Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The “Toowoomba Tree”

Euroschinus falcatus
Common names of plants are revealing, and old common names even more so. In our book-learned, TV-educated, and internet-aware society we are often more familiar with the great outdoors as seen through the eyes (and the cameras) of others from elsewhere than from our own experiences in our own environment.
So we of Toowoomba have, for the most part, forgotten that this magnificent tree was once so characteristic of our town that it was known as the “Toowoomba Tree”.
Holding hands around the trunk of this lovely specimen is an activity that would require four adults!
The tree pictured below is considerably smaller - perhaps half the size. It may be familiar to many of you, who drive past it on the highway from Highfields to Toowoomba.
Nowadays, of course, the characteristic big tree of the city is the camphor laurel.
One of our ex-councillors told me, when we were discussing environmental matters, we couldn’t possibly get rid of them as they “give Toowoomba its character”. That, in this new age of environmental awareness, the character in question is considered by many to be a bad one, is a bit of an embarrassment, but there are still plenty of Toowoomba residents who are prepared to defend the camphor laurels and support a municipal policy of continuing to plant them in “heritage” areas of the city.
What a pity that our city fathers, back in the nineteenth century, did not recognise that Toowoomba already had a far older heritage of magnificent trees.
It’s a curious thing, this “heritage” concept. Nobody’s heritage is entirely benign. Ours contains, for instance, a sorry record of aboriginal massacres. The fact that this is a “heritage” activity does not justify its continuation! The same could be said of our gardening heritage. Where it does no harm, its perpetuation is a fine thing. Where it is in conflict with our environmental heritage, the same does not apply.
“Toowoomba trees” are more commonly known nowadays - by those who know them at all - as “ribbonwoods”. Few old ones remain here, and new ones are rarely planted.
Yet they are an obviously good choice for parks, school grounds, acreage residential blocks, and anywhere where large, shady trees with no bad habits are wanted.
They are very fast growing on our red soil. They need absolutely no watering after their first month or two even through the kind of drought we have had over the last four years. They are happy in full sun or shade, and cope well with exposure to wind.
They are, however, vulnerable to heavy frost when young. For certain success they need protection through their first two or three winters.
I would love to see a programme of gradual replacement of Toowoomba’s camphor laurels with ribbonwoods. They would complement our heritage buildings and older parts of town in very much the same fashion as camphor laurels. Newer parts would quickly acquire the dense green canopy that does indeed give old Toowoomba its special character. We would no longer have to hang our heads in shame when our friends, relations, and busloads of tourists come to visit and make scathing remarks about our rustic, head-in-the-sand attitude to environmental weeds.
And we could be proud of recognising that the making of “heritage” is an ongoing thing. What more appropriate way of building future heritage, than by restoring our past one, our heritage of “Toowoomba trees”?


Jeff said...

Hi Patricia

I have to agree. We must keep these trees. It is just a pity that some of them have had their hearts cut out for power lines.

The reason I love living here is the character of the older areas. It gives you that sense of history and belonging, and a sort of security.

The newer areas to me are bland and without character. It takes years for this to develop and a few short minutes to destroy.

Let's just hope we don't get anyone in a position that decides the new direction is to get rid of the past and 'get modern'.


Sally said...

It depends what you regard as modern. I thought the move to growing plants local to our area was the modern and progressive way.

Mick said...

I find it hard to understand why anyone would plant a camphor laurel if they know about the damage they do to the bush. Its like knowingly and willingly vandalising Australia. Good on you Trish for advocating change and suggesting an excellent alternative.

I would be happy if the toowoomba council cut down every camphor tree in the town and replaced them with local natives. Red Cedar or Rhodosphaera would be other suitable alternatives. I am not a Toowoomba resident but everyone is affected when Toowoomba Council chooses to ignor environmental issues.

I suppose one of the advantages of the weedy cahphor laurels is the ease with which the are propogated. I have had no success with Euroshinus falcata but will keep trying as they are wonderful local plants in my area as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Trish. The Camphor Laurel is nothing more than an overgrown weed. They do nothing more than damage roads and footpaths with their root systems not to mention the damage they do by escaping out of suburbia and into natural bushland.
It is very short sighted of the Toowoomba Regional Council to still adopt the practice of retaining these trees when there are so many more suitable local natives which could easily take their place without destroying the character of Toowoomba but could in fact create a better image for Toowoomba. With so many local natives having such similar qualities to introduced species why shouldn't we see these plants grown instead.

Patricia Gardner said...

An anonymous writer send me this comment:
"I love the camphor laurels! They were planted for shade for the horses in Toowoomba's earlier days. They are very much a part of this city's history, planted by our ancestors and moaned about by the "younger generations". I would never hang my head in shame over a visitor's comments, but rather feel sorry that they can't appreciate their beauty and wonder at the history they've witnessed. If you are so ashamed of these beautiful trees that are older than your grandfather, why not direct your energies to the more shameful things that are recent additions to our city...put in place by this very generation."

I haven't printed your comment in full because you included a couple of words which attract the attention of the undesirables who trawl the internet looking for such words, and I'd rather my blog didn't do this.
Your view is one I can sympathise with, though I don't agree with it. It is obviously shared by many people. I used to love camphor laurels myself, until I became aware how much environmental damage they do. (Their seeds are carried far and wide by birds, and are very fast-growing. Their roots exude a substance which suppressed the growth of native members of the laurel family. In the long term, they are likely to exterminate around 40 species of equally beautiful native trees, in the wild.)
Incidentally, Toowoomba's camphor laurels were donated to the city in 1880 (and are therefore younger than my grandfather). They were donated by the Queensland naturalisation society. The naturalisation societies of the 19th century were committed to the concept of "improving" Australia's natural heritage, by introducing plants and animals which "naturalise" - i.e be able would be able to survive and reproduce in the wild. We owe such treasures as rabbits and Indian mynahs to their work.
And I do indeed value our history. I just don't think it only started in 1840.

Anonymous said...

I'm so worried about tree loss in Toowoomba especially since we lost the fight to protect hundreds of eucalypts and casuarinas at Garnet Lehmann Park. With trees being lost from our suburbs as block are being carved up to fit in more housing, it is more oimperative that we preserve our large native trees in parks, not only for our physical and mental health, but also very importantly for our fauna. TRC does not seem to find this important. I don't see much tree planting or replacement of note and now that Landcare has been largely defunded the future for us all seems grim. What can we do about this?

Patricia Gardner said...

Re Garnett Lehmann Park.
I must admit I'd rather you were prepared to sign your comment. This blog is very much my personal project, and most writers of comments understand this. Their comments are usually addressed to me and they usually sign them, even if only by a first name. Your comment is clearly addressed to my readers, rather than to me, and I am not really very happy for an anonymous writer to use my blog as a soapbox.
I do sympathise with your concerns, but with some quite considerable reservations, as you will see by the article I have written in response.