Tag Archives: botany

Friday essay: the forgotten German botanist who took 200,000 Australian plants to Europe



Kangaroo Apple collected by Preiss at Swan River in the early19th century.
Catalogue des herbiers de Genève (CHG). Conservatoire & Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève

Anna Haebich, Curtin University

It is not widely known that many Australian colonial natural history collections are represented in German museums and herbaria, nor that there are initiatives to transform these artefacts of colonial heritage and science back into objects from living cultures with living custodians and their own stories to tell.

Dr Johann August Ludwig Preiss (1811–1883) played a significant role in this evolving story as the first professional botanist to collect systematically in the Colony of Western Australia from 1838 to 1842.

His collections of flora and fauna were pivotal in opening this globally significant region of biodiversity to the world — and he beat the British at their own game by bringing their new colony’s botanical wonder to scientists, nurserymen and gardeners in Europe.




Read more:
Botany and the colonisation of Australia in 1770


Despite his unusually long sojourn collecting in Western Australia, Preiss has been largely forgotten – unlike his contemporary, the naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848), well known for his work in northern and eastern Australia and his ill-fated 1848 expedition to cross the continent; and the globally active science visionary Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose birth anniversaries were celebrated in Germany and Australia in 2013 and 2019 respectively.

A dryandra (or a banksia) as would have been collected by Preiss.
Anca Gabriela Zosin/Unsplash

Preiss held no important posts in exploration, science or public office and left only a small selection of archived letters and some strangers’ impressions. So, we are left to speculate about the negative spaces between the known fragments of Preiss’s life and the agents – human and non-human – of the worlds he moved through.

The natural sciences in Germany and Britain in the 19th century shared much common ground: there were royal dynastic connections, cultural ties, migrations to Australia and complementary interests in advancing the natural sciences.

The British Empire, however, had the edge over Germany, with global networks plugged into the nerve centre of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew – an oasis of collecting, classifying, storing, propagating and dispersing exotic and useful plants in Britain and the colonies.

A page from Priess’s field books.
L. Preiss Field book Nos. 1 and 2 State Records Office of Western Australia AU WA S32 cons3401 PRE/01

Germany had more diffuse networks of scientists, across scattered institutions – universities, herbaria and botanical gardens – focused on classifying and documenting the diversity of flora and fauna into rigid systems, using dried, preserved and some live specimens.

In Preiss’s time Germany had no colonies to draw on but collected on others’ turf. In British colonies this seemingly innocent practice was supported by their structures of privilege and violence.

While there were no legal prohibitions on German naturalists collecting in British colonies, Preiss irritated his hosts by staying so long, collecting so much and transporting most of it back to Germany, not London.

A botanising craze

Preiss came from humble origins in the small village of Herzberg am Harz, in the Harz Mountains of the Göttingen district of Lower Saxony. When I visited there in 2018 to learn about Preiss’s family and early life, the council archivist Dieter Karl Wolfe explained there was little local information known about his family.

Water colour painting of a green landscape.
View of Herzberg Castle on the Harz, painted by Carl Irmer.
Wikimedia Commons

Preiss was the eldest surviving son of 12 children, and his father was a master saddler (like his father before him), a vinegar brewer and land owner. His cousin Gustav Friedrich Preiss (1825–1888) was the family success: he printed the local daily newspaper Kreiss Zeitung from 1848, became the village mayor and built a fine home. There are portraits of him and his wife in the council archive.

Another more internationally minded relative helped start the town’s Esperanto Society in the early 1900s. Friendly Esparantists showed me public monuments for Esperanto and its Polish founder, Ludwik Zamenhof (1859–1917) – but there was nothing to commemorate Preiss, their local botanical achiever.

Speculating on why Preiss took up botanising in far distant lands, Wolfe extolled the benefits of Germany’s advanced education system for gifted youths of limited means – like Preiss and Leichhardt.

The ideal was a humanistic education to equip children with the foundations of learning and intellect, allowing students to build further knowledge and expertise in adult life. The curriculum included science and languages.

