These very old trees in the Railway Park, Byron Bay, are a mystery. With camera in hand, I walk around this living sculpture. These native beach hibiscus (Hibiscus tilaceus) are locked in on three sides by the buildings, cars of a busy street and a rough parking lot. On the fourth side, the railway hillock is not only a barrier but a neglected vantage point. Unlike the typical vertical growth of many trees, these dance in a group across the park. How have they survived so long and so well here in the concrete heart of town?
Beach hibiscus are typically found near the sea, along waterways and further inland behind dunes. This far inland, these would grow among wattle, tuckeroo, blue flax lilies and coastal rosemary. Council records say that on these particular trees grew a small but grand orchid. Now listed as a threatened species, this Yellow Flowered King of the Fairies Oberonia complanata hasn’t been seen for many years.
Botanists consider the bright yellow hibiscus, which only last a day, to be ‘perfect’ flowers. Each has both male parts (the small stamens with powdery pollen) around the female ones (the pistil with its slender stalk and round ovary at its base). Although self-pollination is easy, birds, bees and other insects all participate too.
Bundjalung people think the tree is ‘perfect’ for food, medicine and material. The young leaves, roots and flowers are all edible, especially useful during famine. The bark and roots can be made into tea to treat fevers. The inner fibres of the bark are perfect for making the twine to weave into dilly bags, ‘grass’ skirts, plus nets for hunting and fishing. The outer bark can be made into strong rope. That’s why the trees are also known as ‘cottonwood’.
The wood is easy to work, strong and polishes well. It’s fashioned into spears and tool handles. Most importantly, it is durable in salt water. So here and throughout the tropical and subtropical coasts and islands, it’s made into fishing floats and water-craft such as rafts, canoes and outriggers.
Such a valuable plant travels with maritime peoples. Out to the Hawaiian Islands it’s called hau and throughout Indonesia it’s called waru. Indonesian tempeh is created from soybeans pressed into the downy underside of the large leaves. These carefully stored parcels are thoroughly fermented by the leaves’ resident Rhizopus oligosporus, a wild beneficial mould.
But what is known about these specific trees and their location? They are well over seventy years old. They bear council preservation orders. Council horticulturists carefully prune them for shape and durability. To protect the roots, they keep structures away from all the area under the drip-line of the leaves.
Are these trees remnants of a lost wetland or specially planted? I didn’t find any old photos so I searched for other clues. The railway buildings and platform were raised and set on a concrete platform in 1914. So that might be the date for the construction of the hillock at the back. Still, since the railway opened and the station itself was built in 1894, this might be the more accurate date. Construction of the Lismore railway started in 1891, so perhaps the date is even that far back.
A passage in Ryan’s Time and Tide quotes Sadie Dunn (born 1906) describing the land from the post office to the Northern Hotel as ‘so swampy with a large open drain.’ This was ‘all there was’ between the current hot bread shop and the former ambulance shed. Perhaps the beach hibiscus were part of some remnant vegetation.
Newspaper clippings from 1983 describe a working bee of ‘many years ago’. Volunteers filled and levelled 3,000m2 of swamp near the station to create a public park and children’s playground.
In 1997, the stationmaster’s cottage was a tourism and environment information centre, run by the Byron Environment Centre. When the council gave the lease to a commercial team, the group occupied the centre until the council prepared a management plan to guarantee the public use of our community’s Railway Park.
So were the beach hibiscus saved for the children or were they planted there? If anyone has any information or photos, please email me at [email protected].
Contemporary planners say that such beach hibiscus are now highly prized urban plants. Spread across the heart of our public space, they may be trendsetters, but they are also stalwarts of local ecology and community history.