3 Jan 2020

Fires in Australia – a Great Glasshouse Perspective

Bruce Langridge

With fires raging across Australia, my colleague David Hardy told me how Templetonia retusa, now in full, fiery bloom, brings into focus for him the amazing beauty and awesome diversity of plants currently under threat on the other side of the world.

He’s right. Most of the plants in the Australian section of our Great Glasshouse are adapted to fire – it’s a natural feature of the continent.

But what makes the current fires so different is their scale and intensity.

Australia has never experienced fires and high temperatures across the whole country like this in living memory, not only in the highly populated areas of Victora and New South Wales but also in the southwest of Australia, its Meditteranean climate region, where our plants come from.

I hope this natural/unnatural disaster makes the Australian government take climate change seriously now after their appalling complacency at the UN Climate Change conference in Madrid last month.

Templetonia retusa, known as cockies tongues in its native southwest Australia, is flowering a couple of months earlier than usual in our Great Glasshouse. Speaking to our Great Glasshouse horticulturist Mathew Bryant, he says quite a few Australian shrubs are flowering much earlier this year. Is this due to our last two hot summers here in Wales? Another sign of climate change, coming off today’s news that the last decade was the second hottest on record in the UK?

There are some spectacular fire-adapted shrubs that are in flower in the Australian section of the Great Glasshouse at the moment. Most eye-catching are the Banksias, a genus of 170 species that share characteristically cone-shaped flowers. My current favourite is Banksia prionotes which has a huge tactile flower that changes colour from white to orange and looks amazing inside. Banksias need fire to stimulate the opening of their seed-bearing follicles and for the germination of seed in the ground.  Mathew also pointed out another fire-adapted shrub, Hakea laurina, which has just come into flower, looking very much like a huge Christmas tree decoration. The scarlet honey myrtle Melaleuca fulgens is a spectacular red flowering shrub, its flowers looking every bit like our festive red tinsel. Many Melaleuca species cope with fires by having epicormic buds imbedded in the trunk – these sprout following a fire, allowing the vegetative regeneration of branches from their trunks.

We can only hope that Australia’s biodiversity can recover from these fires although the same may not be the case for the people who have lost their home or loved ones. Returning to David Hardy, he reminded me that the blooming of Templetonia retusa serves as a timely reminder of the fragility of nature and why botanic gardens are so important in the vital role they play in helping to protect the world’s biodiversity.