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Chasing Banksias in the East

As a child a treasure hunt always led to excited and willing participants, usually rewarded for their often frenzied efforts.

I was fortunate to begin my rather optimistic treasure hunt some twenty years ago, to find every Australian Banksia. This began as a series of adventures that were to last for many years. My wife, who has earned the title of ‘Chief Banksia Spotter’, and I, have travelled to most of the banksia areas in Australia. Of the Eastern Banksias, which comprise just nineteen species, there was only one that eluded us, B. conferta subsp. conferta with its home high on the steep slopes of Mt. Tibrogargon in Queensland’s Glass House Mountains. I must admit that my love for banksias is far exceeded by my fear of heights and I felt that it would quite happily survive without my intrusion. It was fortunate I grew its close relative B. conferta subsp. penicillata in my garden where it quickly reached 1.5m and produced several flowers and cones. Fortunately I was able to paint this rare banksia before it promptly died!

Most Eastern Banksias are fairly common, usually growing on the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range and along the adjacent coastal strip. The exception is B. ornata, the Desert Banksia, which is found only in the Grampians and Western Victoria. We travelled to far North Queensland to see B. dentata, the Tropical Banksia, a rather small open tree often growing in seasonally damp situations. The Tropical Banksia has the widest distribution of any species, found intermittently across the top of Australia from Queensland to the Kimberleys and can be seen on both east and west coasts. This is the only banksia occurring outside Australia, in Papua New Guinea and some islands.

To find one of the rarest Eastern banksias, it was a trip to Eastern Victoria, to the small coastal town of Mallacoota some 500kms east of Melbourne. B. croajingolensis, the Gippsland Banksia, has adopted its specific name from the Croajingolong National Park where it is confined to an area of about a hectare consisting of around a hundred plants on the south bank of Shipwreck Creek. The name Croajingolong is of aboriginal origin. This small growing banksia differs from its relatives by opening its flowers from the top of the spike first.

Without doubt one of our favourites is B. robur, the Eastern Swamp Banksia. With it’s harsh leaves with cadmium yellow veins, the developing flowers with ever changing colours, together with the many tones of the ageing flowers, this plant always begs attention wherever it is seen. We have many of these wonderful plants thriving in our garden. Our most impressive encounter with B. robur (which means strong) was to see a colony of many two metre high plants thriving in a very wet swampy area near Cooktown in North Queensland, one of the few species that tolerate such conditions.

A couple of very different banksias are B. plagiocarpa, the Blue Banksia or Dallachys’s Banksia, and B. aquilonia formerly known as B. integrifolia var. aquilonia, both being closely related. It’s a trip to Hinchinbrook Island near Cardwell on the North Queensland coast for B. plagiocarpa. A trip to Hinchinbrook is always enjoyable, chasing banksias or not, but it’s a days walk to reach B. plagiocarpa. With limited time we were satisfied to see this species growing commercially on the Atherton Tablelands instead, its unusual flowers vary in colour from steel blue through to light mauve.

Its close relative B. aquilonia is far more common. We have seen it growing with ferns in the wet rainforest near Tully in North Queensland almost at sea level. Within 100kms we can find it high in the Herberton Ranges on the Atherton Tablelands thriving in dry rocky soils at around 1200m above sea level.

The mid north coast of New South Wales around Byron Bay and Lennox Head are the homes of B. oblongifolia and B. aemula, the Wallum Banksia, I first thought this plant to be B. serrata, as it was formerly known as B. serratifolia. The cone with the huge dark follicles, the largest of any Eastern species, cleared any mistaken identity. B. oblongifolia accompanies B. aemula in this rather swampy coastal heathland known as Wallum country.

The exposed south and east coasts of Victoria and New South Wales feature many small forms of banksia species such as B. spinulosa, ericifolia, paludosa and even the large B. serrata. These variations have evolved over thousands of years, influenced by their exposure to the winds and gales of the Southern Ocean. We see dwarf forms and some prostrate plants clearly exhibiting the effects of this environment. It is pleasing to see many of these little banksias being propagated by the nursery trade, often with attractive and imaginative names. These plants usually maintain their dwarfing characteristics even when planted in a more hospitable climate.

Chasing the Eastern banksias was a relatively easy project. Most grow in coastal areas which are pleasant and enjoyable places to visit. Their Western cousins are much more widespread with many more members, although like their eastern relatives they also make their homes in many wonderful places. The hunt for these widespread Western banksias is quite a different story.