Thursday, 3 August 2017

The 'Moonah' Trees: An Ancient Love Story

This article and all pictures used are the copyright of Brett Lothian, 2017 ©.
An ancient stand of 'Moonah' trees

The 'Moonah' Trees: An Ancient Love Story


Whilst visiting friends in Cowes, Phillip Island, Victoria, I came across a map of the island and surrounding areas with the various tourist attractions to visit, of course there was the expected penguin parade, seal and whale watching areas as well as something I was not expecting, a site I had never heard of before that promised 300+ year old 'Moonah' trees on the adjoining Churchill Island. Being an arborist, ethnobotanist and avid tree lover, naturally I was intrigued, so I decided to doing a little digging and learn just what these 'Moonah' trees were and what the story behind them was.


Sculpture representing the ancient Bunurong legend of the entwined lovers

The name 'Moonah' comes from the indigenous people of Australia and has been recorded by SJ Endacott in Aboriginal Words and Place Names, as meaning 'Gum Trees' which I found odd as the term 'Gum Tree' normally refers to Eucalyptus trees and with the 'Moonah' trees actually being a species of Maleleuca, namely Maleleuca lanceolata. The regions indigenous history is tied to the Bunurong people who call Churchill Island, 'Moonahmia' after the special trees that grow here. Legend has it that among the Bunurong people lived a boy and a girl who had fallen in love. They spent every minute tightly embraced in each others arms. They were so in love that they neglected their daily duties. The Bunurong elders told the boy and the girl that they must not forget their places amongst the people and must help with the work. This warning could not break the lovers bond. Eventually the Bunurong were so tired of the Boy and the Girl disappearing to be alone that they were banished from their people. The lovers left together to where they could be alone in their tight embrace where they froze in place leaving the twist of their entwined bodies to became the wrapping trunk and branches of the Moonah tree. Eventually their love had spread across the island and covered it with their children who still grow there today.
The ancient lovers entwined still today
Whilst some may consider this a quaint, if not antiquated animist tale, I personally find it to be a beautiful way of looking at these amazing old trees and an excellent way of conveying an important lesson to the young people of the tribe, and perhaps even to the young people of today. Looking at the above picture, it is not hard to see just what those ancient Bunurong people saw way back when this ancient legend was told around the campfire. Traditionally Melaleuca species where used for numerous purposes including using the bark for cooking, torches, coverings for huts and smoke ceremonies. Also the leaves and oil where used traditionally to treat colds and flu and as an antiseptic. 

A beautiful example of the gnarled and knotted growth of the 'Moonah' trees

This species has an extensive occurrence across southern Australia extending the west coast of Western Australia to central Victoria, with occurrences in south and central New South Wales and south eastern Queensland. There are outliers on Dirk Hartog Island and in the Darling Downs region of southeast Queensland. In the past, four subspecies of M. lanceolata have been recognised but more recently it has been considered a single taxon. Melaleuca lanceolata is either a bushy shrub, usually 2-4 m tall, often much wider than tall or an irregularly branched tree 5-10 m in height. It is found along coastal dune systems and drainage lines in drier parts of its range. It grows on a wide range of soil types, including alkaline sands and shallow reddish clays derived from limestone and deep sands.
One of the larger 'Moonah' trees, perhaps up to 500 years old

The 'Moonah' tress of Churchill Island have been estimated at being from anywhere from 300 to 500 years old, with their lifespan potentially being even longer in the right circumstances. Considering the harsh coastal climate of Churchill Island they potentially could grow for much longer in more favourable environments. This species starts flowering during summer. Mature seed capsules are maintained on plants throughout the year. There are about 1320 viable seeds per gram; seeds start to germinate in about 7 days if grown at 10-25°C with no pre-treatment required. Without application of fertiliser, seedlings of this species will not grow.

The largest stand of 'Moonah' trees on the island


Melaleuca lanceolata is a relatively fast growing species that favours alkaline soils and tolerates moderate levels of salinity. The dense canopy of this species provides excellent shade. Natural stands provide a particularly useful shelter as a windbreak near coastal sites. The wood is dense, dark brown, durable in the ground making it suitable for round fencing and is a good fuel wood. It produces a useful source of pollen and honey for apiculture.
A fallen 'Moonah' trunk
Churchill Island is a 50.7-hectare (125.3-acre) island in Western Port, Victoria, Australia. It is connected by a bridge to Phillip Island. It is the site of the first European garden in Victoria. It contains a working farm, cottages dating from the 1860s and a homestead dating from 1872, all fully restored and open to the public. The island adjoins the 670-hectare (1,656-acre) Churchill Island Marine National Park. The island is maintained by Phillip Island Nature Parks.

Map of the sites to see on Churchill Island
In 1801, during the course of a survey of Western Port, Lieutenant James Grant had some of his convict crew fell some trees and built a blockhouse on Churchill Island. They cultivated a patch of soil and Grant planted seeds of wheat, corn, potatoes, peas, coffee berries, apples, peaches and nectarines given to him for the purpose of creating a garden "for the future benefit of our fellow men be they Countrymen, Europeans or Savages" by John Churchill of Dawlish in Devon, England. This was the first European garden and crop of wheat grown in Victoria.
Cairn commemorating the 1st cultivation of wheat in Victoria
Samuel Amess, a former mayor of Melbourne, purchased the island in 1872 and built the substantial home that still stands today. The Bunurong people may have visited Churchill Island for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Remains of stone foundations from two unknown buildings are also preserved on the island. The Churchill Island Marine National Park adjoins the island's western shore, and Western Port bay, in which the island is located, is listed under the Ramsar Convention.

Click on the above photo for even more photos of Churchill Island and the ancient 'Moonah' trees
I highly recommend visiting Churchill Island if you get the chance, there is something very special about being able to touch and feel the ancient presence of these amazing trees that were here long before the white man ever landed on these shores. Churchill Island is an amazing place full of history and well worth the time to take a look around, the walking tracks are well maintained and you will not be disappointed by these ancient 'Moonah' trees.

By Brett Lothian.

 
References: 

Aboriginal Words and Place Names by SJ Endacott
http://www.icg-lakemacquarie2014.com/downloads/Gwandalan.pdf


Forbidden Love

http://www.southsidetravel.com/blog-articles/forbidden-love.aspx

Melaleuca Lanceolata - Factsheet
http://www.florabank.org.au/lucid/key/species%20navigator/media/html/Melaleuca_lanceolata.htm

Churchill Island Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill_Island
 

Coastal guide to nature and history: Volume 2 By Graham Patterson
https://books.google.com.au/books?id=foLVBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=melaleuca+lanceolata+churchill+island&source=bl&ots=qQ3JSDGhJ1&sig=BRgx2EFWu6y_uYJ0ocp6pgtEAUE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjJut6t47fVAhWMebwKHbenAzoQ6AEIRzAH#v=onepage&q=melaleuca%20lanceolata%20churchill%20island&f=false

Plants and People in Mooro Country
http://www.joondalup.wa.gov.au/Files/Plants%20and%20People%20in%20Mooro%20Country.pdf

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