Not As We Know It: Down Frankston Way

Just as so many native trees, shrubs, birds and mammals love the sea air, we humans are particularly fond of it too. Unfortunately, this means that if you’re a coastal habitat, you’re almost destined to be disturbed, dug up or built on. When Europeans arrived in Victoria, they were particularly destructive, and from Brighton to Beaumaris, through to Aspendale and Frankston, the native coastal habitat was etched away, replaced with roads, shopping centres, coffee shops, impressive houses, and a particularly pretty bike route along the coast. When I find time to head to the Mornington Peninsula, I always make my way down along the coast, sweeping along the road and taking in the ocean views. While there’s some coastal scrub hanging on along the coastline, it’s only a glimmer of what would have been almost 300 years ago, before Europeans arrived.

Around Brighton and through to Beaumaris, the gentle slopes opened the area up to grassy and herb-rich woodlands. In some areas, the sandy soils became more infertile, with sedges and shrubs such as common heath and prickly tea-tree dominating the area. Where the soil had a few more nutrients, eucalyptus and sheoak species were able to grow, and were subsequently scattered through the landscape. There was a thick understory of species such as tall sundew, weeping grass and cranberry heath surrounding them. While you’re much more likely to see trendy dog breeds like French bulldogs and spaniels bounding through the area now, hundreds of years ago kangaroo and wallaby would have bounded around instead. The red-bellied pademelon, now restricted to Tasmania, would also have been prevalent. Hundreds of years ago, they were free from the predation of foxes and the habitat destruction that later wiped them out on the mainland, and they happily roamed around Port Phillip Bay.

This beautiful grassy woodland habitat would have stretched out through to Bentleigh. Reaching up to ten metres high, species such as Jimmy’s shining peppermint and messmate stringybark would have sprouted up across the landscape. In some places, shrubs grew in thick, dense thickets, with swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree outcompeting most species. In the areas where light could pass through the thick shrubs, moss, lichen and liverwort tried their hand at survival, drinking up the sun and spreading through the understory. This interesting concoction of environments continued through Mordialloc, Parkdale and Braeside.

As well as the thicket of swamp scrub, herb-rich, heathy and grassy woodlands occurred in patches throughout the areas. Some river red gum, swamp gum, and rough-barked manna gum would have been scattered around, but generally speaking, it was the understory of grasses, reeds, and bracken that reigned supreme. The beautifully named stinking pennywort and variable stinkweed made up a good portion of the understory, along with the more endearingly named swamp billy-button and tiny water-milfoll.

From Aspendale through to Seaford, which have some of my favourite ocean views as you drive towards Frankston, the area was wetter than the surrounding habitats and as a result was mainly treeless. While some swamp gum may have popped up here and there, it was shrubs and grasses that loved this environment the most. White purslane and wattle mat-rush were widespread, bringing bursts of white and yellow into the green landscape. These grasses would have continued through to Carrum Downs, with kangaroo grass and reed bent-grass sweeping through the area, until swampy riparian woodland emerged around Lyndhurst, snaking through parts of Carrum Downs, Cranbourne, and Dandenong South. Swamp paperbark, blackwood and woolly tea-tree made up the majority of the habitat. Birds would have loved this environment, with the flowers of the swamp paperbark beautifully fragrant to our native species. Native butterflies such as the imperial hairstreak and tailed emperor love blackwood, as it is a host plant for their larvae until they become adults. 

In Frankston, heathy woodland began to emerge again. Eucalypts reached up to ten metres tall, shrubs such as the common heath, prickly tea-tree, and prickly broom-heath dominating the understory. The bright colours of the flowers of common heath, combined with the beautiful soft whites of the prickly species, would have made a wonderful sight. No doubt honeyeaters and native bees could have been heard throughout the area, happily pollinating our shrubs and heath. Moving through to Mount Eliza, we once again meet grassy woodland, with sheoaks and eucalypts emerging and kangaroo grass and wattle mat-rush sprouting up in the understory. Lovely natives such as feathertail gliders, echidnas, and bandicoots would have made themselves at home between the trees and shrubs, gobbling up beetles, ants and other crawling creatures.

