Since time immemorial, mountains have held special meaning to humans, and coming from a place where the tallest point in the landscape was a measly 169m high, I took the first available opportunity to visit the most accessible mountain when I arrived in Hobart. Thus began my love affair with Mt Wellington. Mt Wellington became my outdoor classroom. I frequented the walking tracks on mountain but I never walked far due to my photographic compulsions. Whatever little distance I managed to cover on foot was sufficient to convince me of the diversity of botanical life on the mountain. Browsing through the scientific literature, I was amazed to discover that the Mt Wellington Range was a stronghold for about a third of Tasmania’s higher plants and up to 60% of Tasmania’s bryophyte flora. I was duly impressed. Appreciation grew.
Those years back when I was doing my undergraduate course, Dr Rob Wiltshire conducted an excursion up the mountain as part of an ecology course to show sophomores the adaptations of eucalypt species to altitude. The class was brought up to the subalpine woodland to look at how eucalypt seedlings cope with frost and excess light. The exercise involved some walking and I took the opportunity to look around for anything flowering. By that stage of my academic life, I must have, I believe, unwittingly gained a reputation for being an incessant questioner, particularly when it came to the identity of plants. Perhaps Rob wanted to silence me before I could ask anything and he pointed to a dark handsome silhouette of a shrub on the rock boulders by the roadside and exclaimed, “Ahhh, do you know what that is?” Of course I did not but I took a stab at it anyway and I was That was when Rob sagaciously replied, with an inflection I can only imagine was meant for dramatic effect, “That’ll be the rare endemic tree daisy, Brachyglottis brunonis.”
I was duly impressed and intrigued. Members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) such as daisies and groundsels are usually thought of as herbs, particularly in European countries, but then in temperate Australia, tree daisies appear to be a common theme. I learnt later that the tree was named after famed Scottish botanist Robert Brown, hence the specific epithet ‘brunonis‘. Vernacularly, the tree was known variously as the Tree Groundsel, Tasmanian Daisytree or Brown’s Tree Daisy. Interestingly, the only other species of Brachyglottis occur in New Zealand.
My reveries on daisytrees were short-lived in the face of academic pressures. Visits to the mountain trickled.
The final year of my undergraduate studies arrived and one academic unit which piqued my interest was Plant Science Research, in which I would get a chance to try out a mini-project of my own. I toyed with the notion of studying a rare or endemic plants and I felt again the call of the mountain, and remembered the Tasmanian Daisytree, which was both rare and endemic. I sought Rob out and he graciously agreed supervise me on the academic endeavour. We fine-tuned the objectives of the study, which would be to furnish an explanation on why the Tasmanian Daisytree is rare within it’s habitat range. The Tasmanian Daisytree is limited to Mt Wellington and a few other nearby locations. It’s distribution does not exceed 50 square kilometers and it is further restricted only to subalpine woodlands. In it’s habitat, it is also found scattered in a very disjointed manner and there was no obvious reason why this should be so since the subalpine habitat was apparently rather uniform. When we eventually analysed the data we collected and compared the vegetation and environmental factors of areas with and without the Tasmanian Daisytree, little useful information emerged. Areas with and without the Tasmanian Daisytree were not extremely different in terms of their vegetation or environment. Other forces must be responsible for preventing the Tasmanian Daisytree from attaining ubiquity! As far as speculations go, the Tasmanian Daisytree is probably stopped cold in it’s tracks at the seed or seedling stage. We did notice in our preliminary surveys that seedlings of the tree daisy were exceedingly rare.
Limited as the study was, more questions were raised than answered, which is, as I have come to believe, a trend that drives the heartbeat of scientific inquiry. Why the Tasmanian Daisytree chooses to be where it is may remain a mystery for some time and I hope to see one day when I sleuth through the scientific literature, a paper on the lines of: Towards an explanation of the rarity of Brachyglottis brunonis.
In all likelihood, the Tasmanian Daisytree originated on the mountain, and has never managed to move far. It’s rarity only serves to endear one to it’s presence, and presents the all so pleasurable challenge of spotting it among the ocean of other common plants. I can see the Tasmanian Daisytree as no less than the mascot tree of Mt Wellington, the prime botanical feature of Hobart’s Table Mountain. I imagine that the great nature photographer Peter Dombrovskis might thought similarly of the iconic status of the Tasmanian Daisytree when he immortalized in one of his great photographs, a scene of the tree against a backdrop of the weathered face of the Organ Pipes that so characterizes the mountain.
I envision that all genuine nature-loving Tasmanians should come to know the iconic tree of the Mountain that oversees Hobart. But the surest way to get acquainted with the tree daisy is still via a guide. You must be asked to look, and given ample opportunity to feel and smell, for it is likely that only then will you recognize. Then, even without it’s brilliant yellow blossoms you will see and recognize the distinctive dark shiny leaves, it’s charismatic branching and the sweet scent of it’s foliage. And forever will it be burned into your memory when your guide then utters in utmost authority: “That’ll be the rare endemic tree daisy, Brachyglottis brunonis.”
(Dedicated to Dr Rob Wiltshire)