Native seed garden a lifeline for Kangaroo Island’s endangered flora

In the summer of 2019/20, Kangaroo Island recorded the deadliest bushfires of all time.

The island off mainland South Australia is home to almost 900 native plant species and is an ecological sanctuary due to its isolated, unspoiled nature.

In response to the possible loss of island endemic plant species following the bushfires, a seed production garden was created to save the island’s plants from extinction.

Flora ecologist Bradley Bianco said the main purpose of setting up the garden is to provide seeds for restoration projects.

He describes the garden as a place that “introduces the community to the rare and endangered species of Kangaroo Island in an environment that is a pleasure to be in.”

For much of its history, the local flora on the island have evolved with fire as plants adapted to burning. But now ecologists are concerned about the changing rate and magnitude of recent bushfires.

A woman stands in front of a large plume of smoke in front of a massive bush fire.
The Kangaroo Island fires burned through almost half of the land area.(Delivered: Sabrina Davis)

“One of the bigger problems is the frequency of fires. The intervals between fires seem to be getting shorter, so we’re having hotter fires that cover more ground more frequently,” said Mr. Bianco.

“We’re not sure how plants can cope with this new fire regime.”

Burnt trees and dry land on either side of a windy road
Shrubland was burned completely on both sides of the Cape du Couedic Road.(ABC News: Patrick Martin)

Plants suffer silently

Parts of the island’s flora are already under pressure.

Rugged landscapes where only small remnants of vegetation have survived have meant fewer opportunities for new seeds

“They are isolated, their numbers are small and to restore these populations we need an adequate and diverse resource base in the form of seeds,” said Mr. Bianco.

A koala sits between burned trees and bushes
A koala sits next to burned-out vegetation after the island’s bushfires in 2020.(Supplied: RSPCA South Australia)

In SA, 1 out of 4 native plant species is threatened with extinction, with some classified as Vulnerable and Vulnerable.

Fires, land clearance and numerous grazing animals are said to be some of the threats to the island’s flora.

“SA is one of the most, if not the most, deforested states in the country, which has resulted in many species being threatened with extinction,” Mr. Bianco said.

Aerial view of the site.
An aerial view of the site shows the planned footprint of the garden.(Supplied: Brandley Bianco)

The site

The 5,000 square meter garden is 5 kilometers southwest of the island’s largest city, Kingscote, on land donated by environmental campaigners David and Penny Paton.

“We obviously have a passion for plants and wildlife and we could see a need for such a garden on the island to grow endangered plants,” Ms Paton said.

The seed production garden for endangered plants is enclosed by an animal-proof fence within the Cygnet Park Sanctuary.

The garden, created with support from the SA Nature Conservation Society, Bio R and the SA Seed Conservation Centre, will act as an ‘insurance policy’ in the event of future fires.

Native Seed Garden concept art.
A concept drawing shows the landscaped garden complete with pathways and a seating area.(Included: Bradley Bianco)

The Patons hope the garden will have multiple functions.

“I imagine it looks almost like a piece of bush land, with walking trails… but yes, it’s going to be a beautiful place,” Ms Paton said.

“We certainly hope that this will become a center for education, research and also for an ecotourism industry.”

Plants for the seed garden were harvested ‘high and low through rain and shine’, with some being pulled from the freezer at the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre.

Mr. Bianco said about 60 species of endemic plants are cultivated, but the process of obtaining the seeds was not easy.

“It’s quite labor-intensive to visit all the plants left in the wild, and currently some of the island’s endemic plants are suffering from a lack of pollination,” he said.

community affair

The garden is a community project and a Friends of the Garden group is being formed to encourage the local community to take responsibility for the day to day running of the garden.

“Ultimately, this project is for the island community,” said Mr. Bianco.

“So we encourage and use this enthusiasm and let them steer and drive forward with their own ideas.”

Among other things, the garden will be a place where the public can discover plants that are difficult to find in the wild.

“Some of these plants have never been recorded before or seen on Kangaroo Island in over a century,” said Mr. Bianco.

“It’s a unique opportunity for visitors and people from the local community to see and engage with the flora in one convenient, central location.”

Planting Day in KI's Endangered Seed Production Garden.
Planting day in Kangaroo Island’s endangered seed production garden.(Included: Bradley Bianco )

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