Peter Latz at home amongst the corkwoods, small decorative trees with deeply fissured bark and gorgeous flowers that produce copious amounts of honey and attract various nectar feeding and insectivorous birds. © Mike Gillam.
By MIKE GILLAM
Last updated 22 April 2020, 7.58am. Correction of fact (see at bottom).
A quick survey of the town’s street trees reveals a landscape architect’s worst nightmare. It took a century of effort, mostly uncoordinated, of overlapping Government departments, Federal, Territory and Local to provide this expensive, high maintenance, botanically weak sense of place. Of suburban streets where stately eucalypts with no future were planted by residents underneath power-lines. Conversely, where the sky’s the limit, puny bottlebrushes planted by the Town Council.
How does this situation go on decade after decade? There have been some recent improvements in prioritising local native plants but is it too little too late? Professionals won’t go on the record because they’re too polite or it’s too difficult to untangle the mess, or they’re public servants or humble contractors that don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s down to amateurs to stumble through a horticultural history that others are better placed to analyse.
Why? As I wrote last week, we live in a botanical paradise and there have always been talented botanists and horticulturalists in our midst, yet their advocacy has mostly fallen on deaf ears. I have no doubt Alice Springs would be more beautiful, much shadier and far more resilient if they’d been supported in their endeavours.
You have to search for their small victories (for example, at the airport or early median strip planting on the Stuart Highway) because these are largely overshadowed by wave after wave of planting failures, often drawing on species from more temperate climates. It’s infinitely easier, after all, to select products from an interstate supplier’s catalogue than to help nurture sustainable partnerships with local enterprises.
Post war plantings in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s showed real merit but by the late ’80s we appear to have lost our way. A prevailing lack of care and ambition can’t explain the under utilisation of endemic native plants in our streetscapes. The incoherence of street tree planting reflects a near absence of designers and certainly unrealistic lead times flowing from the design process to the plant producers and then to the actual planting.
In practice the whole process tends to be piecemeal and random, reflecting intermittent supply and a failure of long term planning. The role of vested interests behind the scenes and their influence on Government run nurseries can’t be over-emphasised with tragic albeit unintended consequences for our town.
Our geographic isolation and small population size are certainly challenging and a larger rate base might help if we knew what we were doing. Without the buying power of Government and the example of high profile civic projects to promote endemic plants there is little of the typical knowledge cascade from the public domain to the private sector and beyond.
Working in reverse is costly and much less successful. No matter how passionate and competent, your local nursery does not have the energy or the finances to educate customers and adequately promote local products given the tiny market they serve. Large interstate producers can afford lavish labels that grab market share for what are often inferior products.
Our highly transient population increases the problem of mindset and many ‘fresh’ locals come from interstate with childhood memories of flowering jacarandas or suburban avenues of dark green cedars. Unless they have big bright flowers, our asymmetrical and disorderly eucalypts just can’t compete. Popular through the 1950s and ’60s. the deciduous white cedar fits with our Europeanised vision of what a street tree should look like. The photo label graphics are simpler too.
In truth the failures of streetscape design in Alice Springs are rescued by the beauty of the inherited sacred landscape, our magnificent river red gum forests and the reassuring presence of rocky skylines. Working with the country, taking our cue from ecological and regional strengths makes eminent sense as evidenced by the red gum avenue of Gap Road, arguably our best cultivated streetscape, dating from the late ’40s and possibly attributable to an early Council worker.
Another example would be the self-seeded woodland on the approach to Alice, just south of the Gap at the pinch point between the river on the east and the Show grounds to the west. There was a period in the late ’70s when the mature trees on both sides were separated by a wide grassy shoulder. I passed by each morning on my way to work and with other eagle eyed colleagues noted an impressive germination of ghost gums near the railway line. They grew with uncharacteristic speed and we discussed what a fabulous addition to the town’s southern entry they would make.
Then the ride-on mower man arrived and slashed the lot and we were incredulous. This cycle was repeated a few years later when the trees were waist high and I remember my companion leaning out the window and shouting “Let the bloody trees grow, you moron.” A year or two later the ghost gums had regained a height of about one metre and we held our breath. Could it really be? A new employee, showing great care, was weaving the mower around the ghost gums and our town was permanently enhanced.
By the late 1970s a native plant revolution was underway at the forestry nursery located at the Arid Zone Research Institute. From memory they provided stock to national parks, remote communities and even the Town Council – such as the trees lining the Stuart Highway to the airport.
Forestry workers also created the river red gum firewood plantation (never cropped) beside the sewage ponds. A young man named Antal Soos was employed at the forestry nursery, and like many, including the writer, was mentored by botanist Peter Latz. With encouragement and advice, Antal was unstoppable, dedicating much of his private time to epic walks in the bush to collect the seed of remarkable and little known plants. The propagation efforts of nursery staff caused a sensation and before long dozens of people were attending the Saturday plant sales.
By 1987 nursery sales to the public were snuffed out by the Country Liberal Government after a well connected private nursery owner deemed the ‘competition’ unfair. The nursery closed permanently a short time thereafter. No matter that the plants grown by Antal and his colleagues were not on offer by other retailers who trucked in much of their stock from large interstate wholesalers.
Antal’s customers did not rush to buy the offerings of the retail nurseries, with their wide range of exotics and gums from Western Australia or the Woods and Forests nursery in Adelaide. The latter, a South Australian Government nursery, was unabashed in competing with private enterprise! Antal’s disappointed customers returned to collecting seed out bush and swapping home grown plants amongst their networks. Those who shutdown the forestry nursery certainly crushed the town’s potential uptake of endemics but they profited very little from their string pulling. Now we are paying the price in spades.
History repeated itself in 2004 when two nursery owners complained about the Alice Springs Desert Park supplying wholesale plants to private retailers. This was an obvious win-win that acknowledged the importance of the small retailers. Still the arrangement was stopped, a hugely disappointing decision by the Martin Labor Government. For the record I should say that those owners implicated in closing down ‘unfair government competition’ no longer maintain nurseries in Alice Springs.
Our community has more than its share of vulnerabilities and some, such as climate change, pose huge challenges for our shade trees assets and planning. We are in direct competition with other progressive regional centres and more prosperous cities that can attract newcomers by offering an enviable quality of life and well managed tourist destinations. Surely we owe it to the next generation to end the misplaced politeness that sustains dysfunctional processes in our public domain.
The writing has been on the wall for a century or more and the CSIRO climate change website has been spelling it out for more than 15 years. While the Town Council must contend with a regrettable legacy of poor choices and declining tree health they do seem to have pivoted towards local endemic plants as the preferred solution for street trees.
Hopefully local Councils throughout the Territory will prioritise getting the shade trees right and work collaboratively with people in every street. They might show some maturity and allow residents to individualise their nature strip through decorative infill planting of their choice. In some municipalities I’m told households even create raised herb gardens on the nature strip for the benefit of passers by.
The NT Government in particular needs to show leadership and free the “Boundless Possible” potential of the Alice Springs Desert Park. This is critical to provide a knowledge cascade along with the diversity and volume of desert plants that are urgently required to enhance the liveability of Centralia’s far flung communities.
On a personal note I must acknowledge the sustained efforts of Geoff and Kaye Miers who provided the vast majority of endemic plants that continue to thrive at our site in Hele Crescent and many other notable plantings throughout the town.
Correction of fact: An earlier version of this article referred to a ‘hugely disappointing decision by the Burke Country Liberal Government’. This decision was actually made by a Martin Labor Government.
RELATED READING and LOOKING:
See Part 1: A touch of light: sculptural giants
Previously in this series: A touch of light: termite alates