Australia’s biggest ferals standing tall over the nation

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The most successful invasions are achieved by stealth. The invaders quietly infiltrate, helped by local stooges, until too late the natives realise foreigners are everywhere, part of the scenery, putting down roots, digging in.

So it has been with Australia’s biggest feral pest. Not the rabbit or cane toad: they’re relatively small beasties and well recognised for their trouble. Our biggest feral by far is the Norfolk Island pine, the giant weed steadily taking over the nation’s coast line, lording it over the native flora, dominating skylines, raising a wooden middle digit to us all.
Our biggest feral by far is the Norfolk Island pine, the giant weed steadily taking over the nation’s coast line.

From Geraldton in the far west up to Queensland’s tropics, Norfolk Island pines have taken possession of the foreshores, the headlands, the parks and avenues of our seaside villages and cities. Try driving along Sydney’s northern beaches from Manly to Palm Beach with your eyes higher than the road and you’ll lose count of the monsters. Ditto Queensland’s Gold and Sunshine coasts.

The most striking feature of superb Sunshine Beach west of the sand is now the scores of self-propagating Norfolk Island pines looming over the dunes. If you have a view of any water in Sydney, chances are you’ll also be looking at Araucaria heterophylla. Or you’ll be looking at Araucaria heterophylla instead of the water.
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An expensive, detailed development application and months of fighting officious council officers are required to build a shelter half an attic higher than two storeys, but feel free to plant your “living Christmas tree” and watch it stretch 50 metres into the sky and effectively scorch the earth for 20 square metres around it.

Boring, predictable, soulless, unneighbourly, without nectar for birds, the skyscrapers are everything the rich varieties of native gums and wattles, sheoakes and banksia are not. They are totally unsuitable for suburban Sydney, for any self-respecting beach, for anywhere but the isolation ward they came from. Time to give them the chop and ban them as we do other noxious weeds.

I blame Manly.

In 1877, Manly’s civic fathers – well-meaning but obviously dolts and probably ferals themselves at that stage of our history – thought something should be done to beautify the foreshore. Botanic Gardens director Charles Moore was consulted and recommended three species not native to Sydney, natives of any kind not being popular back then. And the rest, as they say, is despoiled history.

It seeped into the colonial consciousness that Manly was the way a beach should look. In 1902 it was the officially recommended timber tree for NSW coastal areas. In Forest Flora of New South Wales Joseph Maiden wrote: “Norfolk Island Pine is recommended as the main timber tree for the New South Wales coast for the following reasons: it revels in the sea air; its narrow leaves and conical shape present comparatively little resistance to strong winds; it is ornamental in appearance; and it furnishes a useful, soft wood.”

And the misguided fashion lived on. When Sunshine Beach was developed, back before the Noosa Council discovered ecosystems, let alone biospheres, a stand of Norfolk Island pines was duly planted in the park leading down to the beach. From that mistake and a few locals planting their own, they are self-propagating at an alarming rate up and down the coast.

The insidious plants had been peacefully contained on little Norfolk Island for millennia, their own St Helena, left to brood darkly about world domination the way bad trees do. Somewhere among the leaves came the idea of pretending to look useful. Upon their first brush with a European, it worked: Captain Cook thought the green towers could make ships’ masts. Wrong – the wood proved too brittle. But specimens were brought to infant Sydney and did indeed take root.

We’ve all made mistakes when we were young. Endemic to Norfolk Island, an epidemic in Australia, they’ve spread wherever there’s a lack of thought about the environment. We’ll shoot Bambi out of the Royal National Park, we rue June, 1935, when cane toads were imported from Hawaii, bitterly laugh at the colonists who introduced rabbits and fox for sport, but we allow the biggest ferals of all to spread unimpeded.

Alors, children, to the chain saws!

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald March 5, 2015

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