“[Indigenous plants] tell stories about the cultural belonging of Indigenous peoples and allow a portal into the rich cultural and ecological knowledges held by Indigenous peoples.”
Zena Cumpston in Indigenous plants use (Cumpston 2020)
Look closely at nature
I’ve got a rather unusual request. If you can and have a minute to spare, would you have a detailed look at the four images in the figure below?
Spoiler alert, all but one of the species portraited are locally indigenous to the Melbourne Metropolitan Area and the four photos were taken there within the last year.
Have you had a chance to look at the photos already? Would you mind sharing which themes drew your attention the most while you’re observing the images?
Did they bring about ideas of the unique traits of Australian plant species?
Or about the dichotomy between indigenous vs non-indigenous species?
Or were your thoughts drawn to think about pollination?
Were you thinking about complex ecological interactions?
Or was your focus pulled to the images’ colours, composition, or other aesthetic elements?
In the context of Australia, perhaps the images elicited a sense of Indigenous culture?
Nowadays, when I look at these images, the latter aspect is the one that I feel most strongly. But this was not always the case. Thanks to recent professional interactions with Jade Kennedy, Maddison Miller, Zena Cumpston and other Indigenous scholars with whom I have had the pleasure and luck to work with, I have come to recognise and appreciate that all Australian indigenous species – in the context of a given community associated with a given territory – have cultural Indigenous significance. I treasure this knowledge, as now every time I appreciate an Australian indigenous plant it reminds me that I’m also appreciating a vital aspect of the one or more Indigenous communities to which that given plant is associated with. We might not have the fortune to interact with the Traditional Owners of the lands and waters where we live and work in our day to day live, but it’s great to realise that an integral part of their culture is reflected back to us each time we have a look at locally indigenous plants (or any other locally indigenous species for that matter).
If this idea sparks your interest, I invite you to have a look at Zena Cumpston’s ‘Indigenous Plant Use’ booklet (Cumpston 2020) and an article entitled ‘Bringing nature back into cities’ (Mata et al. 2020). The latter is an opinion piece I developed in close collaboration with Jade Kennedy, Maddison Miller, Zena Cumpston, and other colleagues from the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub. The ‘Australian pan-Aboriginal world views’ section is of particular interest and draws extensively on Zena’s and Jade’s perspectives and knowledges.
Another thing I tend to do, as I encounter an insect – whether in real life or photographically – is wonder if the species is locally indigenous or is introduced, exotic, alien, invasive, or otherwise non-indigenous to the area where I’m seeing it (or where the photo was taken). In the Australian context, this is of course a pre-requisite to establish the bonds with Indigenous culture that I’ve just highlighted.
Were you able to single out the African carderbee as the sole non-indigenous species to Melbourne amongst those portrayed in the figure above? And did you noticed that she was interacting with a native Cut-leaved Daisy? In Melbourne, Australia! I’m fascinated by this type of plant-insect interactions in which a non-indigenous insect species adapts to benefit from resources provided by indigenous plant species. More generally, I’m intrigued by the idea that some insect species can use resources from many, if not all, the plant species they encounter, while others are quite specialised in the interactions they establish.
Take, for example, blue-banded bees – one of my favourite Australian insects – which in Greater Melbourne are represented by two species: Amegilla asserta and Amegilla chlorocyanea. Both species, and in general all blue-banded bees across Australia, are very charismatic and strikingly beautiful (see figure below). I saw my first blue-banded bee only about 5 years ago – literally the one seen in the left panel. It was visiting a patch of Black-anther Flax-lily. My thinking at the time was that blue-banded bees were flax-lily specialists and wouldn’t interact with the flowers of other plant species.
It turns out that blue-banded bees are indeed very selective in the species they visit and are attracted to only a few other indigenous plants. As I understand, in the Melbourne Metropolitan Area, A. asserta and A. chlorocyanea are only attracted to flax-lilies (genus Dianella), Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata), Showy Isotome (Isotoma axillaris), Small Crowea (Crowea exalata), Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa), and bluebells (genus Wahlenbergia). If you live in Melbourne, these plants can help you attract blue-banded bees to your garden and, most importantly, support them by providing floral resources throughout the year.
Blue-banded bees, as well as many of our indigenous bees and butterflies across Australia, are also attracted to the flowers of non-indigenous plant species. In Melbourne, I’ve observed them on Australian native plants that are not indigenous to Victoria. These include species of emu-bush (genus Eremophila) and rice-flower (Genus Pimelea). I’ve also observed them or seen photographs of them on plants that are non-indigenous to Australia, including Purple-top Verbena (Verbena bonariensis), Chinese Plumbago (Ceratostigma willmottianum), Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), and several species of sage (genus Salvia). We don’t fully understand if the novel resources provided by non-indigenous plants to indigenous insects are beneficial or if, on the contrary, they may cause risks that we are not currently aware of (Valentine et al. 2020).
The Little Things that Run the City
The ecological interactions established between blue-banded bees and flax-lilies, Hop Goodenia, Showy Isotome, Small Crowea, Bulbine Lily, and bluebells highlight the exciting possibility of using indigenous plant species to bring indigenous nature back into our cities and towns (Mata et al. 2020). But what about ants, leafcutter and masked bees, ladybugs, hoverflies, assassin and damsel bugs, and parasitoid wasps, amongst many other beneficial insect groups? Can they be attracted to our parks and gardens with indigenous plants?
