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Wildflowers and native grasses thrive

Being flat and sometimes brown, Victorian grasslands are not the most coveted of landscapes. For all the talk of prairies being planted atop abandoned rail tracks in New York and meadows being scattered about central London, we are not so attuned to the fields of grasses and wildflowers to be found closer to home.

Victoria's basalt plains, which stretch from Melbourne's western suburbs almost as far as South Australia, are a case in point. Less than two per cent of the temperate grasslands that once covered them are remaining and Colleen Miller - co-ordinator of the community organisation Western Melbourne Catchments Network - is on a mission to stop the figure dipping further.

One of the network's latest projects is a parcel of land overlooking train tracks and industrial smoke stacks in Altona. Strewn with weeds and gouged from the spinning wheels of car burnouts, this one-time horse paddock doesn't immediately come over as the sort of place where indigenous grasslands might survive.

But about four years ago a local conservationist spotted the pale flowers and tiny leaves of the grassland subshrub Pimelea spinescens. Like the basalt plain grasslands themselves this small-statured plant - with such a long taproot it can reach moisture even in times of drought - is listed as critically endangered.

That it should be soldiering on in a neglected field in urbanised, industrialised, grazed Altona got people thinking about what other rare grassland specimens might remain there. Around the same time, a sketchbook surfaced documenting what remained in the very same patch of land in the 1940s.

As a nature-loving, artistically inclined teenager, long-time Altona resident Doreen would walk the streets and fields around her home in Civic Parade collecting wildflowers and watching birds. With her watercolours and pencils she would go home and make detailed drawings of the flowers and foliage of Wahlenbergia, Eutaxia, Velleia, Chrysocephalum, Pycnosorus and - in a prelude of what was to come - weeds like Blue pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis).


She might not have known the plants' names but she diligently watched how they grew and noted it all down in careful grey-lead alongside her drawings. Finally, she would press specimens between the pages of her sketchbook.

Her roaming around Altona ceased when, at the age of 18, Doreen got a job. But she kept her teenage sketchbook for more six decades and then, about five years ago, gave it to the facilitator of the Western Melbourne Catchments Network.

The drawings and pressings are now providing important information for an EPA-funded project to restore the three-hectare grassland where the Pimelea spinescens was found. Some of what Doreen drew - the yellow-button blooms of Calocephalus citreus, the creamy-white ones of Pymelia glauca, the feathery flowers of Ptilotus macrocephalus and the pink trumpet ones of Convolvulus angustissimus, for example - is still growing amid sweeps of kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra).

While patches of Acaena echinata, Chloris truncata and Danthonia and Stipa species can still be found here, the stiff, prickly Eryngium ovinum - that Doreen both drew and dried - has been nowhere to be seen. Seedlings of it were recently planted as part of a community project with other no-longer-present species to follow.

In the meantime, weed-removing (especially serrated tussock and boxthorn but also others like artichoke thistle and carpet weed) continues, largely through the regular but selective application of herbicides.

"You don't kill every weed, some of them you need to learn to live with or you will drive yourself crazy," Miller says. "But with less weeds the colonisation is more likely to be native."

Miller, who studied horticulture at the age of 40 and then taught herself to differentiate between weeds and indigenous grassland species by poring over the Flora of Melbourne, says she loves "the puzzle" of grasslands. "Why has that Pimelea spinescens managed to hang in there, and why, after working on a site for a number of years, will endangered species suddenly come out?"

But she is also a big fan of how grasslands look. James van Sweden, the late American landscape designer who first alerted us to the allure of wild prairies, springs to Miller's mind when she is in Victorian grasslands that are a little wet and have sweeps of tall colour.

But there is vibrancy to grasslands during drought too, when grasses struggle and all you can see is wildflowers. When the grasses are thriving, though, you need to be up close to notice all of the intricacies. As a result, some Altona locals have begun to complain about the growth in the restoration area (the land having been regularly mowed before this project.) Explanatory signage is to go up in the next month.

"To most people, these grasslands look like undeveloped land," Miller says. "They are just not aesthetic to a lot of people. But I find it just as enjoyable to walk through a grassland as I do a rainforest."

Colleen Miller is one of the speakers at an all-day workshop on the topic "Rare Victorian Plants, What and Why!" to be run by the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne on Sunday, June 22. It costs $75/$60 friends and bookings are essential (by June 13). Seerbg.vic.gov.au/support/support-groups/friends-of-rbg/cranbourne/activities.