Tumut Grevillea

The Canberra Times

23 June 1993

Fighting the good fight for the planet, Ian Warden details efforts to re-establish an endangered plant native to the Tumut area.

It was bitterly cold that night at the camp site beside the eternally surging, gurgling Goobarragandra river near Tumut, but those of us, most of us members of the ACT chapter of SGAP (the Society For Growing Australian Plants) were enjoying one of the most radiant of all the warm inner glows available to mankind.

We had spent the day fighting the good fight, with mattocks and spades, while helping to save something exquisite and wild and Australian from extinction. We had done something decent for our planet and felt a little smug.

Conservationists, usually well-meaning, have devalued the words "fragile" and "endangered" by using them in their ambit-asserting descriptions of every habitat and every species that might be in any way perturbed by development, but Grevillea wilkinsonii really was in mortal danger before botanists at the Australian National Botanic Gardens and then SGAP (ACT) learned of it and came to its defence and then, on the day referred to above two weekends ago, planted 75 more plants of the species on the banks of the Goobarragandra to augment the two small naturally occurring populations brought to the attention of botanists in 1991.

The short history of the discovery of the Grevillea, a handsome shrub growing to two metres in height and width and decorated, in spring, with conspicuous red-pink tooth brush-shaped inflorescences, is that a Tumut naturalist Tom Wilkinson (a man immortalised, now, in the botanical name of the Grevillea) came across the plant during his ramblings on the banks and the flood terraces of the Goobarragandra, a permanent river that surges and gurgles north-west from the Kosciusko massif.

Noting that the plant was not dreamt of in his extensive philosophy, and fancying that it might not be known to science, he set in train a process that eventually saw a specimen delivered to the cerebral botanists of the herbarium of Canberra's ANBG.

In their excitement, sure that this was a species hitherto unknown to science, they girded up their loins and went to the banks of Goobarragandra where their excitement was sullied by the alarming discovery that the shrub, perhaps once an abundant thing before Europeans came, now existed in only two small populations in places where the plants were vulnerable to flood, to fire, to grazing stock, to the feral and remorselessly omnivorous goats that are menace in the valley, to blackberry infestations, to roadside herbicide sprayings, and, just as the botanists arrived, to the activities of the local council, about to bury one of the populations under road-building materials. Here was a truly endangered, a truly beleaguered species.

Why does Grevillea wilkinsonii occur where it does? Bob Makinson, curator of the Herbarium at the ANBG and joint leader of our expedition, has investigated the unusual, complex geology of the valley, discovering that it is bounded to the north west by Lower Devonian Burrinjuck Granite and to the south-west by Middle Devonian Bogong Granite with the floor of the valley containing a rock called Serpentine which produces soil low in nutrients.

There is, he says, a "general pattern of Australian Proteaceae (Grevilleas, like Banksias' and Telopeas belong to the Proteacea family) to exhibit species richness in low nutrient ... situations".

Bob Makinson and Geoff Butler also think, from their investigations, that this geologically eccentric valley may yet yield some other treasures, and it is known to boast a Pomaderris species, a Prostanthera (mint bush) species, and a Westringia species that may prove to be hitherto unknown plants.

SGAP and the ANBG (Geoff Butler, joint leader of our expedition, is not only a cerebral botanical bwana at the gardens but is also the president of the ACT branch of SGAP) with the help of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service developed a recovery project to try and save the plant. The Tumut Shire Council and Tumut Ecology Reserve Trust were readily recruited to the cause.

The volunteers of Canberra's SGAP, augmented by this mattock wielding enthusiast on the weekend in question, have been and remain vital to the recovery plan because they give their services for nothing (other than the aforementioned radiant innerglow) at a time when there are almost no doubloons to be had for such projects.

SGAP zealots took cuttings from the existing plants and bore them back to Canberra where several hundred plants were grown from the cuttings. The SGAP recovery team, led by Geoff Butler and by Bob Makinson took 75 of them back to Tumut on the recent weekend under description and planted them out by the gurgling Goobarragandra, surrounding them with wire cages to defy any cattle and goats that might come across them.

The recovery team will descend on the site again in spring to plant out some more in some more places, hoping that by multiplying the numbers of plants and the number of sites that they grow there will be a multiplication of the chances of the species survival in the place where nature planted it.

Bob Makinson described what we were about, as SGAP labourers used to making holes for plants in Canberra's miserable, thin, resentful soils, rejoiced at the ease of hacking holes in the deep, fragrant soil beside the Goobarragandra, as "an insurance policy".

"A herd of goats and a couple of fires", he agonised, and the existing populations, and with it the species, could be wiped out, joining more than 80 other native plant species rubbed out since the arrival of the paleface.

We were encouraged to pray that there will be some promiscuous self seeding done by the plants planted out, in groups of three, over that inner-glow inducing weekend. The shrubs in the two original habitats are themselves producing a few offspring.

Geoff Butler, coming across some new ones during our sojourn, called out the details of his discovery with transparent joy. Grevillea Wilkinsonii's vital signs begin to suggest that it will survive.