Preiss probably followed the same schooling trajectory as Leichhardt: boarding school, gymnasium, university. Preiss was university educated and held a German DPhil doctorate. This was more like a degree with an original research component than today’s formal doctorate qualification.

Black and white portrait etching
Botanist Johann Christoph Lehmann.
Wikimedia Commons

Preiss’s faculty “promoter” was probably Professor Johann Georg Christian Lehmann (1792–1860), director of Hamburg’s botanic garden, who sent Preiss to the Western Australian Colony.

The craze for botanising gripped both scholars and amateurs and opened new opportunities for serious study, teaching and collecting – assisted by new equipment, including the vasculum (a botanical tin case for collecting in the field), drying papers for preparing specimens, Wardian cases (ensuring safe transportation back to Europe) and glass houses for cultivating living plants.




Read more:
How the Wardian case revolutionised the plant trade – and Australian gardens


In the 1830s, the botanical world was abuzz with news of Western Australia’s unique floral diversity. Transport of plants to London was still in its early days in 1836 when Lehmann first recognised the chance for expansion through the 25-year-old Preiss.

An asteraceae sample collected by Preiss.
Catalogue des herbiers de Genève (CHG). Conservatoire & Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève.

Preiss recalled being instructed to collect everything – flora, fauna, minerals and fossils – and hoped to “collect the products of [natural history] and arrange those products in a useful way for the purpose of Science”.

Lehmann and his wealthy friend, Wilhelm von Winthem (1799–1847), a private collector and entomologist with extensive collections, organised funds for him through a form of venture capital under which the von Winthem family company publicised and sold shares to private citizens and collecting institutions.

On Preiss’s return, investors would choose items from his collections equal to the value of their shares.

Rich wilderness

Arriving in Perth in late 1838, a dusty village huddled between vast expanses of sea, bush and hinterland, Preiss encountered a parochial society.

Local collectors who worked with London’s botanical elite guarded their status jealously. Most colonists were disillusioned by false promises of rich farming lands and worn out by the struggle to survive.

I imagine Preiss as lonely and friendless.

A sketched city grid
The town plan of Perth, 1838.
Wikimedia commons

The local landscape would have been so strange for Preiss, humanised by millennia of Nyungar curation but an apparent wilderness to the colonists’ eyes.

Botanical scientist Steve Hopper has revealed how the deep time of the region’s unusually stable environmental evolution both helped shape the unique floristic richness and endemism of this area and enhanced Nyungar people’s deep knowledge (kartijin) of their country – enabling them to live well off the diversity of plant foods they cultivated and nurtured with practices they adapted to the environment and passed down over many thousands of years.

This richness drew Preiss in.

Preiss began collecting immediately. In contrast to local British collectors he had the freedom of sufficient funds and no domestic encumbrances or civic duties. He also had no rights to own land.

His extensive collecting implicated him in the process of multispecies destruction and dispossession. The Indigenous Nyungar people were already in a state of crisis as colonists destroyed their ancient accommodations to the land and replaced them with their own hasty adaptations of species and farming.

The destruction intensified during the 20th century with the clearing of 90% of the region for wheat farming. In fewer than 200 years this encounter between Old and New World ecosystems transformed the landscapes of exceptional floral riches into a canary in the coalmine for climate change.




Read more:
Writing the WA wheatbelt, a place of radical environmental change


Collected sample of dried flowers
Senecio cygnorum Steetz collected by Preiss.
Catalogue des herbiers de Genève (CHG). Conservatoire & Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève.

A new critical approach to Australian 19th century natural history collections in German institutions has been prompted by concerns about their colonial provenance and reports of environmental damage.

In 2018 in Berlin, curators and scholars attended an international conference on the politics of natural history and decolonising of collections and museums.

There were calls to open conversations with Indigenous custodians and reflect on issues of climate change. Environmental knowledge in Preiss’s field notebooks, now missing, could have made an important contribution.

In a report on the colony published in Flora (1842), Preiss wrote that he “recorded [information] about specimens he observed and learned accurately from the Aborigines”.

The field books from his 1841 survey commission held in the State Records Office in Perth suggest the extent of the loss, being richly illustrated with botanical and landscape features and detailed annotations of measures and calculations.

