Soft tree ferns, Dicksonia antarctica, in their natural environment in the Otways National Park.*
Divided by the immense Pacific ocean, one could think that there's not much that connects the deep, coniferous forests of Northwest America with the Eucalyptus-scented southeastern shores of Australia. Looking closer, you find they they actually share a living link: both areas are home for some of the few remaining cool temperate rain forests in the world. A bit warmer and drier than Olympic National Park
, its North American cousin, the Otways National Park in Victoria, Australia, still nurtures some of the oldest plant species of the world, dating from the ancient times of the Gondwanaland that included most of the landmasses of the southern hemisphere - Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Arabia and most of the Indian subcontinent.
An old myrtle beech with its clouds of glossy small leaves leaning over towards the moist gully.
One of the Gondwanaland species that still survives in the moist, loamy gullies of the Otways is the myrtle beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii). It predates the more fire-resistant eucalypts, banksias and acacias, and unlike them, it has never adapted to bush fires that kill both the plants and their seeds. These slow growing, magnificent trees with clouds of tiny, glossy leaves can live up to 300 years, sometimes reaching the staggering height of 110 feet.
A towering messmate, its huge canopy reaching towards the skies above. *
The Otways is also home for several species of eucalypts; especially the messmates. The origin of this funny name is uncertain - a messmate means someone you share meals in a military kitchen with - but my (quite unseriously meant) theory is that the new settlers just thought these 'mates' that shed their bark all year around were especially messy. Two species, the Eucalyptus obliqua and E. regnans, are especially common, and there is even a third species, the Otways messmate, which is a hybrid of both (E. obliqua-regnans). Even these trees reach great hights in this area; just before we visited during Christmas week, a huge Otways messmate measuring 88 feet around the base had fallen down in the Melba Gully area, taking down numerous surrounding young trees and tree ferns with it.
* One of the many waterfalls cutting through the sandstone in the Otways area.
Given the high rainfall in the Otways, many creeks ripple through the gullies, sometimes carving their way through the porous sandstone, forming dramatic waterfalls that fill the air with their soft moist. Numerous small mosses and ferns cling to the dank stonewalls, providing excellent hiding places for tiny tree frogs and other amphibians and insects. Despite their tiny size, the frogs call out to their mates with an amazing volume, sometimes even managing to drown the sound of the waterfalls.
The cinnamon-brown, wiry pelt of the soft tree fern provides a perfect home for another, tiny fern species.
Another prehistoric plant in the Otways is the tree fern, of which two species, the soft tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica), and the rough tree fern (Cyanthea australis) are the two most common. Once food of the dinosaurs, this beautiful, almost regal plant became highest horticultural fashion during the Victorian fern craze, from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, and has been newly popular since the 1990s. The two species can easily be recognized by their trunks; the soft tree ferns is like wiry pelt of a mammoth, whereas the rough tree ferns is more like a scaly reptile. Tree ferns are quite hardy, up to -10 degrees C/ 10 degrees F. They grow slowly, about 30cm/ 1 feet every ten years, so large specimens are expensive to buy, but at the same time, they make an architectural statement even in the smallest of gardens with their gracefully arching, lush green fronds.
A huge, old eucalypt covered in kangaroo ferns, Microsorum pustulatum.*
The Otways share a long history of logging with the Olympic National Park since the new settlers arrived in both areas in the mid 1800s. The surviving pockets of old-growth forest with their huge trees are effective reminders of the time it takes to produce such majestics giants; also, they demonstrate clearly we should be aware of the consequences of our often thoughtless actions leading only to short-term economic benefits. Luckily, both areas are now protected as national parks for the coming generations.
As I tampled on the muddy paths covered with eucalypt bark and listening to the tree frogs and kookaburras, it was hard to imagine that the area had just emerged from a decade-long drought. Navigating back to the starting point through the dense understory of tree ferns, I could only hope that the Otways will survive even the next huge challenge of the impending climate change.
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