Not as we know it: A precolonial Port Phillip Bay

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth. 

The city of Port Phillip is an area that feels as though it’s made for warm and lazy summer nights, the perfect place to meander through tree-lined streets and markets to watch the sun set over the bay. Places like South Melbourne Market, St Kilda Esplanade, and Albert Park Lake are iconic pieces of Melbourne’s history. It is difficult to imagine these places as they originally were – a mix of rare and wild landscapes, thriving with life and biodiversity.  

Let’s start in Port Melbourne - a hub of cruise ships and coffee shops. Walking down Bay Street now, the path is lined with trendy cafés and apartments. Two hundred years ago, most of this area was overgrown with dense shrubbery, with species such as common heath and broom spurge dominating the area with gnarled branches and bright flowers. The taller trees were few and far between, a mix of species such as rough-barked manna gum and saw banksia sprawled across the landscape. Closer to the coast, the nutrient-poor soil won out, and the trees are replaced with thick shrublands full of coast wattle, seaberry saltbrush, and spear grasses. These reached down as far as they could into the sand dunes. Beaconsfield Parade and the Bay Trail, areas now busy with cars, skaters and sun-bathers, were once a mess of sharp, prickly shrub and heath.

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like? Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like? Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Albert and Middle Parks are similarly transformed, streets now lined with old Victorian architecture and large, non-native trees. When you come across Albert Park Lake, lush grass sweeps the ground, perfect to picnic on. Pre-colonisation, the coastal regions of these areas were similar to the environment seen in Port Melbourne, but at Richardson Street, the dense shrubbery lessened. Small plant species such as small poranthera, ivy-leaf violet, and weeping grass were scattered across the exposed ground. In spring and summer, the flowers and grasses popped in bright reds, pinks, whites and yellows. In the centre of Middle Park, extending from Boyd Street to West Beach Road, was a band of brackish wetland, which also surrounded what we now know as the Albert Park Lake.  These areas were poorly drained, full of salty soils that prevented taller plants from growing. Low-lying herbs and grasses such as the common reed, streaked arrowgrass and creeping monkey flower poked through the parts of the ground that were slightly more habitable than the rest.

In South Melbourne, starting along what we now call Nelson Road, the soil became more fertile, and grassy woodland took hold. Here, trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses and ferns were found in almost equal prevalence, each of the forest layers clearly represented by species such as common Heath, honey-pots, kidney-weed, and common apple-berry. Drooping sheoaks and species of eucalyptus emerged sporadically from the landscape. This place was bustling with a diversity of plant life in intense competition for resources. It was a different sort of intensity when compared to the bustling South Melbourne Market of today, but for the plants that lived here, it would have been a constant struggle for access to nutrients and sun.

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.  Image: http://ianluntecology.com/

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.  Image: http://ianluntecology.com/

St Kilda, a favourite evening haunt of Melbourne, has become a hub of trams, restaurants and bars. Two hundred years ago, we would see grassy woodlands stretching out across the majority of the area. Acland Street, full of quirky stores and cafés, would have been an undulating plain of trees and grasses. Gippsland red gum and river red gum were common, with the dense shrubbery surrounding the coastline thinning out into tufted grasses such as kangaroo grass and common bog-sedge. Between St Kilda and Elwood, there was a band of sedgy, swampy woodland, dominated by herbs and grasses that could withstand occasional waterlogging. What we now call Marine Parade was surrounded by a thick scrub of low trees, such as woolly tea-tree and swamp paperbark, the shrubs so thick the ground rarely saw light.

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after. Images: Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after. Images: Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

Walking along the Bay Trail now, it is hard to imagine that once upon a time, sightings of wallabies, wombats, and native mice and possums wouldn’t have been uncommon. Birds of all shapes and sizes, from rosellas to fairy-wrens to New Holland honeyeaters, would have been seen flitting around the area. Now, the most common animals that dominate the City of Port Phillip are cats and dogs.

It seems, at a glance that our human-made environment has pushed out all that once lived here – but walking along the trail and looking up into the palm trees, it’s possible to make out nesting rosellas and roosting parrots. If you look out into the water surrounding Princes Pier, native water rats can be found swimming through the shallows. Native bushland is being restored along the coast, to protect our beaches from erosion.

It is not as it once was, but parts of once-wild Melbourne can still be found, if you know where to look.