Glorious floral displays at the Blackall racecourse many years ago earnt it the title of the Flemington of the West, and now a rare hibiscus is giving the outback Queensland town a similar distinction in Canberra.
Earlier this month, while being driven through Blackall, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spied the rosa-sinensis hybrid that’s a product of the isolated hothouse conditions offered by towns a long way away from each other, sparking an unusual gift from the west.
Blackall’s elders had themselves only recently recognised the uniqueness of the shrub in its main street median strip and were propagating it as a way of celebrating the town’s 150th birthday.
The Australian Local Government national general assembly in Canberra last week provided the perfect opportunity for Blackall-Tambo Regional Council mayor, Andrew Martin, to complete the circle and deliver one of the plants to Mr Turnbull’s door.
Christened ‘Lucy’ in honour of the Prime Minister’s wife, Lucy Turnbull, it symbolises a unique floral history one wouldn’t expect to find in a bush town.
When the streets of Blackall were laid out 150 years ago, an unknown person decided to name the main thoroughfares after the floral emblems of the countries that made up the “mother country” – Rose (England), Thistle (Scotland), and Shamrock (Ireland) – Leek Street (Wales) runs at a right angle to these.
Other street names followed the same tradition – Violet, Daisy, and Orchid were interspersed with the hedges and vines of Hawthorn, Clematis, Salvia and Woodbine – perhaps as a pretty contrast to the harsh environment outside the town’s boundaries.
It’s the start of a tradition that could bloom into a new drive tourism market, according to the man who first identified Blackall’s unique hibiscus and other rare plants the community is cultivating.
Neil Fisher is a councillor with the Rockhampton Regional Council and has been visiting Blackall in his role as airport committee chairman, to liaise on plans for a central Queensland east-west air route.
He is also an accredited nurseryman and field botanist with his own links to the town – his great-great-grandfather, WH Bartlett, was the town’s shire clerk from 1911 to 1920, and Bartlett’s daughter Gladys occasionally relieved her father in the position in the days before women had the vote.
“I came here working on the air route plan – who know I’d find all this here,” Neil said.
As well as family links, “this” includes plants that tell the colourful story of central Queensland’s development, such as the Parrot tree (Schotia brachypetala), which was introduced to Australia by a school teacher who was posted to Mt Morgan.
Seeds moved around central Queensland over succeeding years but it was the man who became the head of the Queensland Herbarium, Selwyn Everist, who planted an avenue of them in Blackall.
Peltopherums are another feature of the town, which Neil said became popular in the 1930s because their flamboyant golden flowers unfold close to Remembrance Day.
“Gardening has always been recognised in Blackall,” he said.
“In the early 1980s, Harold Caulfield, the curator of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, acknowledged Blackall as having the most significant collection of hibiscus in any community in Australia.
“You can still see the remnants of that looking down the main street.”
Among the town’s other horticultural gems is one of the rarest melaleucas in the world, a microleaf with a 4mm leaf and a flower in the same proportions.
“There are only 100 growing in natural conditions, anywhere,” Neil said. “You don’t get too many paperbarks that flower on the wood. We’re doing our best to propagate them for the future.
“The more you go walking, the more you find.”
Blackall’s saleyards are acknowledged as the coolest, shadiest yards in the state, another example, Neil said, of the green thumb tendencies of the town planners.
He said the climate conditions were probably perfect for many of these plants to flourish in Blackall.
“The sulphur in the bore water poses some problems but they’ve adapted,” he said.
Neil and his family have donated 50 paperbarks for planting beside Blackall’s Barcoo River walk, in honour of their ancestor, William Bartlett, who loved to walk along the riverbank a century ago.
In addition, he’s working with the council on a landscaping plan that will inject a blush of colour to the main street, which he hopes will become synonymous with Grafton and its jacarandas.
Over 30 hibiscus varieties, ‘Lucy’ among them, are being reintroduced to the town as well.
Described by the mayor as “a flower that looks like mice have been eating round the edge”, the serrated red-flowering plant’s potential for a new tourism market is very real, according to Neil.
“It’s little things like that, that mean an extra night or two that people stay,” he said.
In the meantime, Blackall’s special hibiscus is putting down roots in its new southern home, ready for a show of colour when the community celebrates its sesquicentenary this spring.