Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Beautiful noxious weeds


No I'm not going to rant and rave about how weeds are 'plant' - like you and I if we were plants - or that we should embrace floral diversity and not exclude species from elsewhere. I've done that before and in any case I'm as patriotic (not nationalistic I must add) as the next botanist when it comes to our cute and curmudgeonly Australian flora.

Today I want to celebrate the beauty and personality of a few noxious species, through the beautiful paintings of Elizabeth (Betty) Conabere. Conabere was born in Mansfield in 1929, and died there in 2009. In an obituary in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald written by Janet McKenzie, Conabere is described as 'outspoken', 'outrageous', 'larger-than-life', 'contentious', 'provocative' but also 'generous', 'passionately opposed [to] injustice' and even (second hand) 'sumptuously beautiful'.

Many of these adjectives apply equally well to her paintings, particularly those commissioned by the aggressively named Vermin and Noxious Weed Destruction Board for the series Beautiful Noxious Weeds. That set of beautiful water colours now resides in the State Botanical Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, after touring the State in the 1970s and then being stored at the now-no-longer Keith Turnbull Research Institute.


I've only included two images from the collection, taken in haste as the collection was sorted before cataloguing and storing. The Serrated Tussock (Nasella trichotoma) is hard to resist - hated with a passion, costing the NSW government around $40 million a year to control, but rather delicate and charming in this composition.

The image at the top was chosen for its evocative common name, Apple of Sodom. Even its botanical name, Solanum sodomeum, references that famous biblical city but due to the vagaries of botanical nomenclature it is now called Solanum linnaeanum (after Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who established this system and the rules we still use today).

Sodom was apparently home to some plants that produced very bitter apples indeed. This particular bitter apple, a member of the family that brings us deadly nightshade but also potatoes and tomatoes, is a small shrub with spiny stems and leaves. It's native to African and the Mediterranean but now weedy throughout the world, including all most parts of coastal and near coastal mainland Australia except for the far north.

Apple of Sodom was first detected near Sydney in 1802 and by 1895 it had become a noxious weed in Victoria, then two years later in South Australia. It's also now listed in Tasmania (where it is prohibited and possibly excluded or at least kept under some control) and Western Australia. We don't like it because it competes with native species, crowds out pasture grasses (it is not grazed itself), provides a home for rabbits and snails, and its fruit is toxic to 'children and sheep' (although due to its spines it is not often eaten).

That said it is a medicinal plant in South Africa, used for a ailments such as skin disorders, toothache and colds. The roots are carried, it is said, as protection against poisoning. Farmers also use the above ground parts to treat skin problems in stock and it may well be on future benefit in treating skin cancers. So it is both good and evil.

Before Conabere turned to the dark side (although I should point out Conabere was a passionate conservationist and by no means advocating the acceptance of noxious weeds), she was commissioned by the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria to paint about 50 Victorian alpine plants, which we already hold in the State Botanical Collection. Her best known work is perhaps in Wildflowers of South-eastern Australia, published in 1974, with text provided by Ros Garnet. The originals for this publication are held in Melbourne's La Trobe Library and all subjects evolved and dispersed more or less in situunabetted by humans.

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