SGAP Townsville – the early years

By John Donohue

I came to appreciate Australian native plants in a very roundabout way.  I have always been interested in Australian stamps, and the very first series of stamps issued after the conversion to decimal currency featured Australian birds. The change – over to decimal currency took place on 14th February, 1966.  It was a stroke of fortune for me that I recognized one of the birds depicted in the series of stamps. It was a blue-faced honeyeater, and we just happened to have a pair of these beautiful birds sitting on our Hill’s hoist every morning.  This kindled my interest in Australian birds and it all went from there.

Birds need something to attract them to a garden, but apart from the odd insect that escaped my very determined spraying, my prize rose garden was not a very prolific food source.

I admit it. I grew very good roses. Daphne and I even won a City Council gardening competition for the best new garden. The garden consisted mainly of roses, poinsettias and gladioli. It really was very pretty but, as far as the birds were concerned, it may as well have been a desert.

So I started growing native plants but it was not easy because, at that time, it was very hard to buy native plants suitable for Townsville. Local nurseries did not carry a range of native plants and it was very hard to get reliable information. I remember once buying a ‘red bottlebrush’which was ‘probably a native plant’.

Our local library did carry some books on the subject, but the range was not extensive, and the books were written for gardeners in the southern states.
It was fortunate that I found a monthly gardening magazine at our local newsagent. I think it was called Queensland Gardener and one of the regular feature articles was on Australian native plants. It was written by Jim Howie of Howie’s Hibiscus and Native Plant Nursery in Brisbane.

It was a revelation. Here was someone who knew quite a lot about native plants for Queensland conditions.
Jim Howie sold a range of native plants. He suggested that I try a tropical eucalypt that was doing well in Brisbane.”It is called a Swamp Bloodwood. It comes from Pine Creek in the Northern Territory, and it should do well in Townsville.” I have always claimed that I grew the very first Eucalyptus (now Corymbia) ptychocarpa in Townsville.

Jim told me that there was a Society for Growing Australian Plants in Brisbane and I joined the society in June 1969. I was surprised to learn that there were others in Townsville who shared my interest in native plants. Bob Smythe was passionate about his native orchids. Brian Slee, Les Polkinghorne and Don Glasgow were experimenting with native plants in their gardens. Grahame Macfarlane, the deputy director of the City Council’s Parks and Gardens Department was also very interested.

It was about this time that the University College of North Queensland was established in Townsville. The original buildings are now occupied by the Barrier Reef Institute of TAFE as their Pimlico campus.

A Botany Department was quickly established and one of the first staff members was Arthur Chapman. Arthur was very knowledgeable about native plants, and was particularly interested in native plants in our local area and, luckily for us was involved with the Botany department in their early investigations of a place called the Burra Range.

It was only a matter of time before people with like interests felt that they should get together and form an association. There was the SGAP in Brisbane, but that was a long way away. We really needed something local.

Bob Smythe was President of the Australian Native Orchid Society in Townsville and he facilitated the inaugural meeting of what was to become SGAP in Townsville.

The meeting was held in the Native Orchid Society rooms in what I think was the Adult Education section of the State Government Offices in Wickham St. The building is still standing today. It is between the ABC studios and the Customs House.

The first Officers of the fledgling society were –

John Donohue    President (now called Chairman)
Arthur Chapman    Secretary
Brian Slee   Treasurer

The first meeting took place on Thursday, 25th June 1970.

The newly formed society was soon affiliated with SGAP Queensland, and the Townsville Branch of SGAP was up and running. 
I think it is fair to say that our newly formed society did hit the ground running. We had a message to spread and we set about our task with great enthusiasm. We had to convince Townsville gardeners that growing Australian plants in their gardens was well worthwhile. Looking back at those very early years I think it is correct to say that we set about spreading the message about Australian plants with almost evangelical zeal.

