on lantana’s new nature

The book by Tim Low, New Nature, is like a block of chocolate, you could eat it in one mouthful, but it taste better if you savour it.
You found this couple of pages which are so pertinent to your argument you will have to duplicate them in electronic format.
Thanks Tim.


Chapter 7
Nature needs weeds

‘these weeds are now part of a “new” Australian ecology’
-Greg Czechura, Queensland Museum

Genetic engineering is very much older than it seems. In nineteen century Europe a vegetable Frankenstein was created in hothouses by hybridizing various Latin American shrubs. The monster so spawned, lantana (Lantana camara), went on to become one of world’s worst weeds. This rampant, poisonous shrub is an ‘aggregate’ entity, a hybrid with DNA from several plants.

Lantana in Australia goes back a long way, Merino breeder john Macarthur grew it at Camden (NSW n.d.r.) in 1843, and twenty years later it was running amok around Sydney and Brisbane. Up and down the humid coast it stole the newly cleared holdings of pioneers. Around Sydney it formed ‘dense thickets which render the shores almost unapproachable’, complained naturalist Reverend Tenison-Woods in 1881. So entrenched is this invented plant in the mind of ecologists today that no-one can really imagine what Australia looked like pre-lantana. it now covers 4 million hectares and poison to death 1500 cows each year. It takes over from other plants, included endangered native jute (Corchorus cunning-hamii), and rates as one of Australia twenty worst weeds.

Biological control hasn’t worked well against lantana, partly because is not an authentic specie. Over the years more than 30 insects have been trailed, beginning with four species back in 1914. The insects can never match lantana perfectly because they feed on one or other of its parent species, such as Lantana urticifolia, not on lantana itself. There is no Lantana camara in Latin America to collects bugs from, and no bugs that have evolved to eat this hothouse product.

Although biocontrol boffins want lantana defeated, success may be Pyrrhic. It’s a perverse fact that Australian native animals now rely on this horticultural invention. On over cleared farms leafy lantana tangles in gullies furnish much-needed cover for wallabies, bandiccots, fairy wrens, reptiles, and almost everything else. The prickly walls it throws around small bushland remnants keep out trail bikes and dogs. Made to flower continuously and generously, its nectar sates honeyeaters and butterflies, including rare birdwings. Its tiny fruits fruits feed possums, silvereyes, bowerbirds and rosella, and reed bees nest in the stems.

Very few native plants furnish food and shelter for so many. Thirty-two birds species use lantana in north Queensland alone. Like the river red gum, it has become a keystone specie for wildlife. No other weed so ingratiates itself with animals. If lantana disappeared overnight most whipbirds would be homeless and many wallabies would die from dogs attacks. Butterfly numbers would plummet. One bird, the vulnerable black0brested button-quail, might even become extinct. This Queensland bird has lost most of its dry rainforest habitat to farmland, and lantana is now a major refuge.
For such reasons, most biologists grudgingly accept lantana.
‘It’s become part of the Australian flora to the extent that no other weed has. It’s now part of the whole successional; process of rainforest, providing a useful role as soil controller’, said Mike Olsen (when raiforest is cleared it’s the first plant to clothe the bare earth, before the rainforest returns). A naturalist I spoke to was blunter: “We should just accept lantana as a native plant and forger all about it.” Lantana is the weed our wildlife needs. It puts shelter back onto land that farmers would rather keep clean.


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