Monday, July 22, 2024

The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.

HomeIssue 22A touch of light: sculptural giants

A touch of light: sculptural giants

Sculptural giant © Mike Gillam



To state the obvious, our town is losing valuable habitat and shade at an alarming rate and the losses are not offset by slender gains. The issues are manifold and a changing climate creates great imperatives for our community to act on the following:

•Better protect the natural environment and existing old growth trees.

•Make informed decisions for planning and planting the shade of the future.

•Encourage greater public stewardship for trees at risk from the street verges to the river. Where appropriate facilitate community care of verges and parklands.

•Improve training, procedures and contracts so that workers don’t make fundamental mistakes, such as spraying desirable native herbage or pruning already stressed trees under power lines at the height of summer.

From the surrounding natural environment to the centre of town, tree conservation, maintenance and planting strategies have been failing us for decades. Now there’s talk in some circles that a dramatic increase in constructed hard shade is the answer for the town centre.

Personally I believe there’s a need for both with a major emphasis on the organic over fabricated shade. Are we witnessing another step in the push-pull between a community that values trees and plants and a workforce that aspires to maintenance free solutions?

Large trees do require some effort and spending but the need for ongoing maintenance surely pales in comparison with the town’s manicured sporting ovals and facilities. 

So there’s no right, easy or diplomatic answer to the question posed by Steve Thorne, responding to my last article. The three species I mentioned there are useful secondary elements. There are many others that deserve further investigation.

To my knowledge Alice Springs cannot boast a single specimen of Owenia reticulata, commonly called desert walnut (14 metres max), an amazing shade tree that occurs in the Tanami Desert a few hours to the west.

We live in a botanical paradise and yet much of the town’s horticultural history shows us looking everywhere else but the arid and semi arid regions that provide endless inspiration and viable solutions if we choose to adjust our European gaze.

In less crowded spaces, in central parks and major avenues, I’d vote for magnificent giants every time but termites are a part of growing and managing such trees. As a point of contrast consider the lacklustre performance of exotic plantings in the mall, decade after wasted decade, that are now dwarfed by several massive lemon-scented gums that do provide impressive sculptural shade.

Sure they have some issues and I wish they were endemic ghost gums or river red gums (20-25 metres max) and located a little further back from buildings. Nonetheless, imagine the desolation within the mall and the impoverishment of our spirits if they were removed. 

Larger Eucalypts such as river reds, ghost gums, coolibah and bloodwoods also provide valuable habitat and over the course of a hundred years or so termites will help to create the hollows that are so important for bat nurseries and nesting birds. Long after the current and next generations of council workers have retired the termites may need some management!

The town setting, its encircling hills, the iconic Mount Gillen (resting place of the wild dog Alhekulyele) and the ancient riverine woodland of the Todd are standout assets for our community. Notwithstanding the enduring beauty of our landscape, a culture of government inertia and the mythology of self-protecting bushland have proved disastrous.  

After decades of outrageous tree losses in the river corridor, there’s finally cause for optimism. Concerned Arrernte people have been spreading the word, confronting campers and visitors from remote communities and impressing upon them the risk of fire and the importance of respecting sacred sites.

Moreover, a new river management committee has unified government agencies and community representatives including Arrernte custodians. As a result, and aided in part by the recent drought, the loss of old growth river red gums has slowed markedly.

Let’s hope and trust that the buffel grass slashing is maintained in the wet years. As a further reason for optimism, the Chair of this Committee, Dr Ken Johnson, has lived for many years on the east bank of the Todd River where the river red gums have benefited greatly from his individual physical efforts


Note on the image: After calling the fire brigade I photographed the river red gum with smoke venting from multiple hollows in Charles Creek at about 0930. A local businesswoman told me the site was already alight at 0730. It was a week day and hundreds of people had driven past several burning trees on their way to work and failed to call 000! A fire crew came within 10 minutes and from memory saved two trees but the oldest tree was lost.


A touch of light: termite alates
(Find links to earlier articles in the series there.)





  1. Another urgent message, Mike, that I only hope finds responses from those elected to perform the necessary tasks you’ve outlined.

  2. Mike, a timely plea, and can I put in a word for the fork-leafed corkwood? They are truly floodplain local, and while their shade may not be outstanding, they are ideal in size for limited space street trees, and the flowers are brilliant.


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