I arrived at Banksia Farm Banksia in Mt Barker with a three-month-old grey kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus). I rescued it from the pouch of its dead mother on Hamersley Drive in the early hours of the morning while travelling through the Fitzgerald River National Park. Kevin and Kathy Collins, the owners of Banksia Farm, welcomed us warmly and a local vet provided a suitable formulation of marsupial milk with a bottle and an elongated teat. The little joey had found a new home and I could visit the famous Banksia garden that has the largest collection in the world of this group of plants belonging to the Proteaceae family. Exploring the garden I was charmed by its beauty and my admiration grew when I learned the story of its making.
In 1984 to escape the hustle and bustle of Perth, Collins bought a five-hectare paddock set against the backdrop of the 1.1-billion-year-old Porongurup Range, overlooking the much younger Stirling Range. To beautify the property the couple planted 30 species of Banksias but three years later they decided to extend their collection and eventually raised all the known species from seeds and cuttings, ranging from prostrate shrubs with branches that grow on or below the soil to a towering 30m-high River Banksia (Banksia seminuda).
Having completed their collection of banksias, Kevin and Kathy turned their attention to the 136 known species of Dryandra and unwittingly became part of a controversial change in its taxonomic status. Until 2007 a total of 78 species and 25 subspecies of Banksia had been recognized, 63 endemic to Western Australia. Only one species, the tropical Banksia dentata, is not endemic to Australia and also grows in New Guinea and on the Aru Islands in the Maluku province of Indonesia. Two botanists, Kevin Thiele from the Western Australian Herbarium and Austin Mast from the University of Florida, concluded on the basis of cladistics and DNA analysis of specimens from Banksia Farm that Dryandra form a subgroup of Banksia rather than a genus in its own right. As a consequence the Western Australian Herbarium changed the names of all species of Dryandra to the equivalent name Banksia, merging the two previously separate genera into one.
By 1997 the garden was open to the public and four years later Kathy had designed the Joseph Banks Fine Art Gallery and Café which Kevin and his brother constructed using local Jarrah wood. During the season he personally runs daily tactile tours, encouraging visitors to touch and smell his unusual collection of banksia artifacts, fruiting pods and flowers before they move on to the garden. A speciality plant nursery and a seed production centre further attest to the enthusiasm and dedication of Kevin and Kathy.
The banksias planted on the farm have created a thriving ecosystem. They are an important source of nectar for honeyeaters and pollinating marsupials. The seeds and flowers also provide food for less welcome visitors like small parrots and cockatoos. Although they cause a lot of damage, Kevin is willing to share the garden’s abundance while protecting some of the developing seedpods with cotton bags from the inquiring beaks until they are ready for the harvest.
Banksias are good examples of Australian plants that use bushfires to regroup and spread their seeds. The majorities of Banksias are killed by fire and therefore rely on seed for their renewal as I witnessed in the Fitzgerald River National Park, after lightning had started a blaze and burned majority of trees to the cinder. If the fire is not too hot some of the banksia are capable to re-shoot from the stem. Some species have seedpods velvety fire protective cover and release their seeds only after repeated exposure to rain and sun. Kevin simulates different conditions in his nursery in order to harvest the seeds.
In November 2008 to crown their astonishing achievements, Kevin and Kathy Collins together with Alex George published Banksias, a beautifully illustrated volume which describes the 78 species. One, Banksia rosserae, is endangered with a very restricted distribution and was only described in 2001 and named in honour of theAustralian botanical illustrator, Celia Rosser. Her illustration adorns the front cover of the book. Apart from providing a visual feast, the book explains how to find, identify and grow banksias and gives information about pests and diseases, among them the dreaded Phytophthora cinnamomi (dieback). It also covers the history of Australian botanical discoveries with portraits of all the principal contributors to the history of Banksia. Tables list the particular characteristics of individual banksias for horticultural purposes and name the collections around the world.
The attraction of the banksias lies not only in the astounding presence of the whole plant covered in flowery spikes, but in the details of flowers, diverse beauty of the foliage in different stages of development, the seed pods, bark, wood , both of the trees and seedpods.