Our Society was growing from strength to strength. Attendances at our monthly meetings steadily increased and people were driving from places as far away as Ayr to attend.
Looking through the pages of our original attendance book, it is pleasing to see the names of Don Glasgow, Betsy Jackes, Mary Chapman, Bob Smythe, Bob Reid and Kath Greenway attending these early meetings.

We were very fortunate that one of our very early members was Harry Wilchefski. Harry was the owner of Day Dawn Nursery which was the biggest and by far the most important plant nursery in Townsville. At last, a limited range of reliable native plants was available to Townsville gardeners.

I must acknowledge that our fledgling society received a lot of help and encouragement from SGAP Queensland. Merv Hodge and David Hockings were particularly generous with their advice and assistance.

In the October 1971 journal of SGAP Queensland there is a report that our society put on a floral display at the Aitkenvale Methodist Church flower show. We were allocated a space of 8 feet x 8 feet. (that’s a bit over 2 metres square) and the report says that the display was overflowing, even spilling on to the adjacent floor area. Some one called John Donohue won first prize in the ‘Any Other Flower’ section. The flower was Grevillea banksii var forsterii. The show display was a sensation. The locals had seen nothing like it. 
I am not sure if the report of the flower show made it into the Townsville Bulletin, but we seized any opportunity we could to publicize the Society and its activities.

This was the start of a long tradition of flower shows and, later, flower shows and plant sales. Many of our members had become skilled propagators, and the variety of plants available at these shows increased as a result.

In the very early days we had quite ambitious displays at the Townsville Show. These displays were a very popular feature of the show. Our displays even had slide shows with accompanying commentary and it was a great relief when we could finally hire a projector and a machine that superimposed a ‘change slide’ signal onto the commentary tape. This was a great improvement on our previous efforts where you really had to be very familiar with the slide programme and the taped commentary. It was so very easy to get the slides and the taped commentary out of synchronism.

Our flower shows grew bigger and more ambitious as the years went by. We started out in quite small venues such as church and school halls, progressed to the Orchid Society hall at Pioneer Park in what is now Riverway, and later graduated to much larger venues such as the PCYC hall at Aitkenvale.

I cannot leave the subject of our flower shows without paying tribute to the dedication, tolerance and good humour of the many volunteers who combined to put these displays together. We did make our mistakes, but we learned from them and each year our flower shows became just that little bit more organized and easier to put on.
Initially, we asked for help from kindred societies both in Queensland and interstate to enhance our floral displays, but we were always working towards the day when we could announce with a great deal of pride that all the flowers on our display came from Townsville gardens.

There were so many things happening at this time. Townsville was about to host the Pacific Festival and we decided that this would be a wonderful opportunity to publicize native plants. We realized that there was a need for reliable information about native plants suitable for Townsville conditions, so we set about producing our very own booklet. It was called “Native Plants for the Townsville Area”. It was a co-operative effort by many people, but Bob Reid edited and collated it. It was an instant success.

The way this booklet was produced is a story in itself. The information in the booklet was provided by quite a lot of people. It was written out by hand, corrected, argued about, checked for correct English and spelling. We were particularly concerned about correct botanical spelling. Mary Chapman provided the artwork on the front cover. We even compiled a quick reference checklist to assist the reader in their choice of plants. Then it had to be typed out onto Gestetner duplicating sheets.

Once this was done, it was off to the Adult Education Centre in Wickham St. to use their duplicating machine. This had to be the crankiest, most accident-prone duplicating machine in the entire world. It was supposed to be driven by electricity, but sometimes it got too hot and refused to go. It jammed regularly and was particularly good at producing smudged pages. Sometimes it refused to go for no apparent reason at all, and quite a lot of time it had to be turned by hand. We hated that duplicating machine.

We had to do our part by making sure that page 16 was printed on the back of page 15, and every page was printed the right way up.
Well, the printing was done. It was time to use our compilation machine. This machine consisted of a line of volunteers assembled around Donohue’s dining room and kitchen tables. The printed sheets were carefully laid out. It was really easy, pick up a front cover, pick up each page in turn, pick up a back cover and take it to the stapler. From there it went along to the quality controller, who made sure that there were no pages upside down and that all the pages were indeed there. When we were satisfied that everything was correct it went to the final process and someone put the black tape on the spine.

