July 19, 2014
JOSEPH Banks and David Solander collected the first banksia specimen in Australia in 1770 after landing at Botany Bay with Cook. Our part of Gippsland is fortunate to have five of the seven banksia species growing in Victoria, trees and shrubs which light up the bush with their candle-like blooms, provide food for birds, mammals and insects and are a welcome addition to any garden.
My associations with these plants are many: early memories of stripping the flower to its velvety inner spike, stories of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, planting four types in my garden, harvesting banksia seed cones and being foiled by the puce peril (a browny maroon growth which infects whole colonies), monitoring seedlings in the 2005 fire-ravaged parts of Wilsons Prom and recently cursing the scourge of marauding yellow-tailed black cockatoos attacking my shrubs.
The Aborigines used the banksia for a sweet drink, swirling the cone in water to make a bush cordial; Western Australian tribes brewed a beer from the fermented nectar. Nectar was also used as a throat medicine, a soothing cough elixir. Cones on a campfire imparted a smoky flavour to meat, and smouldering cones could be used to carry fire from one campsite to the next. The thick bark of saw banksia was a source of large edible grubs.
Early settlers found many uses for the honeysuckle, as banksias were called; indeed, the early name for The Oaks, between Inverloch and Cape Paterson, was Honeysuckle Hill. The tough wood could be cut into bullock yokes and knees (a piece of wood bent at an angle) of boats. Old cones could be smeared with fat and used as candles. A tanning solution for leather was made from banksia and wattle bark boiled in water. In the early 1840s, settlers camped at Old Port (Port Albert) scaled the banksias to gain height to watch for approaching ships as they were marooned and starving.
Found from NSW to SA and Tasmania, silver banksia is locally common throughout Victoria, except in the north-west, in a range of habitats. Either a shrub or a tree to 12m, it flowers February to July. Our coastal form is generally a shrub, but in Tasmania it attains tree height and is the dominant banksia - they have only one other, a small patch of Banksia serrata on the north-west coast.
Seed cones remain on the plant until opened by fire or death of the tree, so are ideal for seed collecting by our seedbank; unfortunately the plant suffers from puce peril. Also very few flower spikes set seed. After fire when the cones open and seed falls on the ash bed, seeds germinate readily and the plant regenerates from a lignotuber and will sucker readily if the roots are disturbed by a slasher or grader.
Extending eastwards of Port Phillip Bay (with one record from lower Glenelg River), Coast Banksia is also found in Qld, NSW and King Island. It has been known to hybridise with Banksia marginata at Shallow Inlet. A stately tree attractive to the cockatoo family, it forms dense thickets in places such as Mouth of the Powlett, attracting insects and honeyeaters when it flowers from January to June.
When the seeds are mature, the cone opens and disperses them, so the seed collector must be on site. Monitoring of banksia groves at the Prom after the 2005 fire has shown coast banksia is slow to germinate; it took four years for seedlings to appear. This banksia is also susceptible to puce peril and a mysterious form of dieback.
An eastern Victorian banksia confined to foothill open forest and heathy woodlands on and south of the Great Dividing Range (such as at Wilsons Promontory, Foster, Cape Liptrap Coastal Park), it is also found at Portland and Point Lonsdale; two other varieties are found in Queensland and NSW. Flowering April to July, it has a yellow cone with purplish-black toothbrush styles. The cone will open with or without fire.
Confined to coastal and hinterland areas east of Walkerville, the saw banksia is often locally common on sandy soils in open forest, such as Won Wron Forest and Gellions Run. It is also found in Queensland, NSW and in a pocket in north-west Tasmania.
It can grow to a magnificent gnarly-trunked tree to 16m, the flower spikes lighting the stiff sombre foliage at Christmas (it flowers December to June). Knobby seed cones are the famed Big Bad Banksia Men. The leaves truly are saws, sharp and prickly, especially when littering sand within thick orange leaf mulch. It is in Xanthorrhoea australis/Banksia serrata terrain where many of our most delightful orchids are found: flying ducks, pelicans, little ducks, orange-tip caladenias ... After fire the cones open, the seeds germinating in the ash bed in their millions. This happened along Millers Landing Track at Wilsons Prom in 2009 after the bushfire.
A banksia restricted to the Grampians and Wilsons Promontory at Sealers Cove, this spreading shrub or erect tree to 13 metres flowers January to March. Its leaves are dark green and shiny above, white woolly with a midrib of rusty hairs below. Its seed cone opens spontaneously on ripening or over several years.
Once believed to be a variety of Banksia integrifolia, it differs in its thinner smoother bark, broader leaf, pale yellow flowers, summer flowering, its larger follicles which retain their seed longer and being not strictly coastal. It possibly hybridises with Banksia marginata in the Grampians.