On the drive along the coast from Brighton to Frankston, it’s difficult to imagine the diversity that would have once been. It’s particularly difficult in Frankston, which is now almost a city in its own right. A train station, shopping centre, movie theatre, and many delicious fish and chip shops now stand where trees, shrubs, animals, and birds used to be abundant. But nature is resilient in the strangest of ways, and native shorebirds such as pelicans, gulls and cormorants can still be seen on the beaches throughout the bay. Ringtails have managed to survive despite the presence of cats and foxes. Rosellas, cockatoos, and even birds of prey like falcons aren’t unfamiliar sights, soaring above our suburbs, searching for places to roost and feed. In the last few years there has been an increase in planting along the coast of Port Philip, to stabilise our beaches and help to conserve our native species. While too late for our once wide-spread pademelon, it may be enough to help birds and other mammals increase in number. Maybe one day we will even be able to get a glimpse of what it would have been like all those years ago. 

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Not as we know it: Along the Maribyrnong

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

Brimbank Park is only 15 kilometres out of Melbourne city, and yet, embarrassingly, I hadn’t bothered to make the trip up there until about two weeks ago. It’s full of a wonderful range of native plants and wildlife, and even though it’s quite close to the hugely developed Melbourne Airport, it feels like it’s hundreds of miles away. It’s a welcome escape from the residential areas I’ve become so accustomed to. Visiting parks like Brimbank always make me wistful. I’m struck by an awareness that once, everything would have looked like this - minus the picnic spots and water fountains, of course. The north-western suburbs of Melbourne have seen rapid increases in development in the last few years. From Yarraville to Footscray, and stretching out past Keilor, both residential and industrial developments have transformed the suburbs significantly in the last 50 years. It’s almost impossible to fathom the changes made to these areas over the last 300 years, before airports, roads, pavement or farmland.

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Prior to European colonisation, Maribyrnong River and the surrounding areas were an expanse of trees, shrubs, and grassy plains. Up the northern area of the river, which now runs through Keilor and up alongside what we now know as Melbourne International Airport, the river was surrounded by fertile, rich scrubland. Narrow-leaf peppermint would have arched over the water, reaching up to 15 metres tall. Kidney-weed, hairy panic and wingless bluebush would have been common, most of the soil covered by these low-lying species, with only a few larger shrubs and medium-sized trees poking up between the competitive grasses. Away from the river, the trees died back, replaced by a sweeping grassland that occurred across Keilor and Tullamarine, stretching down as far as Essendon North. Grasses such as kangaroo grass, mat grass and kidney-weed would have swept across the area, providing vital habitats for native species, in particular invertebrates. Melbourne’s International Airport, now paved and developed into a hub of transport, was once an expanse of grassy plains, home to some of the 140 species of butterfly found in Victoria, such as the orchard swallowtail and grassland copper.

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

Closer to what we now call the suburb of Maribyrnong, the habitats surrounding the river shifted to riparian woodland. Here river red gum, manna gum and Gippsland red Gum towered up to 20 metres alongside the water, herbs and shrubs making up the understory as the river swept around bends.

Quickly, though, the salty waters of the Maribrynong River would have taken hold, and these great trees would have died back. Even today the river is flushed with salty water from coastal swells, though you wouldn’t realise it when you look at the lush grass along Flemington Racecourse. 300 years ago, these swells affected the habitats as well, sending salt through the soils surrounding the river. The only plants that prospered were ones that were adapted to the salty waters, predominantly low-lying species such as variable willow-herb, creeping brookweed, white sebaea, and Australian salt-grass. Almost no trees would have been found in these areas, the salty soils keeping them at bay. 

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the Maribyrnong River Trail is one of the most scenic in Melbourne. Scattered with parks and picnic areas, it meanders into Melbourne city much like the river itself, lazily looping around suburbs and landmarks. It is particularly popular on weekends, with dog-walkers, families, and fitness enthusiasts making their way along the pathway at their own pace. Though the surrounding areas of Maribyrnong, Footscray, Yarraville, Ascot Vale, Keilor, Flemington, and Kensington have seen much development in recent years, the winding nature of the river has helped shape these suburbs into what we see today. 