An orange and purple banksia flower.
Preiss collected many species of banksia.
Holger Link/Unsplash

They speak eloquently today of how seriously Preiss took this colonial project to map “the significance of the earth … as a space to be occupied”.

Preiss wrote that he “traversed this land in all directions … [and] observed the greatest diversity of plants”. It seems he had no transport or equipment for long surveys, so often walked lengthy distances alone.

This was an intimate way for Preiss to come to know the bush. His proximity to plants and the earth sharpened his eye for shapes and colours as well as his capacity to interpret signs along bush pathways. He sometimes travelled with colleagues, and visited Rottnest Island with the colony’s chief botanist James Drummond and John Gilbert, who collected for British ornithologist John Gould.

Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia, was one of the locations Preiss collected plant specimens.
Tony McDonough/AAP

And he relied on the hospitality of homesteaders and assistance from Nyungar people. The colony’s Advocate-General George Fletcher Moore noted an instance, perhaps disapprovingly, of Preiss walking out of the bush with a Nyungar woman, both of them loaded down with plants.

He added that “the natives seem quite surprised at his collecting the jilbah [shrubs] and are very curious to know what he does with them”, suggesting that Preiss was following the colonial practice of collecting without their permission.

Despite being the colony’s best qualified botanist, Preiss was never invited to join its British collecting networks. Instead, Preiss built his own networks in London and Germany.

Drummond became his occasional helper and nemesis. He warned his London patron, Sir William Hooker (1785–1865), that the new German botanist was collecting for the Russian, Prussian and some German states.

The German botanist Dr Ludwig Diels (1874–1945), who collected in the area in 1906, imagined the two men as benign opposites: the older “bushman, always in the saddle” out collecting rather than “arranging his specimens in order” and young Preiss, the “cultured scientist of old Europe” and first collector in the colony to have “each item in his collection carefully labelled, giving the locality and other data”.

Dried plants and roots
Tetraria octandra, collected at Swan River.
© copyright of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

However, simmering resentments erupted after Preiss challenged Drummond’s identification of a poison plant killing stock and quaffed an infusion of its leaves to prove his point. Preiss survived the ordeal but lost the argument after Drummond proved the plants’ toxicity for stock.

The more Preiss wore out his welcome in the colony, the more determined he became to stay and in 1839 he decided to try his luck as a British subject, with all the benefits and moral compromises this bestowed.

In 1839 he wrote to the colonial governor requesting naturalisation as a British subject, referring to British connections with the kingdom of Hanover near his birthplace.

He outlined his intention to return to Germany to raise funds for expeditions into the northern interior to explore, collect and open up the land and then become a farmer.

He proposed to sell his collections to the British government for £3,000 – “being produce of a British territory” – and added, “I flatter myself that such a collection has never been sent from this country to England” and there were many new species “not known in Britain and Europe”.

A pink flower
Australia was home to many flowers never before seen in Europe.
April Pethybridge/Unsplash

He also proposed a German immigration scheme to help resolve labour shortages in the colony, suggesting that 50 young farming families be enticed from Saxony and the Rhine Province in a payback arrangement with other settlers and for his own farming needs, with government land grants payable for bringing out workers.

If his proposal was not accepted he would seek Prussian and Russian funding to explore the north coast.

The British government refused Preiss’s offers, preferring to acquire from established British collectors such as Gould and Gilbert. His request for naturalisation was finally granted in 1841. The next year he travelled back to Europe, taking with him the largest collection then to leave the colony.

Lauded at the time, Preiss’s actions of taking Indigenous plant material and knowledge without consent for scientific gain would now be condemned as bio-piracy.

The collection included 200,000 plants with around 2,500 species and collections of algae, fungi, lichens, bryophytes as well as species of birds, reptiles, mammals, shells and more, as well as his copious notes.

Packed firmly in tin-lined boxes, they travelled well. Ironically, Preiss’s boxes left no space on board for Drummond’s collection of seeds and specimens to be sent to London. Delays in its passage meant that nurseries lost an entire season for planting – while Preiss’s quality collections and duplicate plants entirely spoiled the market for Drummond.

