Twisted, stunted and weather-beaten, snow gums are icons of our high country. They are also favourite subjects of landscape photographers, especially after rain when their textured trunks gleam in sunlight.
Indeed, when this column recently asked for stands of trees to rival the magnificent seven old gums near Crace (May 6), my inbox filled up with an avalanche (yes, pun intended) of striking snow gums. None of these more spectacular than those snapped by Erwin Feeken of Bywong on the Ramshead Range, near Thredbo.
Some cradled granite boulders, while others featured beautiful burls, which clumped on gravity-challenged branches, resembled beady eyes, as if looking out for the next approaching ice storm. Resplendent in a mix of bright greens, deep reds and creamy yellows some even looked like they had a bag of Licorice Allsorts straps twisted around their contorted trunks.
Apart from being photogenic, snow gums also play a significant role in the ecology of our mountains and have a surprising effect on rainfall.
"Studies show that if the 15 000 – 20 000 hectares of snow gums that have been removed since European settlement were regenerated, it would be the equivalent of increasing precipitation over that area by ten per cent," reveals John McRae, Program Manager, Australian Alps national parks Cooperative Management Program.
Ten per cent may not sound like much, but in an area which can receive up to two metres of precipitation a year, that's almost 200 millimetres extra.
So just how do the trees 'make' water? According to McRae, it's simple science. "In the mountains during windy snow-storm conditions, trees create turbulence, encouraging snow to drop and build up on their lee side," explains McRae, adding, "in misty conditions at freezing point, ice can build up on their leaves to form an ice-tree effect that retains moisture in the catchment."
"Also in rainy conditions trees can help capture more rain than in non-treed areas," explains McRae, adding, "as snow gums are the main tree species which grow above 1500 metres it's not rocket science that more snow gums equates to more rain."
Park managers like McRae are using the recent plans for Snowy Hydro 2.0 as impetus to draw attention to these ultimate rainmakers of the high country.
"As the investor in Snowy Hydro 2.0, you'd want the highest yields possible," remarks McRae, who argues that to enhance the yield of the alpine catchment, "there's no need for a rain dance or cloud seeding or prayer, all we need to is restore the snow gum woodlands."
It's accepted that most of the snow gum woodland lost since European settlement was the result of grazing in pre-national park days. "When grazing was allowed in the alpine areas, there was reduced area of snow gums due to burning and gradual stripping of the trees to encourage more grass areas for stock," explains McRae.
"After large fires like those in 1939, many graziers allowed cattle to be reintroduced as snow gums were starting to reshoot, stopping regeneration in its tracks," further explains McRae, Testimony to this are many ghost-white tree stags scattered around in the high country.
But the increase in precipitation yield isn't the only benefit of restoring snow gum woodland. In the current (June) News from the Alps Newsletter, Graeme Worboys, a protected area management specialist with the Fenner School at the Australian National University states "climate change figures predict a reduced water yield of ten per cent, which compounds the problem if your catchment is not working as well as it could."
Restoring snow gum woodland is no easy task. "We don't want to plant them where they weren't growing before," explains McRae adding "it needs to be carefully guided by historic maps and discussion with old timers, and, of course, the latest available science".
I don't know about you, but along with the reduction in feral animals and weeds, if the landscape scale restoring of snow gum woodland enhances the health and yield of our water catchments, it can only be a good thing. Oh, and in the long term if it results in more fetching photos to rival those of readers of this column like Feeken and Co, then even better. The only catch is we won't be around to enjoy them, as snow gums grow very slowly.
Secret Snow Gums: Want to photograph snow gums in all their glory? Here are some tips on where to find some of the most photogenic.
In the snowies: According to McRae, the biggest snow gums in the Australian alps are "in the Bogong High Plains, especially in the area immediately around Wallaces Hut". More accessible are those on the aptly-named snow gum boardwalk at Charlottes Pass.
Closer to home: There are a stand of snow gums in suburban Aranda. Really! They feature on the short (allow one-hour) Frost Hollow to Forest Walk which starts at a stile located alongside the short access road to the Black Mountain Reserve car park which is accessed off William Hovell Drive. A fact sheet about the walk prepared by Friends of Aranda Bushland (www.friendsofarandabushland.org.au) includes a map.
A little-known stand is hidden across the road from Turkey Hill, on the Gibraltar Rocks side of the road in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Sheltered in a valley, these out-of-place snow gums exhibit a much more upright growth habit than those growing in more exposed areas.
Arguably the most photographed in the ACT is a stunted specimen atop Mt Gingera in the Brindabellas.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Degree of difficulty: Hard
Congratulations to Yvonne Lipscomb of Charnwood who was the first to correctly identify last week's photo (right), taken by Oskars Pumpurs as an historic photo of St Ninian's Uniting Church, corner of Mouat and Brigalow Streets in Lyneham.
The quaint building, made from stone quarried on Black Mountain, was first opened as a Presbyterian Church in 1873. In 1922 it was taken over as part of a grazing lease and temporarily used as a barn before being refurbished, rededicated and reopened as a church once again in 1942.
Oskars Pumpurs was a planner with the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) and on his death late last century, his significant personal collection of materials relating to the NCDC and the planning of Canberra was dispersed by the Planning Institute of Australia to increase its exposure. Some of this collection, including this photo, was sent to ArchivesACT and The ACT Heritage Library.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday, July 29, 2017 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.