A Fiery Season

This is a guest piece by Bruna Costa.

Autumn in Melbourne, the season to rug up, stroll across damp grasslands and wade through brilliantly tinted leaves and breathe in the cool, crisp air. It’s a time to sit by a wood fire and watch flames curl around glowing logs. And it’s the season when we ogle our neighbours’ persimmons ripening on their fiery tree, or their pomegranates, bursting with juicy, red seeds. 

It’s also the time when we wait for that phone call or text message.

‘The chestnuts are ready.’

The date is set for when we head for the hills equipped with gum boots, leather garden gloves, and loads of buckets and bags. Chestnut day encompasses all the magic that is autumn in the hills of eastern Victoria.

For one group of harvesters, the destination is Gembrook where morning fog, like a veil, obscures the rising sun and becomes trapped in the valleys, its whiteness a contrast to the display of autumnal colours on deciduous trees.

Pickers bring plates, fill the kitchen table with delicious home cooked foods, cheeses and wines, not to mention the sumptuous desserts waiting to be devoured. But before anyone tucks in, they must first pick chestnuts.

Young children, teenagers, parents and grandparents parade down the steep hill to where the chestnut trees line the paddock.


Trees bearing the best flavoured chestnuts are where to begin.

There are as many burrs on the ground as those clinging to tree branches, but it’s the fallen ones that bear ripened nuts ready for the picking. Burrs split open revealing three chestnuts snuggling within the spikes; in some instances, the nuts spill out onto the ground. Children are encouraged to collect the ripe nuts scattered loosely amongst the leaf litter.

The procedure for collecting chestnuts is to split the outer shell open by running your boot over the prickly burrs. Alternatively, a good pair of garden gloves will help to pull the casing apart to reveal its contents. The best of the three nuts are chosen, and sometimes, all three nuts are worth collecting.   

The umbrella-like shape of the trees, with limbs hanging low, touching the ground, encompasses family, friends and newcomers that gather beneath their limbs. The closeness inspires light-hearted conversation. Voices rise up through the branches and drift uphill aschestnuts are rhythmically tossed into receptacles. Everyone is encouraged to pocket the largest chestnut for a weigh-in at the end of the harvest.    

After a morning of foraging, the workers arch and stretch their stiffened backs before trudging back up the steep hillside towards the homestead. The help of a small tractor to transport the laden bags and buckets up to the shed is welcoming.

Everyone shares a hearty lunch, and then they gather for the weigh-in. A small set of brass scales is placed on the table on the decking, its weighing plates each barely big enough to carry one large chestnut. Excitement fills the air as everyone jostles for a position around the table. Children are first to test their prized chestnut, while the adults wait their turn. The bearers of the largest fruits receive a packet of lollies and their names are written on a trophy. All good fun.

Then it’s time to test the fruits of the day’s labour. An old frying pan with holes poked through its base is filled with chestnuts, their brown skins already split with a sharp knife. The frypan is placed on the open fire and the chestnuts are left to cook until the skins are blackened and the insides are soft and aromatic. They are wrapped in an old towel and allowed to sweat for a while. Everyone digs in, peeling back the two layers of skin to reveal warm, softened flesh.

In late afternoon, the panorama that is Gembrook is a view worthy of the drive. The sun’s rays penetrate amassing clouds and the colours in the sky compliment the fiery red maple leaves. It marks the end of a rewarding day.

The pickings are distributed and everyone leaves with quantities of chestnuts for themselves and to be shared with friends back home where they make a suitable exchange for the neighbours’ ripening persimmons and splitting pomegranates.

Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

The Life Aquatic

It’s often said we know more about space than our own oceans. Whilst this fact may be debatable, one thing is for certain: we have explored very little of the oceans’ depths and the wondrous mysteries they hold. Just like space exploration itself, only a handful of people have ever ventured to the deepest depths of the ocean – a cold world devoid of light yet teeming with some of the strangest, alien-like life forms on earth!

Let’s for a moment pretend you’re an aquanaut, a bold explorer of the oceans in much the same way an astronaut explores the dark reaches of space. You’ve been assigned a mission to explore the marine world in its entirety, beginning from the shorelines whipped by winds and lashed by waves, through the sun-kissed shallows and upper reaches of the open ocean and finally, deep down into the dark, unknown abyss. To prepare you for this incredible voyage, you’re going to need to do a little bit of research. You’ll need to know what environmental conditions you might face, what creatures you’ll encounter (maybe even discover!), and where exactly you might find them should you wish to seek them.