Dried flowers
Stalked Guinea-flower collected in Perth.
© copyright of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Diels lavishly praised Preiss’s collections for the sheer quantity of specimens he had collected in such a short period, the range of plant specimens, detailed information to identify flowers and plants and his collecting sites, the overall presentation that made his collections and notes so useful to science, and the outstanding achievement of producing the first West Australian collection for Europe’s leading herbaria.

Australian naturalist Rica Erikson (1908–2009) observed that his collections were “far superior to others being offered for sale in England”, but that British botanists “were prejudiced in favour of collectors of their own nationality”.

Troubled returns

Preiss’s return to Germany via London was troubled – although he did manage to sell some plants and seeds to fund his journey across to Hamburg. But the situation he found there was disastrous.

The Great Fire of Hamburg in May 1842 had killed more than 50 people and destroyed many public and private buildings. The huge costs of rebuilding would cripple the state – and plans for the natural history museum that would have housed Preiss’s collections were shelved, along with their purchase.

Preiss was now forced to advertise the collections for sale – both to cover his debts from the trip and to offload the sheer quantity of material remaining after his investors’ selections.

He placed advertisements praising the excellence of his collections in botanical and gardening journals, wrote letters to institutions and private collectors, and published his report in the Flora with observations of natural features of the colony.

He also announced his intention to make a second longer journey in Australia from the Gulf of Carpentaria across country to the Swan River Colony. A portion of the current collections, he said, would be delivered to Lehmann “as soon as they are generally arranged, and … description and publication [entrusted] to him and other celebrated natural historians”.

Preiss’s expedition never eventuated, but the book hinted at in his report was a triumph. The two-volume publication named Plantae Preissianae (1844– 1847) was compiled by Lehmann with leading German botanists working from the collections, all with extensive publications on Australian species.

Yellow wattle is one of Australia’s most recognisable flowers.
Rebecca/Unsplash

This was the first major reference book on Western Australian flora, and preceded by decades the British seven-volume Flora Australiensis (1863–1878) compiled by botanist George Bentham (1800–1884) – although that work, too, featured several of Preiss’s specimens.

There were further honours for Preiss: he was commemorated in the names of around 100 plants – a matter of considerable status; in 1843 he was elected to membership of the National Academy of Germany; and in the same year his name was added to the registry of the Regensburg Royal Botanical Society.

And his collections began their own journeys. Splitting them for sale dispersed them into private collections and an estimated 35 European herbaria, with the “original” or standard reference set of specimens for Plantae Preissianae passing from Lehmann to his widow, and eventually to its final resting place in the Lund herbarium in Sweden when Germany declined to buy it.

Preiss’s extensive zoological collections of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other material did not fare so well.

Some were sold to European museums or dealers but many simply disappeared or can no longer be identified as his. Credit for his “discoveries” of new species was given to other collectors.

His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography laments that “had Preiss the backing of an ambitious and enterprising zoologist, as Gilbert had in Gould, it is certain that he would have been much better known today”.

Handwritten notes in German
A plant specimen with notes from Preiss.
© copyright of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Despite the success of the book and his standing among Europe’s natural historians, in 1843 Preiss suddenly announced that he was leaving Hamburg along with his collections – at the “urgent wishes of my father” – and that all future letters should be sent to him at Herzberg.

He gave no further explanation for this; in the modern parlance, it seems he just “left the building”.

This sudden shift by Preiss from a very public life to a very private one remains an unsolved mystery. Preiss’s legacy, however, is enduring.

His remarkable achievements in the few years between 1838 and 1843 created a permanent link between the botanical sciences in Western Australia and Germany. His sudden withdrawal opened a space for others to lead.

But how will the collections fare under the well-deserved critical scrutiny of their colonial origins and histories in German institutions? Can they be decolonised to take on new tasks relevant for today?

A couple of years ago, sitting with Preiss’s dryandra specimens at the Göttingen herbarium, I was inspired to see them as potential message sticks with agency to bring people together.

