles, Blue –tongues give birth to up to 25 live young (usually between December and January and four months after mating). The baby Blue-tongues (about 14cm long) can look after themselves straight after birth but are very vulnerable and can easily fall prey to Kookaburras and other predators.  If extremely lucky, they will live up to 30 years in the wild.

To help them survive, don’t ever use snail or slug pellets (if they eat snails that have taken the snail baits, they will, themselves, die). Ensure that there are some un-manicured areas of your garden (ideally planted with endemic native grasses and shrubs). Also watch out for them when you are in the car – they love sunning themselves on black tar roads and driveways. Most importantly, keep dogs and cats away at all times, they are very bad news for these docile creatures.  To me, the occasional glimpse of a Blue-tongue is always a source of great joy and wonder. They provide a living connection to this timeless land. 

Juvenile Blue-tongue

Thursday, 8 August 2013

It's not called "Botany" Bay for nothing.

  Hawkesbury Sandstone is the surface bedrock of the greater Sydney basin. It covers an area of approximately 17,100 square kilometres . Two hundred million years ago, mountain ranges in Antarctica were eroded and produced vast quantities of sand. This was carried by a huge river system across southern Australia from Antarctica (then part of Gondwanaland). These sands were deposited into the Sydney basin where they were consolidated into sandstone up to 50 metres thick . This sandstone is the basis of the nutrient-poor soils found in Sydney which developed over millenia and 'came to nurture a spectacularly diverse range of plants. “It is a singular fact that in Australia the most brilliant flowers are found on the most worthless country” wrote A.G. Hamilton in 1930. 

 The fact that the impoverished soils were not suitable for agriculture means that large areas, around the city, have been conserved into modern times.  But now, urban sprawl is sadly taking its toll. Foreign invasive weeds are thriving on all the nitrates and phosphorus washed into the bushland from our roads and gardens but the highly evolved natives, which can’t survive high nutrient levels, are being decimated. The gardening “experts” meanwhile encourage us to fertilize and spray our back yards at every given opportunity which compounds the situation. They’ll also try and seduce you into purchasing commercially created, hybrid “natives” which are both expensive and unauthentic (they might even impact negatively on the gene pools of genuine endemic plants.

 It’s not too late to grow some Hawkesbury Sandstone “originals” though. Firstly acquire them from a reputable indigenous plant nursery or from your local Council.  They are much cheaper, require no fertilizers or pesticides and are perfectly adapted to local soil and climatic conditions.  Whack them in your, non macro-nutrient enhanced, patch of dirt. Then, sit back, enjoy and feel a closer connection to the natural world! Here are some wonderful examples of native plants currently in bloom on Sydney’s Northern Beaches  which would look glorious in your garden (if you live around here).

Epacris Longiflora (Native Fuschia)
Grevillea Speciosa (Red Spider Flower)
Hakea Sericea (Bushy Needlebush)
Hibbertia Scandens (Golden Guinea Flower)
Acacia Longifolia (Sydney Golden Wattle)
Woollsia Pungens (Snow Wreath)
Dendrobium Speciosum (Rock Lily, Rock Orchid)

This book by Les Robinson is a fantastic resource and contains a wealth of valuable info.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Shit happens....thank goodness!

  It seems bizarre now but for years I used to buy bag loads of “chook poo” from the “Poo Man” at our local organic market. With unconcealed delight, I would drag these heavy bags into the back yard and proceed to scatter their content across the length and breadth of the garden.  Oh what joy! What delight! The added bonus was that I was obeying the doctrine of countless radio horticulturists whose mantra was “chook poo or bust”. They swore by a proprietary brand called “Dynamic Lifter”.  Sadly it’s taken a few years to realise that most of the commercial garden “gurus” are total charlatans who are not averse to putting sponsorships (mostly from chemical companies) way in advance of common sense or planetary well-being. I hate to think how many beneficial and harmless insects have been killed as a result of their devotion to all things toxic. These days I grow only locally endemic native plants, I eschew "chook poo" (which was full of weed seeds) and I never ever use the pesticides, herbicides of fungicides that the “experts” stridently told me were necessary to prevent a form of gardening Armageddon. 
 My native bush garden now thrives beautifully and if there are any “pests” I let them be. I figure that it is far better to try and restore the ecological balance and encourage natural predators to do the job for me. In regards to fertilizer, I realised that nature was perfectly able to pitch in and handle the situation without me interfering.  In my garden there are possums a plenty (both Brushtail and Ringtail) they deliver sufficient packages of natural fertilizer to keep everything growing vigorously and they spread it with quiet alacrity. A possum scat is cylindrical and looks almost like a, chocolate covered, liquorice bullet (Brushtail scats are larger than the Ringtail ones). Because the “poos” are from, mostly herbivorous animals, they do not have an unpleasant smell. If you see a dropping with pointed ends...that is from a rat (but don’t jump to negative conclusions too readily because it could be from a native bush rat 

 Possums and other mammals will eat their own faeces for the vitamins and protein. In fact, healthy possum faeces is sometimes given to the babies to get them to start eating solid food and to help their digestive system. Koalas (if you’re fortunate enough to have them in your area) have a distinctive poo that is very hard on the outside, and has a slightly ridged and oval shape. The colour is mostly red-brown to brown but can be blue-green, grey-green or yellow-brown. Bandicoot poo is also bullet shaped and will often have insect casing visible.

 Other animals encountering a scat can check out the health, age and sexual maturity of the source...which can be useful info for members of the same species or predators.

Wombats perhaps have the strangest “calling card” of all Aussie mammals. They leave behind a pile of cube shaped pellets resembling a pile of “pungent dice”. Wombat scats are used as territorial signposts on rocky outposts..hence the “non rolling away” shape!  Anyway I’m digressing....I started off rabbiting on about “chook poo” and now I’m talking all kinds of shit!

What "scat" is that?