The day your mission begins is drawing close and final preparations are wrapping up. You’ve just experienced a tiring day of physical assessments and you decide to head back to your cabin form some much-needed rest. Upon returning, you notice a book has been left on your bedside table, The Marine World: A Natural History of Ocean Life. The cover shows a ghost-like jellyfish illuminating itself in a glow of neon blue and pink – no doubt, a sign of the strange new world you’re yet to see. Propping yourself up in bed, you open the cover and browse its contents.

Nicely encapsulated in three main sections, you find everything you need to know about the marine world. In the first part, you learn of the ocean’s physical and chemical properties, such as the tides, varying salinity, and changing pressures at great depths. Flicking through the second section, you’re introduced to the ‘living’ ocean and to concepts like food webs, habitat zonation and the various adaptations life has evolved to deal with a variety of challenging conditions. Finally, you reach the last part where the majority of known marine phyla (large groups of life classified by scientists) are catalogued. In this last section, you discover the sheer array of life forms ranging from the microscopic protozoa to the open ocean-cruising whales.

Each page you read contains amazing fact after amazing fact, complemented by beautifully detailed line drawings, illustrations and colour photographs. The language is simple, clear and free of any unnecessary jargon and, despite your fatigued body and mind, it is by no means a chore to read. You’re drawn in more and more, and with each page you find yourself repeatedly going ‘Ah-ha!’ as you begin to understand the complexity of the marine world - the flows of major oceanic currents, nutrient upwellings supporting entire ecosystems, and even how the Antarctic yeti crab (Kiwa tyleri) ‘grows’ its own food at freezing-cold depths! The tapestry of marine life unravels before your eyes and you can clearly see how each life form is intrinsically linked to another, just as each differently coloured brush stroke is woven into a single masterpiece.

Yeti crab (Kiwa sp.). Attached to the hairs (setae) of the crab are filamentous bacteria which are believed to be ’farmed’ by the crab as food. Image:   David Shale, Nature Picture Library.

Yeti crab (Kiwa sp.). Attached to the hairs (setae) of the crab are filamentous bacteria which are believed to be ’farmed’ by the crab as food. Image: David Shale, Nature Picture Library.

Amidst the revelations of each organism’s life history, unique adaptations in form and function, and quirky behaviour, you notice a repeating element. It startles you at first and as you progress through each class of organism it becomes increasingly sobering. It’s a small paragraph at the end of nearly each section titled ‘Uses, Threats, Status and Management’. It dawns upon you that our actions throughout history, particularly in just the last couple of centuries, are threatening life in the oceans. Yet, hinted at in the title is the fact that with greater knowledge and compassion, we can make positive change through ‘managing’ our actions. This buoys you with hope. It is a poignant reminder as to why you signed up for this adventure – to unravel the ocean’s secrets and share its beauty with the world, lest it be lost forever.

Your eyes are heavy now and your body is aching. You slowly close the cover, rest the book down, and your eyes close. You hear the gentle roll of waves, the caw of seagulls and begin to dream of the adventure of a lifetime.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you have even the slightest bit of curiosity about life on Earth and what secrets our oceans hold.

Banner image by Evatt Chirgwin.

Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

A Walk in the Wild

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa

The Goulburn Valley Highway weaves northbound through central Victoria, and on approaching the town of Nagambie, a side street turns left and proceeds along the concrete bridge built to replace the collapsing historical Chinaman’s Bridge. It spans across the Goulburn River that flows down the length of Gilgai Stud Farm, home of Black Caviar, its white picket fence defining the entrance. Bordered by open pastures, the asphalt road meanders past lucerne fields and wheat crops, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle that graze on sun-drenched paddocks. Further on, the road merges onto a dusty gravel thoroughfare riddled with ruts and potholes, and continues through the State Forest of yellow box, Chinese bush and pepper trees. Mullock hills dot the forest along the way, as do the sparse, abandoned weatherboard houses and their rusting corrugated tin sheds.

The graded road leads to a gate painted silver and chained to a post leaning towards the pull of old rusted wires of a dilapidated fence. Box-ironbark and more Chinese bush, wattle, prickly grevilleas and parrot-pea shrubs grace a large part of the property.