Then we had to do it all over again because the first printing sold out very quickly. At least, we still had the flimsy stencils and they were undamaged, so it was not too difficult the second time around. We’d had plenty of practice by that time.

This was the start of a proud tradition of SGAP Townsville. There is a long list of books, pamphlets and other publications that this group has produced whenever it was felt that there was a need for the information. I hope that this tradition continues into the future.
There is another publication that deserves special mention. It was called Australian Plants for Townsville. Gardening In The Dry Tropics. For some time, we had felt the need for a publication that dealt with gardening in the dry tropics in some depth. We wanted it to have particular reference to the Townsville region. When we set about putting this information together, it soon became apparent that the money required for this publication was well beyond our means. We continued with the project in the hope that one day the opportunity to go ahead would come. The book expanded and in its final form was a comprehensive gardening manual for Townsville.

Bill Payne, the editor of the journal Australian Plants, was visiting Townsville and the Burra Range as our guest and he became interested in our project. He encouraged us to continue with our efforts. He proposed to print our little book as two issues of Australian Plants, with a final print run in which the two issues would be bound and prepared especially for us. It would be very unusual for two issues of Australian Plants to be devoted exclusively to one town or region, and our book was unashamedly a manual for Townsville gardens. This was a conflict of interest that we had no control over, and we agreed to his proposal on the proviso that we had time to finish our final editing. This was not to be. Final editing had to be done in Sydney because of production deadlines. Unfortunately, some minor errors slipped through and I still regret that some of the contributors were not acknowledged for their efforts.

Nevertheless, the publication was a runaway success in Townsville and it served its purpose by making people more aware of native plants and their gardening potential.

I don’t remember how many copies we sold but our little book was a best seller in Townsville. The local ABC station helped us publicise the book and sales took off. We were overwhelmed with requests for the book from bookstores, newsagents and even from a stock and station agent. We also sold many copies to outlets in places such as Ayr, Ingham and Charters Towers.

While all this was going on we ‘discovered’ the Burra Range. The botanists at the University College were well aware that this was a botanical hotspot and Arthur Chapman had told us the good news soon after SGAP Townsville was formed.

The Burra, as we called it, is that section of the Great Dividing Range between Pentland and Torrens Creek. This area had suffered massive environmental damage during the construction of the railway cuttings through the range and later the construction of the Flinders Highway. These two projects took approximately the same route over the range.

There were few if any environmental regulations in those days and it was generally easier to bulldoze anything in the way than to try to protect it. The Burra is a complex mix of diverse soil types and, as a result, a great number of plant species were found in the area. Without competition from the dominant tree cover, shrubs grew in great profusion. There were areas that were untouched by the construction works and these provided a fascinating insight into what the area originally looked like. As we moved further a-field, we were to find that really intense bushfires achieved almost the same result as the construction works did.

We were so fortunate. Here was one of the botanical hot spots of Queensland on our doorstep, and we took full advantage of it.
We soon found an abandoned campsite right on top of the main railway cutting. It had everything we needed. The trees had been thinned but not knocked down entirely. We had a safe cleared area for camping and for campfires, and being located between the road and the railway it had defined boundaries. This was useful because we could say to our children – “don’t go on the road, don’t go on the railway”, and we knew that they had to be somewhere in that area. The children loved it. It was one huge adventure playground. Another major advantage of our campsite was that it was quite private and secluded.

Using this as our base, we explored far and wide. We went into the deep gorges on the coastal side of the Flinders Highway and marvelled at the intricate and beautiful sandstone sculptures that time, water and wind have created. We found a dam that had been constructed for the engineering works. It was full of yabbies and the children loved fishing and swimming there.

The children also played in the wind-worn sandstone rocks near the campsite. You could get right inside some of these rocks. The children called them ‘the çaves’. This was a wonderful place and we went there as a group on many occasions.

