Australia: Flower power

By Liz Light

In spring, Western Australia’s wildflowers are legendary. Liz Light gets close to hundreds of beautiful botanical miracles

Pink wildflowers. Photo / Liz Light
Pink wildflowers. Photo / Liz Light

My friend Michael has a large comfortable Mercedes with a full tank of gas and he loves driving. It's late September, smack in the middle of the wildflower season and I'm keen to witness this annual phenomenon about which I have read many rave reviews.

With Michael as guide, we leave Perth and head northwest and are barely out of the city, in the lifestyle-block zone, when I see fields of cornflower blue, my first wildflowers, which I later find out are in the lobelia family. They're pretty but tricky wee things. They close up as soon as the sun goes behind a cloud creating a boring field of green and, so far, patches of sun are few.

Toodyay, a heritage town of brick and corrugated iron, nudges the Avon River. The historic buildings and river walks could be interesting but we are on a wildflower mission and, after a quick coffee stop, we move on. The waitress says the flowers are better north of here so we head to New Nortica, 70km away.

It's pretty country with fields of gently rolling winter wheat, streams and roadsides edged with giant eucalyptus in which flocks of pink parrots squabble.

But there are few wildflowers.

New Nortica is a one-horse town with a hundred monks. It's a Benedictine monastic community, a slice of Spain in the Australian bush. We have no time for prayers in the monastery chapel or mass in the abbey church or even for spiritual direction, which is available on request, but we do get directions to the wildflowers.

Local knowledge is a wonderful thing. The back roads to Moora are lined with flowers, almost from the tarmac edge to the farm fences, and they are in full, glorious, spring bloom. I expected swathes of the same species but find kangaroos paw next to cowslip orchids, brown and gold flowers in the pea family creeping up banksias and bright daises next to big buttercups.

While Michael reads the paper in the car I'm in flower heaven. I ignore spiders, ants and other potential crawling hazards and kneel on the damp ground, getting close to many different blooms with my macro lens.

At times like this I particularly love photography. It forces me to notice the beauty of these sometimes small flowers and their overlooked details; black hairy buds of the kangaroo paw, throats of orchids with animal-like tongues and teeth and fine folds in the petals of a lilac hibiscus flower. I'm awed by the diversity, delicacy and beauty of these spring miracles.

North of Moora we stop at the Western Wildflower Farm. Ronda Tonkin started picking and drying wildflowers in 1975 on the 7000ha sheep and wheat farm her family owns.

She had been a schoolteacher and, when her babies came along, wildflowers seemed like a business that she could fit in with motherhood. Now, 1600ha of the farm are set aside specifically for flowers and Ronda employs dozens of people, picking and helping her with the drying and packing, and sells containers of dried flowers to Japan, United States and Europe.

The drying shed is full with row upon row of pink and white everlasting daisies and various varieties of banksias hanging head down in bunches. There are, says Ronda, wild flowers all year though they are most profuse in late September and October.

Western Wildflower Farm has 4000 species on its price list and there are thousands more that aren't suited to drying.

The website of the Wildflower Society of Western Australia says there are 9437 plant species in Western Australia, from 1543 genera and 226 families.

It explains that this enormous biodiversity has evolved because Western Australia has been a stable platform since before the origin of flowering plants and evolution hasn't been interfered with by volcanism or glaciation.

Also, it's a huge land area and offers plants an extraordinary variety of soils and climates. The Fitzgerald River valley, alone, has more plant species than the United Kingdom.

Ronda tells us that to see vast expanses of wildflowers we need to go further west, away from the intense farming of this area or to the Badgingarra National Park where there was a big bush fire a couple of years ago. Apparently, flowers flourish after a burn. But, unfortunately, it's already the middle of the afternoon, we are 230km from Perth and it's time to head home.

Michael drives home via sneaky back roads - he says he has a hunch - and in doing so we find some of the swathes of wildflowers I had been hoping to see.

Fields of pink and white everlasting daisies form a carpet from the road to distant trees and to, top it off, when I get out of the car, three kangaroos hop away. All I need now is a flock of pink parrots to fly into this magnificent picture.


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