A family of superb fairy-wrens forage in the grasses and low-lying shrubs for seeds: enough to share with the red-capped and hooded robins. Although the invasive Chinese bush, otherwise known as the Sifton bush, is an introduced plant, it does provide an abundance of seeds for small bird species, and an ideal shelter from weather conditions and predators.

Mobs of eastern grey kangaroos and the solitary brown wallaby emerge from the forest in late afternoon to scratch for roots in the barren soil baked dry by a hot sun. In marked contrast, the gravel mounds of industrious meat-eating ants nests ensure a stable, moderate temperature in their incubating tunnels beneath the surface. If ever a heroic invertebrate, say the centipede or a roaming beetle, crosses their territory, the ants go into a feeding frenzy and summon others from below ground to help dissect the invasive creatures. However, the voracious echidna has no fear of meat-eaters. It ploughs into the ant nest and consumes all it wants. And perhaps the elusive bearded dragon and stumpy-tailed lizard basking near the grey tree stumps may also partake in such a feast.

High above the stratus clouds, the wedge-tailed eagle searches for large prey, unperturbed by screeching sulphur-crested cockatoos that broadcast their messages across the plains or the pied currawongs that carol for rain. Red wattlebirds share the higher reaches of the forest with the noisy friarbirds as they seek respite from the midday heat.

Thirsty honey bees queue along a wooden plank, of which one end reaches the dregs of water in a bathtub, their need to taste the dwindling liquid as urgent as that of the yellow-tufted honeyeaters, willy wagtails and eastern rosellas that side-step along the same plank to take a decidedly necessary sip.

Leaving its mark on a eucalyptus branch, the elusive mistletoe bird ensures the future growth of red berries in the mistletoe itself. All the while, the mini willy-willy picks up dust and tosses it over grasshoppers that seek refuge in the sandstone rocks exposed by a lack of vegetation.

Come winter, swift parrots and rainbow lorikeets prune fresh tips from box-ironbark, leaving a smattering of eucalyptus blossom over composted foliage on the ground. Together, cream flowers and green moss create a natural patchwork on a moistened surface. A smattering of rocks covered in lichen complete an alluring picture.

In the clearing, welcome swallows engage in energetic flight. Skimming the ground, they rise up into the sky until the noisy miner expels its warning call to those in earshot. The peregrine falcon is on the hunt. It shoots across the plain, its keen eye fixed on movement amongst the leaves of an aged manna gum. The bird of prey soars from the tree, grasping its catch in sharp talons and disappearing into the distant canopy of eucalypts. White-winged choughs plane aimlessly through the sky while magpies parade along the ground and ignore the rhythmic call of the bronzewing that echoes through the undergrowth .

The brown snake slithers into hibernation unnoticed.

Spring arrives and sprays of wattle burst from branches after the constant rainfalls. Strong-scented blooms drive a native bee into a state of euphoria as it buries into the fluffy substance and draws nectar from the golden flurry.

Spring also exposes the spotted pardalotes as they prepare their nests in hollowed ground. And thornbills, warblers and tree-creepers pick out sap-sucking insects on stringy bark and grey box tree trunks. Willy wagtails fill the air with their chatter, performing a song and dance to draw attention away from their nest built on an unused bucket in the outhouse. The nest is cleverly stitched together with silk threads from a borrowed cobweb and is brimming with chicks. And while the lone golden whistler, perched high on a limb, calls for a mate, the crimson rosella emits a soulful note when all else is quiet in the bush.

Notably still is the red-bellied black snake as it basks in the warm sun beside the overflow of the dam, lying in wait for the pobblebonk and other frogs that trumpet their intentions to females in the rain-soaked flats.

The Sifton bush, in its dying stages, purges its last signs of life by exuding an attractive orange fungus - a striking contrast to the mauve native orchids that emerge from rhizomes buried underground; a splash of colour against an otherwise tired and dreary vegetation.  Or is it?

Carnivorous Victorian Drosera stand like sentinels, their insatiable urge being to lure hungry insects into their gaping traps. But in a field of thousands and with constant rain depleting their supply of invertebrates, few will achieve digestive satisfaction in such a competitive environment. Seemingly insignificant are the native flora speckled across the soggy planes in shades of burgundy and white; a welcoming phenomenon in a flooded plain.

Fields of golden daisies, considered weeds, stretch as far as the horizon. And most remarkable of all, the hieroglyphics created by tiny termites on fallen logs, soon to become obsolete with their total disintegration while new growth sprouts alongside the breakdown of bark, timber and seeds.

