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?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

How to befriend a Leech.

  I have to admit, Leeches are not everyone’s cup of tea.  They are wriggly, alien looking and yes they like to suck up a bit of human blood every so often (nothing that your average banker doesn’t do on a regular basis).  But I actually like them, they’re interesting, intriguing and really quite harmless (in fact they are closely related to that other threat to life and limb, the humble earthworm).  Leeches have incredible senses and can detect light intensity, heat and movement from about 3 meters away. When they are “foraging” for a feed, they will wave their body and move their head to maximise their sensory structures. They secrete a sneaky anaesthetic so if they attach themselves to you, it is hard to detect their presence and their saliva contains an anti-coagulant which prevents your blood from clotting. The good news is that once they have had a quiet meal of your blood they will drop off and be perfectly sustained for several months. It’s a wonderful thing though, to just let a leech quietly feast on you whilst all the other humans nearby are suffering meltdowns of intense squeamishness (this works especially well in an office environment). Most leech species do not actually feed on human blood, but instead prey on small invertebrates which they eat whole.
 Leeches are not known to carry any diseases, in fact they were used traditionally as a cure-all for everything from indigestion to syphilis, as well as to remove blood for medicinal purposes. This practice can be traced back to ancient India and Greece. Today the medical use of leeches is making a comeback particularly as an aid to reduce swelling and clotting in microsurgery procedures.Leeches have the capacity to change colour dramatically and are hermaphrodites, having both male and female sex organs, so they are well equipped for the full range of wholesome fun.

 Most leeches are aquatic (including some marine species) but Australia and South-East Asia are the only known places where leeches live on land, usually in moist forests. These are the kinds most likely to attach themselves to you!  Globally there are around 700 species of Leech.

  So please don’t burn a leech off yourself or drench it in salt or chemicals...just give it a gentle flick and it will go peaceable on its blood sucking way.  Or better still, let it feed on you or a friend (it’s  much more entertaining than watching the latest Dracula re-make!).

                ( NB. Some people do suffer allergic reactions from leech bites and may require medical care).

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Patriotism...It's not cricket!

  Patriotism.  We’re getting it in bucket loads at the moment in Australia. You can almost hear the collective palate salivate at the prospect of defeating the “Poms”. (Surely we can beat them in some form of sporting contest!)
 Don’t get me wrong, I love brandishing an over-sized flag with the best of them and have been known to break out into slurred nationalistic anthems after only a handful of beers. Perhaps I’m sipping on the wrong brand of turps but I’m beginning to think that all this wonderful patriotic fervour is becoming woefully misdirected.
 Take social commentators, Peter Fitzsimons and Mike Carlton for example, both of whom I admire for their journalistic idiosyncrasies and flair. Ne’er a day goes by without them bleating about the inappropriateness of our flag or the shameful ignominy of ‘Straya not becoming a republic. I don’t see them getting too hot and bothered about real, concrete threats to our country.  Does the fact that the Great Barrier Reef may not have a long term future, appear on their radar?  Are they having sleepless nights over the fate of the beautiful Tarkine, currently being earmarked for open cut mining?  Is the continued decline in Koala numbers sparking any vitriol?

 Surely, if you love Australia so much...not as a jingoistic, mental construct but as a place of deep spiritual and physical connection, then surely, by comparison, the pattern on a flag would fade into pallid insignificance as a trigger for outrage.

 To me, the real patriots are people like Miranda Gibson, who sat high up in a tall tree for over a year in Tasmania’s spectacular Florentine forests to save the area from logging or Jonathan Moylan, who is being hauled through the courts for trying to save Leard State Forest from being obliterated by Whitehaven Coal.
 There are less Northern Hairy Nosed wombats on the planet than Pandas, can’t our wonderful sense of patriotic pride be galvanised to give them some rabid "one eyed" support?

 The land we love is being poisoned, polluted, clear-felled, open cut mined and dredged. To use a sporting metaphor...we are being flogged all over the park. And, with apologies to Australian cricket captain, Michael Clarke... when it comes to patriotism, we are being sold a “pup”.

 In 1775, Samuel Johnson famously said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I reckon it’s time to re-brand this misused human condition for something ever so slightly more constructive.

William Lines has written a book on this very subject...called, very appropriately "Patriots"

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Stripping For Nature

  The weird thing about so called “nature strips” is that they are usually completely devoid of anything remotely natural. They are usually patches of stringy looking “exotic” grass mixed with spiky burrs of weedy bindi-eyes....a nightmare for every late night, bare footed, rubbish bin putter outerer. And of course they take up loads of time trimming, mowing and landscaping to preserve their barren, unloved, bleak ambiance.
Call that a Nature Strip?

It needn’t be like this. Nature strips could easily be verdant, beautiful, borders of biodiversity and wonder. In my case I have planted endemic (to Sydney’s Northern Beaches)  species including the grass-like Lomandra and Dianella plus low growing trees-Tristaniopsis Laurina (Water Gum), Angophora Hispida (Dwarf Apple) and Angophora Bakerii (Narrow leaved Apple). Your local species can be purchased from a specialist native nursery...ask for plants that are indigenous to your suburb.

 Prior to planting, I completely removed all foreign grasses and weeds and continued to remove re-growth whenever it appeared. Now that the natives are established, maintenance is virtually nil. Costa Georgiadis from the ABC TV Show Gardening Australia has built a “verge garden” in Dulwich Hill, Sydney using a mix of fruit, veggies and natives"What's Costa done to my verge?"

