Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Lost Rocks of Sydney (Part 2)

The Dilema:

In “part one” of this report, we discovered that most of the lovely rocky outcrops, dotted around Sydney like gigantic unclaimed parcels, were in a “spot of bother”.

These hulking great edifices have been gradually entangled by deviously aggressive weeds. Most of them now lie ensnared, their original biodiversity choked and suffocating... or already expired.

One of the monumental “lost rocks”, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, epitomised this miserable scenario.  It was besieged by the “Who’s Who” of invasive species. And these are the main culprits:- Fishbone Fern, English Ivy, Japanese Honey Suckle, Asparagus Fern, Lantana, Ochna, Crucifix Orchid,  Buffalo Grass, Mother of Millions.

The Solution:  The small team of volunteers from Rock Face Renaissance gradually worked to remove the weeds, rescue the surviving endemic  plants and rejuvenate this cascading colossus of historic stone. Never in the field of weed removal, were so many green bins filled, by so few.

The Result?

Resurrection, resuscitation and renewal!  A beautiful stone feature has been revealed after years of neglect and what’s left of the indigenous flora and fauna has room to breathe once more. 

Check out these before and after shots:-

This was then..

And these are now...!
It's amazing what was hidden beneath all those weeds
The native flora shines through!
Concealed "treasures" revealed!
On top of the rock, some Lomandras have survived underneath a carpet of weeds!
And a tiny Acacia Terminalis (Sunshine Wattle) germinates.

If only more of Sydney’s "lost rocks" can be saved before it’s too late. If you have any examples of rocky outcrops in need of salvation or require help with some rock

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).