16th March - Wirra

The Bush that was Adelaide

By W. Bushman


The Adelaide of 1836

One hundred and fifty years ago, Adelaide was a very different place from what it is today. In 1836 thousands of giant Red Gums towered majestically above numerous creeks and flood plains. Grey Box, with its dark shaggy bark looking timeless as the land itself, full of hollows where small animals lived, stretched for miles in all directions. Southern Cypress Pine, descendent of an ancient order of trees, the Gymnosperms, which preceded all the flowering plants on earth, grew throughout the plains.

Eight species of Wattle, some trees, others shrubs, flourished among the Eucalypts. Whenever a wind brew, the Sheoaks whistled and hummed their characteristic tune. Quangdongs, sometimes as a single small tree and sometimes in groves, were festooned with globular fruits, some green, others ripening red, as decorative as Christmas tree baubles.

Rich aromas wafted on the breeze: the intoxicating perfume of the Golden Wattle; the overpowering honey smell of Christmas Bush; the strange haunting scent of the foliage of Clasping Goodenia forecasting the approach of rain; the musky scent of Twiggy Daisy Bush in flower. Tall, slender stems of Kangaroo Grass, even in the lightest of breezes, performed their swaying and nodding dance. The blue-green sword-like leaves of Flax Lily protruded in tussocks from the ground.

When the first white people arrived in Adelaide, the Kaurna people had been living here from time immemorial. Sounds of their celebrations were frequently heard for they had much to celebrate. With full clarity they saw the splendour all around them. They knew every species of living thing by name. To them their whole world was a sacred site and they understood it, revered it and loved it. They lived very close to nature and to reality.

In their due seasons a plethora of small plants produced a variety of colours: swathes of pink by the Garland Lily; shining scarlet berries dotted the Ruby Saltbush; the blues of the Bluebell; the brilliant orange and yellow of Bush Pea; the mauve of New Holland Daisy; the gold-yellow of Clustered Everlastings.

Climbing and Trailing plants cascaded over rocks and wound their intricate was into surrounding shrubs; the scarlet-flowered Running Postman;  the pink flowered Convulvulus; the fluffy white seeds of Old Man’s Beard; Native Lilac festooned everything within reach with royal purple.
Besides the brightness of small plants, subtle beauties of colour were widespread. River Red Gum trunk and branches displayed an extraordinary variety of hues. Moreover, a great difference between individual specimens was evident to anyone who took time to examine them closely. Unexpected colours seemed to materialize as one looked intently at each tree: white, cream, grey, silver, copper, salmon, pink, brown and greenish hues. So many variations and yet so subtly blended. Much of this colour varied with the season as if nature, not content with providing such richness, endeavoured to prevent it becoming taken for granted.

Anyone with an eye for detail could discover remarkable shapes among the vegetation; the flying saucer-like fruits of Bluebush; the five-lobed white flower of the Grey Germander with its style arching over itself while the anthers point away; The thick little leaves of Climbing Saltbush, some unremarkably shaped, while some are fashioned into spearheads as if copied from baroque decorations; the parasol on a pole seed of Fringe Myrtle, with fine long awns projecting from its parasol to enhance its aerodynamic properties. Not a bare patch of earth existed anywhere. Each square metre of soil was clothed with its rich verdue of flora.

The Bush abounded in animal life. Kangaroos, wallabies, bettongs, dunnarts, echidnas, bandicoots, possums and waterrats were common mammals. Tortoises, frogs and reptiles were plentiful. Over a hundred species of birds lived in the area. Though small in size the arthropods outnumbered these larger animals many times over. The soil teemed with incredibly numerous micro organisms.

A large proportion of all life-forms  were small in size but because of their vast numbers were no less influential than the larger ones. All these diverse life-forms were adapted to each particular place because of its soil, rainfall, topography and other natural features.

The bush had a stability which enabled it to thrive through eons. Its diverse life-forms each played their roles to the benefit of the whole. The balance that existed between its members was never static but dynamic. Plagues, storms, fires, droughts and floods occurred from time to time, but because of the resilience given to it by the diversity of its members, it recovered and regrew afresh.

The people who lived here before 1836 had brought about some changes in the natural environment over the vast time span they occupied this land. Yet the changes they caused were insignificant compared with those we have wrought in 150 years. Adelaide is now a vastly different place from what it was in 1836. However, numerous remnants of the original environment are still alive today.