 Don’t forget to leave enough space for domestic requirements such as “chuck out” items and check with your local Council first for advice re planting policies and the location of underground utility cables and pipes. Also when you have planted your nature will seem to create a magnetic attraction for tossed rubbish items and “dog walkers”...but perseverance will pay off. You will be the envy of your neighbours as you sit back, beer in hand and watch them drag out their Victa mowers in futile regularity.
THIS is a Nature Strip !

Friday, 28 June 2013

Our Environment is all in the “Mined”

  Anyone who’s volunteered with a local Council “Bushcare” group will quickly realise that trying to conserve a small plot of remnant urban nature, involves a struggle of gargantuan proportions.  These small groups of be-hatted Australians face terrifyingly robust invasive weeds, tenacious rubbish dumpers, scary tick borne diseases and depressing acts of vandalism.  Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the realisation that restoring such areas to robust environmental health can take more than one lifetime (unlike a quick “Backyard Blitz” style garden make-over).  Most of these sites are small, but beautiful, examples of a rich natural heritage that is often taken for granted.  We’re talking about places such as Bungan Beach, Pittwater, Tania Park, Manly and Mermaid Pool, Warringah.  All of this hard yakka provides the greater community not just with gorgeous scenery but with many thousands of hours of free labour, saving millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money. 

 If all this effort is going into caring for these modest areas of land...then you’d think it was a sure sign that Australia is really looking after its environment on a wider scale and we are the epitome of a clean, green modern society.  On the contrary though, it seems that, just as people are learning about biodiversity and what makes it so precious, our government is prepared to sacrifice it for a pound of resource-rich flesh.  

Many of our truly significant nationally iconic places...the ones we were confident would be around and looking stunning for ever...are being dug up and shipped out. Here’s a hit list of places that are likely to be “detonated” in the wonderful resources “boom” that the likes of Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart get so excited about.  The Tarkine in North West Tasmania is Australia’s largest temperate rainforest boasting extraordinary Aboriginal Heritage and providing habitat for over 50 threatened species, including the Tasmanian Devil.  Our Environment Minister, Tony Burke, has refused to give it formal protection and there are now nine open cut mining proposals and around 60 exploration licences in train. Tony Burke recently also approved the “South of Embley” Bauxite project on Cape York. This will involve the land clearing of 30,000 hectares of pristine landscape and result in 900 additional shipping movements through the fragile Barrier Reef.  Talking of the Great Barrier Reef, major new port infrastructure is proposed (and in progress) along the World Heritage Area from Gladstone to Cape York. These projects will devastate significant parts of Queensland’s coastline both on and offshore. Western Australia boasts the Kimberley, one of the world's last great wilderness areas, but it's currently covered in more than 700 mining tenements. Mines as diverse as coal, oil, bauxite and uranium are all on the drawing board. BP has applied for permission to search for oil in the Great Australian Bight.  This area has the greatest diversity of marine life anywhere in the world, including the Great Barrier Reef. Meanwhile in NSW, there are plans, by Santos, to sink 1100 Coal Seam Gas wells in the Pilliga, the largest remaining area of temperate woodland in our state. Apex Energy has even been given a licence to explore for gas in Sydney’s sensitive water catchment.  These are just a few examples of the enormous threats facing our natural world from industrialisation.  Add to that the havoc wreaked by climate change, drought, feral pests, introduced plant pathogens, pollution, land clearing, soil salinity, over development, deforestation, species extinction radioactive contamination, invasive species etc and it looks like “Houston...we have a  problem” in conserving Australia’s unique wild places.
 In the face of this onslaught “acting locally” is still important in making a positive difference. So please, join a local Bushcare Group today...but most importantly, call Tony Burke on 6277 7640 and tell him how much you care about the bigger picture!
Mermaid Pool, Manly Vale. Bushcare site. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Barking up the right tree.

  I can never understand why someone would want to cut a tree down to enhance their view. To me the tree is the view. Would you really prefer to stare incessantly into a vacuous distance or witness a living, growing, ever changing life-form, up close? 

  In Australia we’re lucky to have an amazing diversity of trees, many with wonderfully textured bark and curiously decorative seed pods. Take our locally iconic Sydney Red Gum (Angophora Costata) for example. With its smooth, salmon pink trunk and wrinkly, intricate limbs, it is gracefully architectural. 

 But trees have much more than good looks going for them. According to T.M. Das of the University of Calcutta, a tree living for 50 years will generate $31,250 worth of oxygen, provide $62,000 worth of air pollution control, prevent soil erosion and increase soil fertility to the tune of $31,250 and recycle $37,500 worth of water. He didn’t consider the fact that shade provided by trees can cool buildings by up to 20 degrees in the summer (hence massively reducing air conditioning bills). But trees do even more than that. Real Estate agents estimate that there is a $15-$25,000 increase of a home or business value in a tree lined street compared to one without trees. There is also compelling research to suggest that road rage is less in green urban areas  than in stark treeless ones and the aesthetic qualities of trees is well known to reduce blood pressure and ADHD.

 So embrace your trees, perhaps hug them if you’re so inclined and if possible, plant one yourself. If you do, remember - trees which are native to our area, are suited to our own soil and climatic conditions and provide food and shelter for our local wildlife. It makes sense, therefore to choose a species which is indigenous to the Northern Beaches.  


 A gorgeously tactile Sydney Red Gum.

  For some ideas on planting low growing, non obtrusive, endemic street trees and shrubs, check out the King St Avenue of Honour in Manly Vale   Green Tribute to the Merchant Navy.