Dryandra Woodlands in Western Australia.
Charles England/Wikimedia Commons

Now I’m part of a new project, Healing Land Healing People, based at Dryandra Woodlands south-east of Perth in the country of our project leader, Nyungar Elder Darryl Kickett.

We are working with the knowledge of Nyungar families, botanists, historians and artists to restore the biodiversity of the land and community cultural strengths. We work with similar projects at other sites in the south-west region.

In Germany we are linked with the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Cologne and the Rachel Carson Center at the University of Munich. My role is to identify other collections from the region in European museums and herbaria and their curators.

With Nyungar Elders and curators sharing their knowledge and stories we can map the journeys of the message sticks from the sites where they were collected to their present locations.

With our German colleagues we can weave new narratives of biodiversity loss and restoration to engage the public, heal the past and ensure a future for our corner of Western Australia and other global biodiversity hotspots.


This piece is republished with permission from GriffithReview69: The European Exchange, edited by Ashley Hay and Natasha Cica, and published in partnership with the Australian National University griffithreview.comThe Conversation

Anna Haebich, Senior Research Professor, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Botany and the colonisation of Australia in 1770



Botanist Joseph Banks recommended Botany Bay as the site for a penal colony.
Charles Gore (1788) / State Library of NSW

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.


James Cook and his companions aboard the Endeavour landed at a harbour on Australia’s southeast coast in April of 1770. Cook named the place Botany Bay for
“the great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place”.

Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were aboard the Endeavour as gentleman botanists, collecting specimens and applying names in Latin to plants Europeans had not previously seen. The place name hints at the importance of plants to Britain’s Empire, and to botany’s pivotal place in Europe’s Enlightenment and Australia’s early colonisation.

A new series from The Conversation.

‘Nothing like people’

Joseph Banks became one of Britain’s most influential scientists.
National Library of Australia

Cook has always loomed large in Australia’s colonial history. White Australians have long commemorated and celebrated him as the symbolic link to the “civilisation” of Enlightenment and Empire. The two botanists have been less well remembered, yet Banks in particular was an influential figure in Australia’s early colonisation.

When Banks and his friend Solander went ashore on April 29, 1770 to collect plants for naming and classification, the Englishman recollected they saw “nothing like people”. Banks knew that the land on which he and Solander sought plants was inhabited (and in fact, as we now know, had been so for at least 65,000 years). Yet the two botanists were engaged in an activity that implied the land was blank and unknown.

They were both botanical adventurers. Solander was among the first and most favoured of the students of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and colonial traveller who devised the method still used today for naming species. Both Solander and Banks were advocates for the Linnaean method of taxonomy: a systematic classification of newly named plants and animals.

When they stepped ashore at “Botany Bay” in 1770, the pair saw themselves as pioneers in a double sense: as Linnaean botanists in a new land, its places and plants unnamed by any other; as if they were in a veritable terra nullius.

The plant specimens Joseph Banks collected were taken back to England, where they remain today in the Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

Botany in ‘nobody’s land’

Terra nullius, meaning “nobody’s land”, refers to a legal doctrine derived from European traditions stretching back to the ancient Romans. The idea was that land could be declared “empty” and “unowned” if there were no signs of occupation such as cultivation of the soil, towns, cities, or sacred temples.

As a legal doctrine it was not applied in Australia until the late 1880s, and there is dispute about its effects in law until its final elimination by the High Court in Mabo v Queensland (No. II) in 1992.




Read more:
Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and absent presence in First Nations art


Cook never used this formulation, nor did Banks or Solander. Yet each in their way acted as if it were true. That the land, its plants, and animals, and even its peoples, were theirs to name and classify according to their own standards of “scientific” knowledge.

In the late eighteenth century, no form of scientific knowledge was more useful to empire than botany. It was the science par excellence of colonisation and empire. Botany promised a way to transform the “waste” of nature into economic productivity on a global scale.

Plant power

Wealth and power in Britain’s eighteenth century empire came from harnessing economically useful crops: tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, rice, potatoes, flax. Hence Banks and Solander’s avid botanical activity was not merely a manifestation of Enlightenment “science”. It was an integral feature of Britain’s colonial and imperial ambitions.

