In 1972, a beautiful glacial outwash lake with a bright glistening beach long and broad enough for small aircraft to land upon and take-off from, began disappearing in Tasmania’s south-west. The previous year, a dam constructed across the Serpentine River — the source of the lake — had been completed. Within a year, Lake Pedder was entirely engulfed by what would derisively be referred to as ‘Fake Pedder’, and the natural lake’s three kilometre long, 700 metre wide beach would come to rest fifteen metres below the fake lake’s surface. After five years of sustained community rejection of the project in Tasmania and mainland Australia, Lake Pedder was no more; a casualty of the Tasmanian Government’s stubborn drive to produce hydroelectricity at any cost.
Soon before its submersion, a weed officer from Tasmania’s Department of Agriculture who visited Lake Pedder found a low-growing plant nestled high on its shore. The plant had squat dark green rigid leaves arranged in a rosette with each leaf terminating in a hard spike, growing in small clumps about four centimetres tall. Its flowers exuded a delightfully melliferous scent. The weed officer — an avid plantsman — recognised the plant as Johnston’s milligania (Milligania johnstonii), a plant endemic to Tasmania’s south-west; a region dismissed as the state’s ‘empty quarter’. It takes a special brand of ‘stupid’ to assume a place unpopulated by humans is ‘empty’.
Having been botanically described in 1878, Johnston’s milligania — also known as the ‘short-leaved milligania’ — was no stranger to the biological sciences. It is, however, considered rare. But what marked the plant on Pedder’s shore as particularly unusual was that its white flowers (typical for the species) carried a light pink blush around their centre, not too dissimilar in shade to the surrounding pink quartzite sand for which the lake’s beach was famed.
Half a century later, and the plant collected in 1972 has been divided several times and passed through the hands of only four people. Its now-deceased discoverer gave a division to a mutual friend of ours, who received it as a young man and dedicated plant collector. He remains a keen-as-mustard collector, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, especially those particular to Tasmania. After almost losing the plant to a bushfire, my friend gifted it to another mutual friend, my neighbour, who also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants, and, importantly, formidable plant propagating skills. The Pedder-pink milligania was entrusted to her to improve its chances of avoiding extinction. With much success, a number of divisions were then given to the nursery where I buy most of my Tasmanian plants. With umpteen divisions and divisions-of-divisions later, the plant has become commercially available, albeit in low numbers into a niche market.
A small plant, though rare, is unlikely to mean much to anyone, especially if others of its ilk grow elsewhere in wilderness now afforded World Heritage protection. This variety is, however, uniquely coloured. That too mightn’t be enough for some to be either interested in or concerned about, but for me, what makes the Pedder-pink milligania truly unique and worth maintaing in cultivation is not just its rarity or unique colouration, but its provenance — a traceable link back to a time and place now written into Australia’s conservation history and folklore.
Community support for protecting Lake Pedder — and outrage and despair at its inundation — precipitated formation of the world’s first green political party, the United Tasmanian Group (UTG), some members of which later formed the Tasmanian Greens. The UTG predates what was once West Germany’s Die Grünen political party by eight years. The Pedder-pink milligania encapsulates the social, cultural, and political history surrounding Lake Pedder and Tasmania’s — and Australia’s — emerging environmental consciousness. It is not only emblematic of that history, but very much a living piece of it.
A few short years shy of the turn of the millennium, I attended a public lecture at The University of Melbourne, presented by the then Greens Senator, Bob Brown. The subject of his presentation was restoration of Lake Pedder. More than two decades later, this year marks the United Nation’s Decade of Ecological Restoration. Another former Greens Senator, Christine Milne, now heads the campaign to restore Lake Pedder. I’m very much in favour of that goal, and admire and support the campaign, although I have some reservations about the chances of its success — in my lifetime, at least.
Notwithstanding my reservations, Lake Pedder has been inundated for near-on fifty years. Should it take another fifty years for me to be proven wrong, so be it. And wouldn’t it be a wonderful mark of the project’s success — and a more considered and caring relationship with nature — if one day in the not too distant future the short-leaved Pedder-pink milligania finds its way back to that lake’s glistening shore?
To be continued…