Not As We Know It: Melbourne City

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

If you find some spare time in these last few weeks of warmth, I highly recommend getting up early, heading into the city, and standing along Southbank to watch the sunrise. It’s one of my favourite views in the entire world. I love watching as Flinders Street Station bursts bright orange in the growing light, the skyline of the city perfectly reflected in the Yarra’s murky waters. There are almost always hot air balloons, it is almost always quiet, and (most importantly) it almost always smells of fresh doughnuts and coffee.  

Now a hub of expensive restaurants, hotels and boutiques, Southbank was once a riverbank, a mess of swampy scrubland that stretched on either side of the river from Boathouse Drive to the end of North Wharf Road. The soil along the Yarra was rich with nutrients, despite being often sodden due to poor drainage and frequent flooding. Swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree dominated the area, making up about half of the canopy, with the understory a mix of grasses and shrubs such as common reed, soft twig-rush, and gristle fern. Parrots, possums, and bats would have found homes within the aged, hollowed trees scattered through the area. Though the smell of coffee and doughnuts is inviting, the scent of eucalyptus and damp soil would have been just as relaxing to come across in the early hours of the morning.

Just above North Wharf Road, moving into Docklands, the environment transformed from scrubland into a brackish grassland, with not a single tree in sight. The area was dominated by grasses such as chaffy saw-sedge, blue tussock-grass, and Australian salt-grass. The largest plant popping up among the grasses was the annual fireweed, and even that was very uncommon. Though now this area is often flooded with sports fans visiting Etihad Stadium, in the 1750s it was not uncommon to find it flooded by water, the soil almost always water-logged. The low-lying area we now know as the Docklands was then close to a large salt lake, which was located along what is now Footscray Road. This lake, and its surrounding saltmarshes, leeched salt into the soils, limiting the growth of trees and waterlogging the soils around the Docklands.

The scenery changed moving from Docklands into the CBD. Trees began to emerge on the landscape, narrow-leaf peppermint and drooping sheoak dotted across the expanse of grasses such as tall sundew and variable sword-sedge. The soil of this area was often waterlogged, likely due to the frequent flooding of the Yarra River. This extended from Village Street to Queen Street and up to North Melbourne, encompassing what is now the Queen Victoria Market. Now hustling and bustling with stalls, buskers and coffee shops, it was once an expanse of grassland dotted with eucalyptus trees that stretched up to fifteen metres in height. This area would also have been full of a range of mammals and marsupials: the eastern-barred bandicoot, all but extinct on mainland Australia now, would likely have found a home in these grassy woodlands.  

Crossing what we now call Queen Street, the trees became sparser, including species such as river red gum and swamp gum. A few bushes and shrubs would have been scattered across the grassy landscape, species such as black wattle, golden wattle and tree everlasting poking out among the tussock grasses and sedge. In periods of high rainfall, it’s likely that this area would have been transformed into an almost-wetland: a series of interconnected pools of water providing habitats for various wildlife, such as birds and amphibians.  

At Spencer Street, the environment transitioned into a drier system. Where the Town Hall and Flinders Street now stand, the landscape was significantly flatter 300 years ago. Trees and shrubs were rare. Of the few that were in the area, Gippsland red-gum would have been the most prominent, with blackwood and burgan making up the understory. This landscape was dominated by grasses and herbs, with species such as veined spear-grass, wattle mat-rush, kangaroo grass and kidney-weed covering the ground and sweeping throughout the city and across to the suburbs of North Melbourne, Collingwood, Richmond, and Fitzroy. Skinks and snakes would have found their way easily throughout the grassy landscape, catching rays of sun in the patches of soil left bare by the abundant grasses.

Is this what the entirety of the Yarra River originally looked like? Photo: Glenn Guy

Is this what the entirety of the Yarra River originally looked like? Photo: Glenn Guy

It is difficult to imagine the Yarra as it was before European colonisation, with banks of sloping soil instead of hardened cement walls. It is perhaps even harder to imagine the city without the distinctive Flinders Street Station, the Bourke Street Mall, Etihad Stadium and the famous Queen Victoria Market. Try to imagine the sweeping grasslands that covered the city as you walk down Bourke Street, or when you take the tram along Collins Street. Instead of coffee, there was eucalyptus; instead of the sound of trams, there was birdsong and wind rustling the grasses. I love the view of Flinders Street in the mornings, but a few hundred years ago, this very different landscape would have been beautiful to see as well.