My Pal Mel: An Ecstatic Encounter with an Endangered Plant

Late 2019, two years into a drought. I’m out at Mt Annan botanic garden, on the outskirts of Sydney, looking for plants that should be grown in gardens, but aren’t. It’s hot and I’m thirsty. The irrigated plantings are a peculiar oasis in the surrounding landscape of dry, crusty grasses and eucalypts.

I wander around, contemplating why botanic gardens always leave me slightly underwhelmed. Is it the way that plants are employed as display pieces – exhibits – rather than in associations? The worship and fetishisation of the specimen over the community, over nature as a whole?

I get lost and walk back to find some water.

I stumble on a row of common paperbark species. But one catches my eye, wedged in the middle with an unexpected personality… more bashful and introverted. Fine, feathery and gracile. Looks like falling water… a nice cool shower. The botanical embodiment of rain. Leaves like dew, on stems cascading in slow motion, like a slow-shutter-speed photograph of a waterfall. Now I’m even thirstier.

I try to get a good photo, but the light’s wrong.

The tree’s name is Melaleuca irbyana. It turns out it’s an endangered paperbark from around the NSW–QLD border that grows in Melaleuca irbyana forest, a plant community that is itself critically endangered.  

They weren’t that common in the first place, but land clearance for agriculture destroyed ninety per cent of the forests, so only a few restricted pockets remain. Climate change may impact germination rates, hydrology and fire, challenges that could be grave for an already compromised species. But all is not lost yet: Where they are found, they tend to be plentiful; self-assured in the presence of peers.

Months go by.

Every now and then I think of her. She comes to me while I’m doing the dishes. Those fine tassels, against pale cream stems weeping like a willow. The soft, peeling bark on a narrow, well-proportioned trunk. It occurs to me that I’m fetishising the individual specimen, not the community. I should really go and see her in her natural setting …

Wait. Why did I choose the female pronoun, not the male? Was it just benign, playful anthropomorphism? Was it just a habit, like calling a car, boat, or country ‘she’, the questionable convention that is reserved for inanimate objects historically owned by men?

My intent was to elevate a plant above simply being an object in the material world. But language can sometimes be a blunt instrument for describing the nuance and profundity of nature. It, she, they. None quite gets there. I decide to remain undecided.

JULY 2020, AFTER THE BIG FIRES. I’m in travelling in the northern rivers. I send out emails: where can I meet this plant in the wild?

An ecologist in Queensland who studies them gets excited by my inquiry. ‘It’s a very special tree – and little understood!’ she writes. But Jen can only point me in the direction of populations over the state border. It’s COVID; No border crossings. Then a park ranger responds with a georeferenced map location of a population. She tells me that little was known about the fire tolerance of this species, implying that they were waiting with bated breath. But ‘it appears to be responsive’, seemingly able to resprout from latent buds beneath its bark. Another ranger tips me off to a second population. ‘Hopefully not all burnt.’

I drive out there in a beat-up old station wagon on its last legs, thinking about getting stuck, lost in the bush by myself. The fire trail is muddy and apocalyptic, entire trees bulldozed to widen access for firefighters. Hopefully no irbyana in there …

At the end of Grumpy Trail I turn and creep into the bush. The area where they are supposed to be is now a charred skeleton of a forest. Some are dead, some collapsed. Some are simply holes in the ground where even the roots have dematerialised. But walking on, I find several still alive, and then many more. No more papery bark. No more leaves held aloft in a canopy. Coal black branches are dancing and twisting, with new leaves emerging as sprays of delicate filaments, arching out of the tree’s armpits and elbows. Sporadic attachments of foliage hanging in tassels, as if a separate epiphyte. Extruded. They shiver in the breeze. The winter light comes through the trees at an oblique angle in shafts, illuminating the new growth and giving the sense that the long-gone fire is still smouldering. The ground is matted with grassy regrowth. Finger orchids are in flower.

It’s an ecstatic encounter, an epiphany of sorts. I write down notes so I can explain what it felt like. I lose the notes and can’t quite remember.

Back home, I still think of Mel. I include this strange being in garden designs, even though I don’t know where I’ll find any in cultivation. I call the botanic gardens – no luck. I find one tiny tubestock in a nursery, plant it and lose it in the garden. Missing, assumed dead. It’s a paperbark, it can’t be that hard to grow, right?

I finally track down a nursery in Queensland that has a bunch in tubes left over from a restoration project. The minimum order to get them sent down here is a lot. So I order a lot.

I get busy and manage to lose half of them to neglect. But I grow on the rest and give some to a local nursery. Safer with the professionals.

The total sum of information I can find about their gardening requirements is from one enthusiast who once wrote that they only grow as small shrubs in gardens and a contradictory photo of what looks like a large specimen tree in a front yard. I plant five of them in a tiny terrace in Surry Hills. Perhaps they can be coppiced to keep them small? Who knows …

APRIL 2021. I run a field trip back to the botanic garden with the ulterior motive of getting a better photo of this magical specimen. To my horror, two of its three main branches have been clumsily chain-sawed off, leaving amputated stubs and a pale imitation of its former self. It seems an apt metaphor for this species: its vitality endangered before people get a chance to witness it …

June 2021. I read the Melaleuca Irbyana Recovery Plan 2013-2023, a strategy being implemented by Logan City Council, Queensland, that aims to better understand the species, identify its growing conditions and potential sites for revegetation and get the community behind this creature. I often lament that we live in a world where people seem to care only about fluffy, endangered animals and not threatened plants. Optimism is found in a bureaucratic document.

RECENTLY THE RELATIONSHIP between me and Mel has shifted from those heady days of infatuation into a new phase. More – dare I say it – domesticated. I see Mel dressed down in a plastic pot when I take foods scraps to the compost bin. Mel sees that I’m not a particularly diligent or accomplished gardener, even though it’s kind of my livelihood … But I like to think that this is a deeper connection: less concerned with beauty and rarity and more with shared history and hopes for a future where we can both thrive. And so, we muddle on.