Each year, winter rains turn the dusty landscape of WA’s Midwest into a rich tapestry of colours, smells and sounds. When the flowers come out, so do the people, who connect with the flowers in their own way.
Naomi Danischewsky looks up at the twilight sky and ponders her place in the universe. She’s relaxed and thoughtful.
She has just spent the afternoon connecting to country. She’s in her good place.
It’s a late spring afternoon.
For the past couple of hours Naomi has sat down among the wildflowers sketching.
She studies the flowers, each with their unique design and colour.
Naomi calls herself a contemporary Aboriginal artist.
She sits, listens, observes and sketches the environment around her.
It’s peaceful being out in the bush, she says — there’s nothing to distract you and you can just look, feel, smell.
“As an Aboriginal woman, it’s important to me to be connecting with land.
“My art is based on nature. I like to get in nature and do my art.
“It’s something that you have to do, especially getting on the ground — barefoot, touching, feeling, smelling — to understand the beauty and colours.
“Just sitting and drawing and looking at the flowers, you get so much more than just getting it off a photo on a computer screen back at home.”
Naomi likes to create abstract art and to observe nature’s own colour palette.
“If you are an artist, you would notice that all the colours that are here [among the flowers] are complementary colours. They all go together.
“Like the purples and yellows; it’s amazing how Mother Nature just knows, they’re like soft pastel colours, they’re nice.”
Naomi looks around her surroundings admiring the flowers and acknowledges that one of the reasons why they are so special, is because they don’t hang around in the bush for long.
A dry and barren landscape
Australia is one of the driest continents in the world.
The landscape can be harsh and arid, especially in the Midwest-Murchison region of Western Australia.
In the summertime, everyone’s looking for a drink.
The temperature can get up over 45 degrees Celsius.
One could look over this landscape and wonder how anything could possibly survive.
Riverbeds are often dry and the sand burns from the radiating sun, but, somehow, through the hot and dusty environment, life clings on.
Wildflower seeds lay dormant in the heat. They scatter around as they’re blown by the hot desert winds.
They are waiting.
Alanna Chant is a flora conservationist for the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).
She says the Midwest region of WA has a high level of botanical diversity because the landscape is so ancient.
The Midwest-Murchison region is one of the oldest places on the planet, with Zircon crystals found there dating back 4.39 billion years.
“The landscape pre-dates flowering plants evolving on Earth,” Alanna says.
“That’s led to them having a long period of time to develop new ways to survive in this landscape and to develop into new species.
“In the botanical province that the Midwest sits in, there are over 7,000 different plants.
“If you look at a similar size area like the UK, there’s only around 1,500.
“The Midwest area is considered one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots based on the number of species that we have here.
“It’s globally recognised for its diversity.
“One of the factors that has led to our high level of plant diversity is the harshness of the conditions for plants.
“The soil is very infertile and the weather is hot — it can be over 45 degrees.
“The plant groups that have become so successful in those areas are the ones that have special ways of surviving in those landscapes.”
Spit in the desert and something will grow
This year has seen some very good rainfall across the Midwest. Above-average rain for most areas.
The rain fills up creeks, rivers and salt lakes.
It transforms the bush.
Alanna says the fields of everlasting daisies make the most of a good year like 2021.
“They come up all at once and they all want to get pollinated all at the same time so they can produce all that seed while the conditions are good.”
She says the flowers produce as much seed as they can before they fall to the ground and lay dormant till there’s enough moisture for them to grow.
“It’s a way to survive in that harsh environment.”
Every wildflower season is different
Brett Loney, the vice-president of the Wildflower Society of WA, grew up on a wheat and sheep farm.
He remembers as a boy walking through the bush.
“It was always interesting to see the different flowers and their relationship with the birds and insects. That started my interest in flowers,” he says.
“In the bush, plants grow in a particular place because the conditions there suit them.
“In the Australian bush, conditions vary quite markedly and rapidly because of the climate that we’ve got and just the age of the landscape that we’re in.
“It’s often the little things that make the difference.
“The amount of shade a plant gets. How much rain.
“Cool temperatures. The bareness of the ground.
“All these things change year to year, so we get different growth patterns each year.
“Every season is different and unique.
“If you talk about the Geraldton area, the sand plains around there are some of the most nutrient-poor soils that you get on Earth, and that’s why a lot of those species there won’t grow — if you put them into a situation where there is too much nutrient, they’ll just say, ‘No, don’t like this’, and they’ll die.
“That’s why people consider it such a special place in the global perspective.”
The wildflowers are continuing to adapt to the environment, Brett says, but that is the type of evolution that occurs over thousands of years, not year to year.
A seasonal indicator for bush foods
For Aboriginal people, wildflowers are an indicator that certain bush foods are coming into season.
Bush foods like gamburarra, bogada bean, bimba, sandalwood nuts and quandong fruit, just to name a few.
It’s nature’s garden and everything is connected.
Darryl Fogarty is a Badimia Elder in the Midwest region.
He says the emu quite often starts the season off.
“When the winter rains first come and the green shoots start coming up, the emu starts eating the green shoots and they’re ready to mate and lay eggs,” he says.
