Christmas Bells plains blooms as fauna makes a colourful return from bushfire

Members of the McLaren family collecting Christmas Bells at Limeburners Creek, 1919. Photo: Port Macquarie Historical Society.
Members of the McLaren family collecting Christmas Bells at Limeburners Creek, 1919. Photo: Port Macquarie Historical Society.

Such was the popularity of Christmas Bells that at one time car loads of people would stop on the side of the road to view the spectacular blooms.

The Christmas Bells, which were illegal to pick - but often were - could be seen the length of Christmas Bells plains - Ocean Drive, between Port Macquarie and Lake Cathie.

The recent devastating bushfires have offered a rare insight into that world of riotous colour with the Christmas Bells now being spotted in full bloom.

And while the colourful Christmas Bells need fire to regenerate, the bushfires have left a devastating trail across the Mid-North Coast.

According to a spokesperson for NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service around 17,300 hectares of coastal national parks land stretching from Harrington to Port Macquarie are estimated to have been impacted by fires.

This season, bushfires have burnt more than two million hectares across NSW, including more than 800,000 ha in national parks. As fire-areas are not declared safe to access, only a broad assessment is possible at this time.

The Rural Fire Service says the Mid-Coast region has around 280,000 hectares of land scorched by bushfires.

The loss of flora and fauna have been enormous.

The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and FAWNA have led the way with their efforts in saving and conserving our native flora.

Koala ecologist with Koala Recovery Partnership Rebecca Montague-Drake says Christmas Bells plains is a heterogeneous area.

"Christmas Bells plains comprises a number of different ecological areas," she said.

"And some of these areas should be burnt while other areas should not.

Back in the day: Annie Roods was aged around 15 years when this photo was taken in either 1957/1958. She is holding an armful of Christmas Bells. Photo: Barb Holroyd

Back in the day: Annie Roods was aged around 15 years when this photo was taken in either 1957/1958. She is holding an armful of Christmas Bells. Photo: Barb Holroyd

"Wallum heath is an environment where you need fire for good regeneration.

"But in other areas, such as littoral rainforest, fires are not appropriate to the flora and fauna present"

Christmas Bells plains includes littoral rainforest, wattle scrub, coastal freshwater lagoons, and a wide variety of heath types.

It is fringed with coastal eucalypt on sands and also home to a range of wild flowers with some areas of grass trees, orchids and Christmas Bells now sprouting.

"The important thing to remember is that one fire does not equal another. It comes down to fire intensity.

"For instance, local Indigenous people say that white smoke is a healthy fire while black smoke is an unhealthy fire, she said.

"The extent of a fire is also important. Ideally fires should be patchy in the landscape rather than burning entire landscapes as, unfortunately, has been the case in these most recent fires.

"In that area, we have a number of threatened native mice species including the Eastern Chestnut Mouse and the New Holland Mouse.

"These species don't compete well against the larger species such as the Swamp Rats, but tend to flourish and populate between 18 months and four years after a fire.

"As well, species of banksias or dagger heath need fire to open their seed pods and release that seed into the soil.

"Some plants even need smoke to stimulate germination," she said.

Some good rain would also provide a further push along the regeneration path.

Stewart Well growing Christmas Bells at Kundabung, 1994. Photo: Port Macquarie Historical Society

Stewart Well growing Christmas Bells at Kundabung, 1994. Photo: Port Macquarie Historical Society

Ms Montague-Drake reminded residents of the sensitive environment and encouraged people to be respectful of the area.

While flora and fauna are the main cause of concern following a bushfire, the effect and impact of ash on our waterways has the potential to impact our aquatic life as well.

Rural Fire Service district officer Stuart Robb said he was also concerned about exposed soils now being prone to exposure because ground cover has been removed or burnt.

While those are genuine concerns, the return of the Christmas Bells was being welcomed by many long-term residents.

Memories

Barb Holroyd was born in Wauchope hospital and raised in Bellangry, where she still lives.

"The beauty of those Christmas Bells was brilliant. Everyone loved them and always stopped on the Christmas Bells plains when they were in bloom," she said.

"They were there for many years but they needed fire to regenerate. That's what keeps them growing year on year.

"Unfortunately I think there are more paperbark trees in there now.

"If it (the area) had been managed properly the Christmas Bells would certainly grow back. This fire will now probably initiate some growth."

Returning: Christmas Bells are returning in full bloom following the devastating bushfires. Photo: Port Macquarie Historical Society

Returning: Christmas Bells are returning in full bloom following the devastating bushfires. Photo: Port Macquarie Historical Society

Mrs Holroyd remembers the "plains" being burned regularly.

Another long term resident Di McDonald says the area was "just spectacular" when in full bloom.

Mrs McDonald was born in Maitland but arrived in Port Macquarie as an 11-year-old in 1959.

"I remember the stretch of road on the east side of Cathie straight was basically an expanse of colour," she said.

"There were often cars driving down and stopping to have a look at the blooms.

"It was quite devastating when rutile mining took over that area. Once it finished, the land was regenerated with vegetation, but that was basically the end of the Christmas Bells blooms."

Former Port Macquarie resident Mark Fitz-Alan says he has "plenty of photos embedded in my brain" of the colourful blooms.

"I moved to Port Macquarie in the early 1960s and can remember the Bells were in full bloom either side of the road. They were in abundance," he said.

"Each year or so there was always a fire put through there and that would generate more growth.

"There were also lots of Christmas Bells along Boundary Street on the way to the airport.

"And If my memory is right, there was a lot of Christmas Bells over on the North Shore too," he said.