This is where humans go to reconnect with all that is wonderful on our planet Earth.

All photos by Bruna Costa.

Sundews: Jewels of the Forest

This is a guest post by Mackenzie Kwak. 

Few Melbournians out on a spring stroll through the forest would notice, let alone recognise the humble sundews growing beneath their feet. Sundews are diminutive plants, with the largest species rarely attaining a height much above your knee and the smallest growing no larger than a five-cent piece. Yet, they are some of the most spectacular and beautiful flora to call Melbourne home.

This time of year, as the chilly winds of winter give way to the warm scented breezes of spring, sundews begin their annual cycle of feeding and flowering. They are some of the few plants growing in our forests which can proudly claim the title of being carnivorous. They have developed the ability to attract, snare and digest little animals to sustain their growth. The capacity to feed on animals has allowed sundews, or the genus Drosera as botanists know them, to spread across the globe and fascinate those who have taken the time to notice them. The famous naturalist Charles Darwin was so enraptured with these plants that he once said ‘I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world’.

The sundews are a massive genus of plants containing almost 200 species worldwide, with new members being regularly discovered. They can be found from the icy peat bogs of the Arctic to streamy jungles of Southeast Asia and even the bone dry deserts of central Australia. However, Australia is the global ‘hot-spot’ for sundews and it is believed that the genus first evolved here. Today, more than 100 species can be found across our nation. While Western Australia has the vast majority of species, Victoria has 11. These are a diverse group which can be found growing across the state, from costal swamps to dry forests to alpine bogs. This diversity of habitats has resulted in a great range of varieties, such as tall-climbing forms and small, rosette-forming species.

Due to the diverse array of species and the habitats that they occupy in Victoria, our sundews have developed a complex assortment of life cycles. The most common life cycle is that of the tuberous sundews. These are species most commonly found in dry forest and arid areas, which are dry and hot in the summer and damp in the winter. The tuberous sundews lie dormant in a small tuber a few centimetres below the soil surface during the hot summer to avoid fire and desiccation from the heat. From early winter to spring, they burst forth from the earth and enjoy the wet season when the temperature is mild, the insects plentiful and the soil perpetually moist. Another similar group represented only by Drosera glanduligera in Victoria is the annuals sundews, which grow at the same time as the tuberous species. However, instead of retreating into their tuber in the hot summer, they instead survive as seeds. The final group of Victorian sundews are those that lay dormant in the winter and emerge in the warm summer. Some species, such as Drosera binate and Drosera spatulata occupy swamps and bogs which often remain wet thorough the summer, allowing them to survive the high temperatures. However, the alpine sundew Drosera arcturi lives in this way because its habitat is inundated by deep snow in the winter, meaning summer is the only period when temperatures are high enough to allow the plants to grow and flower.

Complex behaviour is not the only interesting feature of the sundew though. Nestled amongst the leaves of some of the native species growing around Melbourne lurk tiny, six-legged robbers. Much like the relationship between anemones and clown fish in the sea, sundews have their own little symbiotic associates: sundew bugs of the genus Setocoris. Sundew bugs are beautifully coloured animals, with the species commonly found around Melbourne commonly adorned with a rainbow of different shades. Despite their vivid appearance though, they are no larger than a pea. The relationship between the insect and the plant is believed to be somewhat more sinister than that of the anemones and clown fish. The sundew bug not only uses the plant for shelter, but also steels its prey. Although outwardly this may appear detrimental to the plant, some researchers believe that the plant derives nutrients from the faeces of the bug, which digests the prey and leaves nutrient-rich waste on the leaves for the plant to use.

Perhaps now you have your heart set on going out and searching for these fascinating little plants (and their insect associated) for yourself. Please remember though, that plants in reserves, state and national parks are protected and cannot be collected. Plants collected in the wild also rarely survive transplant. However, some suppliers and nurseries around Melbourne specialise in carnivorous plants, including native sundews. These can be inexpensive and transform into spectacular pot plants growing on a sunny porch, provided they are kept permanently damp. Sundews can be rewarding plants to grow and will flourish once you get the conditions right.

For more information, visit the website of the Victorian Carnivorous Plant Society.  

Those looking to grow these remarkable plants should visit Collectors Corner or contact the Triffid Park Nursery.