We even explored a bit of the White Mountains on the northern side of the railway. This was fascinating country, but it was very wild and rough. It was really 4-wheel drive country and no place for conventional vehicles.

Some people might not be aware that the White Mountains are a true watershed. The Flinders River rises in these mountains and its waters empty into the Gulf of Carpentaria, the waters of Torrens Creek eventually find their way into Lake Eyre and the Cape River flows into the Burdekin, which drains into the Coral Sea.

On several occasions we hosted groups from SGAP Queensland at the Burra. On arrival in Townsville our guests were billeted in our homes, we organized camping equipment and provided transport in our own vehicles. It was always a huge co-operative effort by our group, and it was very much appreciated by our guests. There was a lot of work involved in trips like this. Apart from the camping equipment and the transport, food had to be purchased, menus prepared, the food had to be cooked and the washing up done. There were always plenty of volunteers to help with these chores.

I must tell you an amusing story of our early days at the Burra. It was on one of the occasions when we were hosting our Brisbane guests. After a very pleasant BBQ meal and relaxing around the campfire, everyone retired to their tents, which were scattered around the campsite. Some time later, the night silence was rent by a loud piercing scream. The camp was awake in an instant. One of our visitors had never seen fireflies flying around in a gumboot before. I must admit that I had not either, but I suppose there has to be a first time for everything.

On another occasion, we had packed up in good time to get our Brisbane guests onto their plane, and I admit now that it was huge mistake to point out a Eucalyptus miniata (now Eucalyptus chartaboma) that had quite a lot of mature seed capsules on it. Our visitors were out of the cars in a flash and we had a lot of trouble getting them back in their transport, and we soon realized that we would be cutting it very fine indeed if we were to get our visitors onto the plane in time.

Our guests were being transported in all types of vehicles, and unless we did something, some were going to miss their plane. They were hastily loaded into the fastest, most reliable cars, and we left the rest of the party behind to sort out how to get everyone else home. I was the sweeper coming along behind in case something went wrong. We got everyone onto the plane but it was a very close thing, and I think the plane departure was a bit delayed.

Our family oriented camping trips were not confined to the Burra. As a group we visited Blackdown Tableland, which is west of Rockhampton, Red Falls and the Basalt Wall north of Charters Towers. We visited Running River on many occasions. If we heard that there was something new or interesting to see, it was checked out and if it was safe to camp we would organize an outing for the group. We saw a lot of North Queensland that way.

The road between Mt. Spec and Running River was a very popular destination. There were lots of wildflowers to be seen once through the densely forested areas and, if you knew where to look, there were some very nice ground orchids in this drier area. On one occasion, we were intrigued by a patch of bright orange at the very top of one of the surrounding hills. Someone suggested it might be an aviation marker for an Army exercise. We had absolutely no idea but we were quite sure that it was not there on our last visit. We just had to climb that hill to find out. When we got to the patch of orange, we were amazed to find that it was indeed a plant which resembled a forest of tiny trees. None of us there that day had ever even heard of the resurrection plant Borya septentrionalis, so it was an amazing first for us. Of course we just had to go up there once it had rained to see the transformation from bright orange to brilliant green. Then we had to go all the way up there again to see what the flower looked like. Later, we were to find Borya septentrionalis and many other interesting plants growing on top of the waterfall on Waterfall Creek between Ingham and Cardwell.

The road to Running River was a wonderful place for day and overnight trips and we went there frequently. We were particularly interested in the road from about 3 kilometres past the turnoff to Taravale station to Running River. The forest gives way to drier more open country and there are a lot of interesting wildflowers to be seen. We once had a competition to see who could find the pinkest form of Leptospermum flavescens. I thought that I had won easily until Bob Smythe emerged from the bush. He had followed the creek upstream for a long way finding and discarding specimens until he found what he was looking for, a Leptospermum flavescens with a beautiful soft pink flower with just a hint of white.

