Native seed garden a lifeline for endangered Kangaroo Island flora

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In the summer of 2019-20, Kangaroo Island recorded its most devastating bushfires on record.

The island, located off mainland South Australia, is home to nearly 900 varieties of native plants and is an ecological paradise due to its isolated and unspoiled natural environment.

In response to the potential loss of the island’s endemic plant species as a result of the bushfires, a seed production garden has been established to protect the island’s plants from extinction.

Plant ecologist Bradley Bianco said the main purpose of creating the garden was 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 a pleasant setting.”

For much of its history, the island’s local flora evolved with fire as plants adapted to combustion. But now environmentalists are concerned about the changing pace and scale of the recent bushfires.

The Kangaroo Island fires have scorched almost half of its land surface.(Provided: Sabrina Davis)

“One of the biggest issues is the frequency of fires. The intervals between fires seem to be shrinking, so we have hotter fires covering more ground more frequently,” Bianco said.

“We don’t know how the plants are going to be able to cope with this new fire regime.”

Burnt trees and dry earth on either side of a windy road
The bush was completely burned on either side of the Cap du Couedic road.(ABC News: Patrick Martin)

Plants suffer in silence

Already, parts of the island’s plant life are under pressure.

Fractured landscapes where only small patches of vegetation have survived have reduced opportunities for new seeds

“They are isolated, they are few in number and to restore these populations we need to have an adequate and diverse resource base in the form of seeds,” Bianco said.

A koala is sitting among the burnt trees and bushes
A koala sits next to scorched vegetation after the 2020 bushfires on the island.(Supplied: RSPCA South Australia)

In South Africa, 1 in 4 native plant species are threatened with some level of extinction, with some listed as vulnerable and endangered.

Fires, clearings and the many grazing animals are among the threats to the flora of the island.

“South Africa is one of the most, if not the most, landlocked states in the country, which has caused many species to be threatened with extinction,” Mr Bianco said.

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

The location

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

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

The Endangered Flora Seed Production Garden will be surrounded by an animal proof fence inside the Cygnet Park Sanctuary.

Launched with the support of the SA Nature Conservation Society, Bio R and the SA Seed Conservation Centre, the garden will act as an “insurance policy” in the event of future fires.

Native seed garden concept drawing.
A concept drawing shows the established garden with walkways and seating area.(Provided: Bradley Bianco)

The Patons hope the garden will have multiple functions.

“I imagine it almost looks like a piece of bushland, with hiking trails through it… but yeah, it will be a beautiful place to be,” Ms Paton said.

“We certainly hope it will become a hub for education, research and also for an ecotourism industry.”

Plants in the seed garden were harvested “high and low through rain and shine” and some were taken from the freezer at the South Australian Seed Conservation Centre.

Mr. Bianco said that about 60 species of endemic plants will be cultivated, but the process of obtaining the seeds has not been easy.

“It takes a lot of work to visit all the plants left in the wild, and currently some of the island’s endemic plants are suffering from a pollination deficit,” he said.

Community affair

The garden is a community project and currently a Friends of the Garden group is being set up to encourage the local community to take ownership of the daily management of the garden.

“At the end of the day, this project is for the island community,” Mr. Bianco said.

“So we nurture and harness that enthusiasm and let them direct it and drive it with their own ideas.”

Among other things, the garden will be a place for the public to discover plants that would be quite difficult to find in the middle of nature.

“Some of these plants have not been recorded on Kangaroo Island before or seen for over a century,” Bianco said.

“This is a unique opportunity for visitors and members of the local community to view and engage with flora in a central and convenient location.”

Planting day at KI's endangered seed production garden.
Planting day at Kangaroo Island’s endangered seed production garden.(Provided: Bradley Bianco )
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