The plastic bag trees (Plant Portrait V*)

It was mid sprinter and the wattles were out. Well, most of 'em. The plastic bag trees were also putting on quite a show as I paddled up the Yarra River towards Dights Falls in late August. 

The Yarra River keeps appearing in my life. My early teenage years were well spent in a house at the top of a steep Yarra River bank looking across to what we called Kew Cottages (originally Kew Lunatic Asylum and later Willsmere). We were in Rex Ave, Alphington, down wind of the Australian Paper Manufacturers (now Amcor). My step brothers would eat and vomit eels caught in the APM warm water outlet, near where the turtles lived.

On the weekend I helped my step father build retaining walls from basalt, conquering the muddy riverside from the top down. In the flood plain we grew vegetables, but only the radishes grew well. Oh, and the willow stakes inserted to support the hapless runner beans.

I learned to kayak, and to fall out of a kayak, at Ivanhoe Canoe Club in Fairfield. Later in life I would paddle up the Yarra in my Thornbury High School crafted slalom. The high school abutted a tributary of the Yarra, Darebin Creek. (When I moved to Sydney I bought a fancy plastic kayak and battled sharks and waves in Middle Harbour. I took the Beachcomber Ultralight with me to London and although over engineered for The Thames it gave me many hours of pleasure cruising between Richmond and Teddington Lock.)

But back to the Yarra, and its plastic bag trees. In the final year of my science degree I discovered my first alga, in the Darebin Creek at Rockbeare Park in Ivanhoe. I was keen to study algae but because I couldn't scuba-dive I scrambled through the rocks and willow roots, sorting through a little rubbish on the way, looking for freshwater algae. As luck would have it, I found something never before recorded for Victoria and that was enough to hook me for life.

I did lots more algal collecting the next year, into the upper Yarra and beyond. After a PhD at La Trobe University (higher up on the Darebin Creek) I returned to University of Melbourne to study the algae of the Yarra River catchtment in more detail, including the ecology of that Darebin Creek site in Ivanhoe.

I’m now back in Melbourne, with my office in the Royal Botanic Gardens, right next to the Yarra River in South Yarra. I live in Hawthorn and kayak up the Yarra towards Dights Falls each weekend. So the Yarra River and its algae and plants are back in my life.

When I visited my mother in Castlemaine recently I borrowed Kristin Otto’s Yarra: a diverting history of Melbourne’s murky river (Text Publishing, 2005) to bush up on yarra yarra lore. My reckless eel-eating step-brother (Jonathon) had bought the book for my step father who in addition to being an obsessive constructor of rock walls was also a long time dweller beside the Yarra. He had been been brought up near the river in Warrandyte then settled his family (plus us a little later) in Alphington. (The bookmark was also supplied by Jonathon. It was a photograph of a Eugene von GuĂ©rard painting of a homestead upstream of Rudder Grange (The Farm of Mr Perry on the Yarra), mentioned on page 159. Dad either knew the Perry’s or lived very near their farm at some time in his long (98-year) life.)

So it is with some affection I paddle up the Yarra each weekend, through bits and pieces of remnant riparian forest, interlaced with willows and other deciduous trees from elsewhere. All part of the journey, and I don't mind the various jetties, houses, lawns and factories along the way. I am even enjoying the evocative smell and sight of the muddy water, improved at this time of year by the perfume and colour of wattle blossom. What I find hard to love, are the plastic bags stuck in the trees, whether those trees be from here or elsewhere. In winter, the trees from elsewhere are often without leaves so the plastic is more obvious.

I'm a little unclear on how the bags get there. I know they don't grow on trees - I'm a botanist remember. I presume they are carried by storm water and through drains but why so many bags in the streets and roads, ready to wash into my river? Even though I refuse and reuse plastic bags I am guilty of carrying stuff in them from the shop to home, but I can't recall having ever left one in the street. Mine (after reuse, of course!) will end up in a bin but surely our waste rubbish doesn't sit somewhere waiting to be blown into the street, or directly into the Yarra?

Anyway, that's what I now think about as I paddle. Sometimes. Other times I think about wattles and aren't they just grand at any time of year!

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.


Hope you will kayak down near the river mouth some time - we love the river at that place too - where the river and the bay meet
Talking Plants said…
Must try to do that one day. My kayak paddles are pretty tame so I only get to about Herring Island if I go downstream. But you never know! My kayak is certainly made for that kind of water...
HI Tim
What I loved about canoeing along the Yarra is that I felt I was in the country because of all the trees and shrubs along the river bank. I hope you haven't discovered another new species - the plastic bag tree. Does it have a botanical name? Yes, how do they end up on the branches? It looks awful and very bad for the local animals.
Talking Plants said…
Quite right - feels like a ribbon of countryside meandering through the city. Well, except for the Plastico horribilis trees!