“You’ll find the same story with most Aboriginal people when you see the emu in the sky. You know they’re ready to lay, and that kicks off the wildflowers.
“As we get towards the end of winter and spring starts coming in, usually the drier part of the spring season, that’s where most of the bush tucker comes from, like the seeds and all that sort of stuff.
“When the sandalwood nuts are green, the old people used to grind them up into a paste and use it on joints — and even use it on bald patches on your head. I haven’t tried it yet.
“Certain trees have bimba; that’s the sap that comes out of certain trees, but they’re more like lolly shops.”
The bush toffee can be hard or soft and quite chewable, but Darryl says you can’t eat too much of it.
“It’s not safe … but good for constipation,” he says.
“Another sweet one is on the flannel bush; you can pull the flower off and suck the nectar and it’s really sweet, that’s another lolly.
“Quandongs, they mainly used to eat them, but later when settlement came around, they used to make the quandong jam with a bit of sugar in them.
“This year some of them are nearly as big as a golf ball. Really beautiful.”
Making quandong jam
The wildflower season is very special for Badimia Elder Beverley Slater.
Not only is it her favourite time of the year because it’s cool and the flowers and birds come out, it’s also when the quandong fruit is ready to pick.
“September is the season, and that’s my time when I go collecting like an emu,” she giggles.
“My grandmother was the quandong maker in our family.
“She would make jams, tarts, stews with a little bit of custard or cream.
“It’s a similar taste to rhubarb — it’s got that tang — so depending on how much you like that tang, is how much sugar you put into the jam.
“I now make lots of quandong jam and share it around with the family.
“It feels like home when I’m out in the wildflowers and in the bush; it takes me back to the old days and just imagine what my grandparents were experiencing way back then.
“There were only gravel roads back then.
“Walking on that red earth, among the trees and the waterholes, that’s what we grew up with as kids.
“You’d lose the kids in the flowers sometimes.”
Beverley says earlier this year a group of Badimia women spent some time in the bush during the wildflower season.
Together they explored the country, sharing food and yarns.
The ladies painted what they saw over those few days.
“Beauty is there for everyone to enjoy,” Beverley says.
“We have to look after it and take care of it. It’s all part of our caring for country.”
The search for orchids
On a warm spring afternoon, Jack Burrows drives onto his parents’ farm around 15 kilometres north of Geraldton.
As a longboarder, Jack is normally searching for the perfect wave, but he also enjoys looking for orchids.
“I do tend to spend a lot of time in the ocean, but in just complete polar opposites to that, I also enjoy coming out to the farm and spending time looking for wildflowers and the orchids in particular,” he says.
Jack enjoys the challenge of photographing the orchids.
“They’re more like a diary.
“I’m never completely happy with anything that I capture, but it’s OK because I just keep a little record year after year so I can look back on it.
“Not many people my age really seem interested in this; they think I’m a bit strange.
“But that’s OK, everybody is entitled to their own eccentricities.”
Jack says his interest in the orchids is because of their short life expectancy and the fine details and colours.
“All the other wildflowers are big and they really stand out, but the orchids … well, sometimes good things come in small packages.
“After I take a lot of photos, I usually sit there and have a good look around — it’s quite fascinating just how detailed they are.
“They’re so small. It’s almost like the secret life of plants.”
An annual ritual
Jessica Barratt is a writer and researcher of historical stories. She says people have been going out to witness wildflowers since the 1800s.
“I think because it happens once every year, it feels like a bit of a ritual to travel out and see the wildflowers,” she says.
“There are actually a lot of historical photos that show people doing similar things to what we do today.
“I suppose we all like to take lots of photos of our children when they’re young, and there can’t be a more beautiful image than a child among flowers.
“In the 1890s, back then they used to pick the flowers and one story I’ve written from Cue, is there was a bicycle-decorating competition.
“The competitors were mostly men and they picked the flowers and then decorated their bicycles in all these elaborate designs.
“One man had quite an elaborate design where he included an umbrella on the handlebars, and hanging around the umbrella were camels, which was quite a useful animal back then for the Murchison.”
Jessica says even though some things have changed, like transportation and clothing, our fascination with wildflowers has not.
“They still take their cameras with them and they set them up and photograph themselves in the flowers too.”
Our connection to the flowers
Alanna Chant says there is always something new to learn with so many varieties in the region.
“Everything in the ecosystem is connected; one thing can’t survive without the other.”
She says we need to ensure we protect what we have left.
“The birds that live on the insects that go to the flowers to pollinate — everything is intertwined. If you take one thing out, it will affect everything else that is connected to that.”
Darryl Fogarty says the bush pulls most people in.
“It’s inside you, it’s in everybody — you got that connection to country.”
“Just to be out in Mother Nature and fresh air … it’s extremely peaceful, and when you go back to the real world you’re a lot more zen,” Jack Burrows says.
- Reporting: Chris Lewis
- Photography & video: Chris Lewis, National Library of Australia, Trove
- Digital production: Daniel Franklin
- Special thanks to artists: Beverley Slater, Acacia Collard, Tamara Slater, Michelle Ingram, Joanne Quartermaine, Naomi Fogarty, Corinne Fogarty, Sandra Fogarty, Olivia Slater, Janice Slater, and Tykeira Slater.