We had our special place to camp at Running River. I was told that it was called Teamster’s Flat, an overnight stopping place for the teamsters who travelled those outback roads to the northern goldfields and the local tin mines. They used the tall Eucalyptus tereticornis growing nearby as material for running repairs to their wagons. We turned off the road to Mt. Fox at the derelict Mountain View Hotel. The campsite was a beautiful grassed treeless area beside the river. The children loved it; good fishing, plenty of room for playing ball games and for just having fun. They were convinced that there was something or someone peering out from the long abandoned hotel and they kept well away. I don’t think that any of the adults were keen on checking it out either.

We also had some difficult trips that were very hard on our conventional vehicles. We had heard that there was an area very like the Burra Range well to the south. We set out from Torrens Creek and headed for Ulva station. From there we drove east through Mundoo Bluff station before finally coming off the Dividing range onto Yarromere station. It was very rough, very cold at night and very slow going but it was worth it. Bob Smythe remembers putting his socks on the tent ropes and they were frozen solid overnight.The flora there was very similar to that at the Burra and unfortunately, we did not find any new plants. There is one story that I was not going to tell but Mary Chapman assured me that it is all right to do so. A lot of the so-called roads were covered with thick bulldust and at one of the many gates that we went through there were some particularly deep ruts that were filled with bulldust. Mary was standing at the opened gate to warn us to drive slowly and to avoid the ruts. One of the cars slipped off the high ground into the deep ruts. The result was spectacular. The bulldust erupted out of the hole and completely covered Mary. She told me that it took days to get the stuff out of her hair.

We regularly visited Bluewater State Forest and camped in the abandoned forestry shed at the top of the range. It had a huge open fireplace, and in the winter it really was nice and warm. We liked to camp there in summer too because then it was so much cooler at night on the top of the range. People seem surprised when I tell them that there is very nice rainforest at the top end of Forestry Road, Bluewater. This was a very popular outing because it was only an hour’s drive from Townsville.

On several occasions we visited Kirrama State forest and stayed in the forestry huts at the top of the range. We left the Bruce Highway at the Kennedy store and went inland. We were told that if we kept on that road we would come out at Mount Garnet. No one was interested because the road in was quite rough enough.

When we got home from one of these trips, we found that some of our children had scrub ticks on them. We were old hands at camping in the bush, and it was routine for us to check for ticks, but we had some visitors and new members on that trip. It took quite a lot of time and effort that night to track these people down to warn them of the possible danger.

People joined our society for all sorts of reasons but, as a group, we never lost sight of what our Society was all about. We wanted to appreciate native plants in their natural habitat and, if possible, propagate and introduce those we thought had horticultural potential into our own gardens. We were keen to share our experience and knowledge with each other and with the general public. Our other activities were a natural extension of this.

I would like to thank Bob Smythe, Mary Chapman, Bob Reid, Don Glasgow, Betsy Jackes and Kath Greenway for sharing their reminiscences and experience with me. I would also like to thank John Elliott and Keith Townsend for their assistance and advice.

When John Elliott asked me if I would prepare this account, I thought, “this should not be too hard, the flower shows, a couple of books and the Burra will do”; but as I thought of the early days of SGAP Townsville I was struck by how dedicated and enthusiastic we were in those early days, how much we enjoyed each other’s company and the good times we had along the way.

I feel privileged to have been part of it.

John Donohue.

Early Office Bearers – SGAP Townsville

Listed as Chairman – Secretary Treasurer

1970: John Donohue – Arthur Chapman – Brian Slee

1971: Graham Macfarlane – John Donohue – Brian Slee

1972:  Arthur Chapman – John Donohue

1973   Bob Reid – Mary Chapman

1974   Bob Reid – John Donohue

1975   Bob Smythe – Kath Greenway

1976   Trevor Bond – Kath Greenway

1977   Trevor Bond – Connie Cameron

1978   Don Glasgow – Don McAllister

1979   Don Glasgow – Don McAllister

1980  Leigh Weakley – Don McAllister