Travel Story Celebrating our wildflower heritage

View towards the city over King's Park.
Picture: Wendy Barrett

We all know that Kings Park is a gorgeous place to visit but how many of us are aware that, with nearly six million visitors a year, it is WA’s number one tourist destination? 

The spectacular views of the river and city over to the Darling Scarp are a bit of a giveaway, as are the stunning wildflower displays. 

It’s one of the biggest inner-city parks in the world and an overseas or interstate visitor need barely leave Perth’s CBD to experience a genuine bush walk through native vegetation. Two-thirds of the 400ha park is still native bushland, managed by the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority.

The Western Australian Botanic Garden, which was established within the park in 1965, has evolved into one of the world’s finest. It predominantly showcases WA plants, many of them from the South West. The South West Australia eco-region stretches from Shark Bay to Esperance and is one of the world’s official biodiversity hotspots. This means there is a much higher than average diversity of plant species (about 8000), and that they’re under threat of destruction from human impact. Many are found nowhere else.

But how many of us realise just how special our little corner of the world is? We commonly bleat about how our sandy soils are bad for gardening because they require building up to add nutrients and retain moisture. But do we ever stop to marvel at the gorgeous native plants that grow exceedingly well in these soils? It is because of these soils that our plants have adapted in ingenious ways to flourish in such compromised situations. 

It takes geological upheavals to keep soils rich — volcanic eruptions to spew forth mineral-rich lava, or glacial action to grind rocks to release the minerals within. In the last ice age, some 20,000 years ago, many regions of the world were subject to the seismic forces of glaciers which extracted nutrients into a form on which plants could feed. Here in WA, it is thought to be a whopping 280 million years since we’ve had similar glacial coverings. Over the millennia, the soils have become increasingly bare of nutrients due to the lack of ongoing upheavals in the landscape. If those challenges weren’t enough for our plant life, add the harsh climate and frequent bushfires.

However, our plants have been cleverly resolving these difficulties by evolving all sorts of weird and wonderful adaptations. Because nature was left to its own devices for so many millions of years without pesky volcanoes and glaciers getting in the way, it really went to town, creating some of the most spectacular and varied flowers in the world. Many species have exceptionally complex methods of seed germination to survive bushfires. Others have symbiotic relationships with fungi, whereby the fungi extract phosphorous and other nutrients from the soil for the plants in exchange for sugars. This is why it is impossible, at this point in time, to re-establish disturbed bushland to its 100 per cent original state. If the topsoil has been damaged or removed, the area will be compromised or denuded of critical fungi and bacteria.

Many people may not know that Kings Park is a hotbed of scientific research. The Kings Park Biodiversity Conservation Centre is internationally recognised for its world-leading research into conservation and restoration of our precious landscapes. It undertakes research, supervises post-graduate students and provides its expertise to other countries. It is no surprise that our Kings Park scientists are at the cutting edge of this sort of research. Our unique ecology has forced the scientists to think outside the box when it comes to understanding the complicated mechanisms many of our native seeds have evolved to survive bushfires and harsh environmental conditions. It’s no easy feat trying to crack the codes of some of the more difficult seeds, which keep their secrets of germination so well hidden. The centre also focuses on storing seeds, on tissue culturing and cryopreservation of endangered species.

When it comes to reproduction, many of our flowers — orchids in particular — have positively Machiavellian ways of tempting insects to pollinate them. In the case of the fascinating, carnivorous Drosera genus, they also eat them for lunch. The South West region also has one of the world’s highest numbers of bird and small mammal pollinators.

Behind the scenes, the thoughtful and dedicated staff carefully monitor and curate Kings Park. In addition, thousands of hours are put in by hundreds of volunteers who help out with planting, weeding, guiding and maintenance. Every inch of its 400ha is lovingly tended and monitored to keep it the pride of our city. 

The cultural significance of Kings Park and Botanic Garden cannot be overstated. It has been a meeting place for Aboriginal people for thousands of years, still holds enduring connections for many Noongar people and remains a meeting place for the wider community. It is home to the State War Memorial, site of Perth’s biggest annual Anzac Day Dawn service. The State War Memorial is also home to 1700 honour plaques.

That’s why a recent proposal to run a cable car through the park from Elizabeth Quay is a bewilderingly intrusive concept. Those behind the idea must be oblivious to Kings Park’s hard-earned and exalted status. It is already a world-class destination. People are drawn to WA because of our special natural environment, and Kings Park excels in showcasing that.

Why would we add a gimmicky, invasive, noisy cable car to this tranquil city oasis? Imagine the damage the construction of 14 concrete pylons, 30m or more high, would have on the aesthetics of the plantings, memorials and views. Rather than enhance it as a destination, it would utterly ruin it. It is time to outgrow this cultural cringe whereby we feel we must mimic the rest of the world to feel good about ourselves. 

When it comes to Kings Park, we are already getting things right. Others around the world are looking here to see how it’s done.

 

Fact File

The Kings Park Festival runs throughout September. The theme of Where the Wildflowers Are celebrates the park’s colourful presentation of blooms from across WA. The wildflowers, incorporating more than 25,000 plants produced by the Kings Park nursery for the occasion, will form a backdrop to a program of mostly free events including:

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