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Silver Banksia – a vital missing tree in our forests

By Mick Webster

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) map shows only a sparse distribution of Banksia marginatas in North-East Victoria today – in fact in only about 30 known locations North of the Divide. And yet 150 years ago these were amongst the commonest trees in our forests – wherever you find a ‘Honeysuckle’ Creek or Track you may be sure it refers to a now-vanished Banksia woodland.

Ecologist Ian Lunt quotes explorer William Howitt in 1858 – “… nearly all the trees were shiacks [she oaks], — not the eternal gum-trees, — and these, interspersed with Banksias, now in fresh foliage, and new pale-yellow cones, or rather bottle-brushes, with a sprinkling of gums and golden wattles, gave what you rarely see in that country, a variety of foliage and hue.”

So what happened? Well, according to Lunt, the Banksias disappeared not because they were useful, but because they were viewed as useless – seen as untidy, their timber too soft for construction purposes and not much better than kindling for the fire-place – so much better to let the multi-purpose Eucalypts take their place.

Unfortunately many people didn’t realise that the Banksias provide plentiful food, both as nectar and seeds for a wide variety of birds and mammals which are also, (not coincidentally), vanishing from our forests – Howitt again “…the dogs in continual excitement with the noises of vast numbers of parrots, paroquets, and wattle-birds, which were feasting on the honey of the Banksia flowers.”

In our whole National Park, despite extensive expeditions to find more, we know of only about 20 mature Banksia trees and less than a dozen natural seedlings, in two small areas on the Northern side of the Mt Pilot range. So over the last few years a major project has developed with Friends, assisted by Trust for Nature and local Landcare groups, to increase the number of these iconic plants up to a level where they will become a sustainable population into the future. There have been setbacks (wombat incursions, drought, etc) but this year at least our 150 or so seedlings in the Park seem to be doing well, and the mature trees are flowering extremely well. We will be keeping an eye on them!

Reference: Ian Lunt https://ianluntecology.com/2013/10/13/forgotten-woodlands-future-landscapes

Distribution map for Silver Banksia on the Atlas of Living Australia