Suburban Parks as Native Plant Refuges

How closely have you looked at the plants in your local parks lately? Would you notice a rare native lurking amongst the ordinary eucalypts and bottlebrushes?

Philippa Nikulinsky in her studio. Image by Anna Macoboy

According to celebrated botanical artist and Perth resident Philippa Nikulinsky, our cities often act as unexpected refuges for rare native species. Philippa recently discovered two examples, an extremely rare Eucalyptus rhodantha and a Banksia tricuspis, in her local parks in the Perth suburb of Dalkeith, a finding that has plant enthusiasts very excited. No stranger to rare plant discoveries, Philippa explains,

I don’t go looking for rare plants, I go looking for painting subjects.”

Philippa’s discovery left me wondering how many more treasures like these are lying right under our noses. Are they the result of forgotten seeds planted long ago or natural propagation against the odds? In the case of the E. rhodantha and the B. tricuspis, local grower and champion of Western Australian natives George Lullfitz may be the source. According to Philippa, he believes he may have planted the trees she discovered 30 or 40 years ago – among others – when he was encouraging the councils to use more native plants in local parks.

Thanks to guerrilla gardeners like George and plant hunters like Philippa we may be seeing more of these unusual natives in our parks in years to come.

Philippa says, “There is now a protection plan for these two plants, and they will try and grow some new ones in the same area because they’ve obviously survived there really well.” The usually careful way in which suburban parks are tended has meant that species that may otherwise struggle have been able to survive and even thrive.

Eucalyptus rhodantha by Philippa Nikulinsky. Image by Anna Macoboy
Banksia tricuspis by Philippa Nikulinsky. Image by Anna Macoboy

More and more natural bushland is being replaced by suburban sprawl, making it more important than ever to make the most of these parks as refuges for these plants that are becoming endangered in the wild. As Philippa says, “All the banksia woodland is now disappearing. I used to go collecting up near Wanneroo and Burns Beach in the early days. It’s all just housing estate now. I think parks are such a wonderful refuge for remaining species.”

Although Philippa often brings a botanist along with her on her expeditions, it is usually the artist herself who spies the rarest treasures. Developed over fifty years of painting, her artist’s eye is acutely observant.

She has contributed seeds from a rare kangaroo paw to the Millennium Seed Bank, an international conservation project that stores seeds to ensure against the extinction of plants in the wild.”

She also told me this story of an expedition in the Little Sandy Desert:

“There was a eucalypt that was only known from a bud that was in the South Australian herbarium. People had been looking for this Eucalyptus rameliana for years. Then one time I was on an expedition out to Virgin Springs and I found this lovely eucalypt. I was painting it and I brought it back and showed it to [Western Australian conservation botanist] Steve Hopper. He got quite excited and said, ‘That’s rameliana! Everyone’s been looking for it!’ And they were everywhere. [Botanists] hadn’t really known what to look for. I’ve got good observational skills so I do sometimes find things that are new but I don’t know that they’re new until somebody’s verified it.”

There is a great focus on planting native species in neighbourhood parks these days, but the focus – understandably – tends to be on species that are local to the area.

Perhaps instead we should be turning our parks into sanctuaries for the types of rare endangered species that may otherwise become extinct?”

As Philippa says, “All these parks could have big areas to plant rare native plants and regenerate new ones. To me it makes sense because they’re not doing well elsewhere, so why not encourage them to grow here when there are so few in the wild?”

Perhaps this is already what is happening without us even realising it? Even when we push it to the brink, nature has a way of fighting back. Next time you go for a walk in your local park, take a closer look at some of those trees and bushes. Maybe one of them is rarer than you think!


Header image of Fungi and Creeping Banksia by Philippa Nikulinsky, taken from the book Cape Arid by Philippa and Alex Nikulinsky. Collection held at COMO the Treasury Hotel, Perth, where prints are also available for sale.