Banksia ericifolia was one of the many species given a new name by Banks.
Natural History Museum

Throughout the Endeavour’s voyage, Banks, Solander, and their assistants collected more than 30,000 plant specimens, naming more than 1,400 species.

By doing so, they were claiming new ground for European knowledge, just as Cook meticulously charted the coastlines of territories he claimed for His Majesty, King George III. Together they extended a new dispensation, inscribed in new names for places and for plants written over the ones that were already there.

Long after the Endeavour returned to Britain, Banks testified before two House of Commons committees in 1779 and 1785 that “Botany Bay” would be an “advantageous” site for a new penal colony. Among his reasons for this conclusion were not only its botanical qualities – fertile soils, abundant trees and grasses – but its virtual emptiness.




Read more:
From Captain Cook to the First Fleet: how Botany Bay was chosen over Africa as a new British penal colony


Turning emptiness to empire

When Banks described in his own Endeavour journal the land Cook had named “New South Wales”, he recalled: “This immense tract of Land … is thinly inhabited even to admiration …”. It was the science of botany that connected emptiness and empire to the Enlightened pursuit of knowledge.

One of Banks’s correspondents was the Scottish botanist and professor of natural history, John Walker. Botany, Walker wrote, was one of the “few Sciences” that “can promise any discovery or improvement”. Botany was the scientific means to master the global emporium of commodities on which empire grew.

Botany was also the reason why it had not been necessary for Banks or Solander to affirm the land on which they trod was empty. For in a very real sense, their science presupposed it. The land, its plants and its people were theirs to name and thereby claim by “discovery”.

When Walker reflected on his own botanical expeditions in the Scottish Highlands, he described them as akin to voyages of discovery to lands as “inanimate & unfrequented as any in the Terra australis”.

As we reflect on the 250-year commemoration of Cook’s landing in Australia, we ought also to consider his companions Banks and Solander, and their science of turning supposed emptiness to empire.The Conversation

Bruce Buchan, Associate Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Buried under colonial concrete, Botany Bay has even been robbed of its botany



Shutterstock

Rebecca Hamilton, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Dan Penny, University of Sydney; Josephine Gillespie, University of Sydney, and Shane Ingrey, UNSW

The HMS Endeavour’s week-long stay on the shores of Kamay in 1770 yielded so many botanical specimens unknown to western science, Captain James Cook called the area Botany Bay.

During this visit, the ship’s natural history expert Joseph Banks spoke favourably of the landscape, saying it resembled the “moorlands of England” with “knee-high brushes of plants stretching over gentle and treeless hills as far as the eye could see”.

Since then, Kamay has become an icon of Australia’s convict history and emblematic of the dispossession of Indigenous people from country.

A new series from The Conversation.

However, memories of the pre-British flora have largely been lost. Ongoing research drawing on ecological data, and Indigenous and European histories, reveals what this environment once looked like. It shows many of the assumptions about the historical landscape we hold today may actually be wrong.

The site better reflects 20th-century European exploitation of the landscape than it does early or pre-British Botany Bay.

From swamps to suburbs

Today, the northern shore of Kamay acts as Australia’s gateway to the world. It hosts Australia’s busiest international airport and one of Australia’s largest container ports, major arterial roads and a rapidly growing residential population.




Read more:
Black skies and raging seas: how the First Fleet got a first taste of Australia’s unforgiving climate


From the early 19th century, urban development gradually overprinted a vast network of groundwater-fed swamplands, whose catchment extended north from Kamay to what is now the southern boundary of Sydney’s CBD.

These swamps have largely disappeared under the suburbs, or have been corralled into golf course ponds or narrow wetlands alongside Southern Cross Drive – a sight familiar to anyone who has driven between Sydney city and its airport.

Kamay holds a rapidly growing residential population.
Shutterstock

Viewed by British colonial authorities as both an unhealthy nuisance and a critical resource, the ever-shrinking wetlands played a crucial role in the water supply and industrial development of early Sydney, before becoming polluted and a disease-causing miasma.

A misremembered past

“Natural” remnants of the former swamplands are today considered to have high conservation value under both state and federal environmental and heritage protection legislation.




