Sunday, April 18, 2010

The great hail storm

March 22nd was replete with storm warnings, so I stayed home just in case the roof of the crappy rental parted company from the walls during the predicted severe wind gusts. Well - we only copped heavy rain and minor back patio flooding. All of this was a welcome change to the months of drought which Perth had endured that summer.

But the western suburbs of Perth copped a rather more severe beating from The Great Hail Storm, with golf-ball units of hail which managed to smash windows and dent cars, the worst damage being recorded in a line between Osbourne Park to Karrakatta.

The most obvious damage has been to the trees. Extensive stands of trees in Kings Park have been stripped of their leaves - particularly the sheoaks ( Allocasuarina fraseriana), which I can only assume is because they have brittle branchlets and cladodes. The place really looks like it has been whipped around by a giant whipper-snipper. The impact marks of the hail on the burnt trunks of marri (Corymbia calophylla)  illustrate the size of the hail stones and force at which these slammed into the trees.
Unfortunately, over 40 endangered Carnabys cockatoos were killed by the storm, as they remain together in tight flocks and use Kings Park for shelter. The birds that were saved by vets, were released two weeks later back to their shattered homes. This is quite a blow to the species, which is declining overall.

Being next to Kings Park, the University of Western Australia was hit hard by the hailstorm, with flooded libraries and rare stained glass windows destroyed,  and obviously the glasshouses at the botany department also copped a fair beating. Having spent some time in my dark past working in these houses, I went to have a look to see how they had fared. Every single pane of glass was shattered, and many research projects, some of which had several years of progress, were destroyed that night, including that of postgraduate students.

So - something to keep an eye on this winter in Kings Park... recovery after the Great Hail Storm of March 2010.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Bandalup Buttercup

Way down in the Great Southern region of Westerrn Australia is the magnificant and mighty Fitzgerald River National Park, internationally reknowned for being a floristic biodiversity hotspot, UNESCO Biosphere reserve and home to rare and wunnerful critters and thousands of species of plants which grow over stunning granite hills and limestone cliffs abutting onto the Southern Ocean. Everyone knows the place - fixed between Hopetoun and Bremer Bay, it is very much a must-see.

But a less known but just as magnificent and floristically diverse region lies some 40 or so km north of the eastern edge - the Ravensthorpe Range. There is one main range and associated hills nearby - all surrounded by mostly wheat and sheep paddocks but with significant belts of native vegetation to the northeast, which means this area is a conduit from the sea to the Great Western Woodlands.

And yes - there are awkwids there!

And yes - there is charasmatic fauna...

But I am going to wax lyrical about the buttercups. No - not the Ranuculus kind, not the kind that The Foundations sung about and not the kind  that the Von Trapp family danced through golden alpine meadows of ... but the Hibbertia kind (Dillenaceae). We are spoilt for choice in Western Australia for hibbertias, because we have the lion's share of the 110 or so species found in Australia. They're straggely-looking shrubs, small to moderate in size, and occur over much of the southern half of the state - especially in the SW corner - and with sporadic distributions in the Kimberley, the Pilbara (especially on the Hamersley Ranges) and Dampier archipelago. We usually call 'em hibbertias, or guinea flowers - but buttercup is also cromulent in the common vernacular and adds that emotional element of pathos when you talk about the plight of the buttercups.

The thing about the Ravensthorpe Range and nearby Bandalup Hill is that not only are really nice, areas of woodlands and shrublands loaded with endemic and threatened species, but these communities are perched atop mafic and ultramafic 'greenstone' and nickel laterites. You know the old joke about a Supreme Cosmic Deity creating all this wonderous stuff and then sticking an ore deposit under it just to irritate the conservationists - well, that cynical outlook seems to apply  to a lot of regions in Western Australia - The Mining Boom State.

......and so to the Bandalup Buttercup and the Ravensthorpe Hibbertia.
Botanical surveys during 2007 and 2008 turned up some intriguing hibbertias which appeared to be new species. This isn't unexpected - new plant species in Western Australia are always turning up. It is a biodiversity hotspot afterall.  But one putative new species seemed to be found only on the rocky ridges of the Ravensthorpe Range proper. And the other one was even more restricted to a small, uninspiring hillock called Bandalup Hill, and had slipped under the radar following extensive clearing and stripmining for the BHPBilliton RNO nickel mine. Some frantic searching thankfully found subpopulations which had not been cleared - but  these were squeezed into a narrow strip of vegetation wedged between a road, a major highway, a dieback outbreak and the mine pit. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!

What these two guys needed were names and recognition, sexy photos and an engaging common name.

The Bandanlup Buttercup became Hibbertia abyssa, the epithet being "derived from the Latin abyssus (f.; an abyss, a bottomless pit) and the adjectival suffix -a (indicating place of growth), in reference to its position at the edge of a mine pit and also at the edge of extinction" (Wege & Thiele 2009). And the Ravensthorpe Hibbertia became Hibbertia atrichosepala.

How could you not come to love the Bandalup Buttercup?  About 1m tall or so, with a prolific explosion of yellow flowers over much of the summer months. Gnarled and stunted, it creeps out of Pallingup siltstone like an interpretive dance routine and appears to grow ever so slowly - but does make a healthy reappearance after fire.

I couldn't really voucher for how a Bandalup Buttercup would go in the garden, but I'm guessing that there may be specific soil condition requirements and perhaps even the need for a large rock feature.

And here is the Ravensthorpe Hibbertia - which looks similar but I assure you it is different. Look at those lovely, soft, somewhat softish, needle-sharp leaves and how the light catches the golden hue of the petals as it filters through into the undergrowth.

So there you  - Bandalup Buttercups and Ravensthorpe Hibbertias! Glorious and golden! Spikey and shrubby. You could live without them but why run that risk when someone or something will miss them when they are gone, and they're just great in their own right.

More information about this beasts can be found here, and here.