My colleagues and I first explored this question in ‘The Little Things that Run the City’ (Mata et al. 2016), a research project we did in the City of Melbourne across 15 public parks. In the study, we recorded the interactions between over 550 insect species – 97% were indigenous to Melbourne – and over 130 plant species (a mix of species indigenous to Melbourne, indigenous to Australia but not to Victoria, and non-indigenous to Australia), including forbs, lilioids, graminoids (both lawn and tussock species), shrubs, and trees.
The plant group associated with the largest number of insect species were neither lawns (no surprises here) nor trees (quite unexpected). As it happened, it was indigenous graminoids, a group represented by five species of tussock grasses. The champion amongst these was Common Tussock-grass (Poa labillardierei), on which we documented over 100 indigenous insect species. On the other side of the spectrum, lawns were associated with less than 10 insect species. We hope our findings – which we recently reported in an article entitled ‘Indigenous plants promote insect biodiversity in urban greenspaces’ (Mata et al. 2021) – will encourage architects, engineers, developers, planners, designers, and other built-environment professionals, to incorporate into their practice indigenous plant palettes that foster a larger presence of indigenous insects in our parks and gardens.
Speaking of gardens, I would like to dedicate some words to wildlife gardening. While I have been unknowingly doing ‘wildlife gardening’ for many years now, I have had the good fortune to be introduced to wildlife gardening research through my colleague Laura Mumaw. Last year, we joined forces to write an opinion article in which we reviewed the wellbeing benefits of wildlife gardening and outlined how positive ecological outcomes may be reached by providing new, and improving existing, habitat for biodiversity in gardens (Mumaw and Mata 2021).
In the piece, we argue that wildlife gardening is an integrated ethic and practice to simultaneously care for one’s human and ecological community. As part of a follow-up component of this collaboration (funded by Gardens for Wildlife Victoria), we have documented over 800 interactions between over 30 native midstorey plant species (forbs, climbers, shrubs, and groundcovers) and over 40 insect pollinators and other flower-visiting insects (from bees, butterflies, and hoverflies to ants, wasps, and beetles). The plants we selected for surveying were representative of those offered to Melbournian gardeners by indigenous nurseries affiliated with the Gardens for Wildlife Victoria network.
We will be making our findings available via the Gardens for Wildlife Victoria website soon. The information provided will include a summary of the indigenous plant species that were associated with the largest number of indigenous pollinator and flower-visiting insects, but also a detailed account of the interactions established between each plant and insect species. Whether you consider yourself to be a traditional or a wildlife gardener, we hope you may find this knowledge useful and that it will assist you in making informed decisions about which indigenous species you could plant to support local indigenous insect pollinators and other flower-visiting insects in your garden.
The author acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which the projects described in this article took place, the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nations. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present, and emerging, and honour their deep spiritual, cultural, and customary connections to the land on which I work and live. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Zena Cumpston, Maddison Miller, and Jade Kennedy for sharing with me their passion and knowledge of Australian Indigenous culture and for helping me recognise and appreciate the cultural significance of all Australian indigenous plant species. I would also like to sincerely thanks Laura Mumaw for inviting me to be part of her wildlife gardening journey and to Tina Bell for kindly inviting me to write this article. Special thanks to Ken Walker, Steve Sinclair, and members of the iNaturalist community for providing identifications to some of the plant and insect species that illustrate this article.
Cumpston Z (2020) Indigenous plant use: a booklet on the medicinal, nutritional and technological use of indigenous plants. Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Mata L, Andersen A, Morán-Ordóñez A, Hahs A, Backstrom A, Ives C, Bickel D, Duncan D, Palma E, Thomas F, Cranney K, Walker K, Shears I, Semeraro L, Malipatil M, Moir M, Plein M, Porch N, Vesk P, Smith T, Lynch Y. (2021 ) Indigenous plants promote insect biodiversity in urban greenspaces. Ecological Applications 31: e02309.
Mata L, Ives C, Morán-Ordóñez A, Garrard G, Gordon A, Cranney K, Smith T, Backstrom A, Bickel D, Hahs A, Malipatil M, Moir M, Plein M, Porch N, Semeraro L, Walker K, Vesk P, Parris K, Bekessy S. (2016) The Little Things that Run the City – Insect ecology, biodiversity and conservation in the City of Melbourne.
Mata L, Ramalho C, Kennedy J, Parris K, Valentine L, Miller M, Bekessy S, Hurley S, Cumpston Z. (2020) Bringing nature back into cities. People and Nature 2: 350-368.
Mumaw L, Mata L. (Accepted) Wildlife gardening: an urban nexus of social and ecological relationships. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. [EcoEvoRxiv]
Valentine L, Ramalho C, Mata L, Craig M, Kennedy P, Hobbs R. (2020) Novel resources: opportunities for and risks to species conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18: 558-566.
This post is reproduced with permission from a piece I originally wrote for Research Matters – Newsletter of the Australian Flora Foundation.