Read more:
Friday essay: histories written in the land – a journey through Adnyamathanha Yarta


But attempting to protect ecosystems that reflect a version of the past has a major constraint. Long-term information about their past species composition and structure can be fragmented, misremembered, or absent.

A map showing the Kamay (Botany Bay) Swamplands from 1894.
Image from the Mitchell Collection, State Library of NSW, Author provided

This is especially problematic in the case of the Kamay swamplands, which, like many urban ecosystems, have been fragmented, hydrologically altered, and polluted.

Yet not all is lost. We studied pollen released from flowering plants and conifers, which can accumulate and preserve in sediment layers through time.

Looking at this preserved pollen lets us develop a timeline of vegetation change over hundreds to thousands of years.

Lachlan swamp

One wetland remnant, called Lachlan Swamp, occurs at the springhead of the swamplands in Centennial Parklands. Boardwalks and signs at the site encourage visitors to imagine the swamps and the paperbark forest (Melaleuca quinquenervia) surrounding them as a relic of pre-British Sydney.

Paperbark trees dominate the landscape at Lachlan Swamp.
Author provided

We used the pollen technique at Lachlan Swamp to determine whether the contemporary ecosystem reflects the pre-European landscape being protected.

And our results reveal that, at the time of British occupation, the swampland was surrounded by an open, Ericaceae-dominated heath. Casuarina and Leptospermum species were the dominant swamp trees, not the swamp paperbark.

This plant community was present at the site for at least the previous 2,000 years, and was only replaced by the contemporary paperbark forest between the 1890s and 1970s.

An 1844 drawing of Lachlan Swamp showing an open landscape.
Image from the Dixon Collection, State Library of NSW, Author provided

Cultural knowledge

Ongoing work from the La Perouse Aboriginal Community led research team drawing on Indigenous knowledge and European history suggests this open heathland vegetation grew consistently across the Lachlan and Botany Swamps during and prior to European colonisation of Sydney.

Continuous cultural knowledge about the environment, held by local Dharawal people, can provide a rich picture of Kamay’s botany and how it was used – well before the arrival of the HMS Endeavour.




Read more:
The Memory Code: how oral cultures memorise so much information


For instance, the Garrara or grass tree (Xanthorrhoea), which is depicted in many early colonial paintings, is a multi-use plant used to construct fishing spears – a tradition upheld today within the La Perouse Aboriginal community.

Similarly, other food and medicinal plants have been long been used by this community. This includes Five Corners (Ericaceae), Native Sarsaparilla (Smilax), Lomandra (Lomandra) and multi-use heath and swamp plants such as the coastal wattle (Acacia longifolia), swamp oak (Casuarina glauca) and coastal tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum).

Xanthorrhoea plants grew throughout Botany Bay before European colonisation.
Shutterstock

The plant species described and utilised by the local people correlates with the pre-European vegetation reconstructed from the Lachlan Swamp pollen record, and with what is described in early British records.

Not all is lost

Our common understanding of the Kamay landscape, as recognised in the protected swamp remnant in Centennial Park, is based on a misremembering of the past.

If our future goals are to conserve beautiful, unique ecosystems that have escaped European exploitation and mismanagement – such as the version of Botany Bay described by Banks – it’s crucial to start including and listening to long-term environmental histories to compliment our scientific research.




Read more:
The Dreamtime, science and narratives of Indigenous Australia


We must protect a resilient, ecosystem-rich landscape informed by accumulated Indigenous knowledge, passed down over many generations.

Though Sydney’s environmental past may be misremembered, it’s not lost entirely. Its legacy is subtly coded into the remnant landscapes of pre-British occupation, and preserved in the continuous knowledge systems of the land’s first peoples.

With care, it can be read and used to support resilient and authentic urban ecosystems.The Conversation

Rebecca Hamilton, Postdoctoral Researcher in Palaeoecology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Dan Penny, Associate Professor, University of Sydney; Josephine Gillespie, Senior lecturer, University of Sydney, and Shane Ingrey, Postdoctoral research fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


%d bloggers like this: