One of the glorious moments in the Blue Mountains bush is to find a rare plant in full bloom. So it was with Atkinsonia ligustrina that Rae Druitt and I found on the west side of the Mt Hay Road, 7.1 km from the Great Western Highway in Leura in late November. There were three plants, the middle one of which was nearest the road and easily photographed (see photos above and below). Its spectacular yellow flowering made it stand out for all to see.
At first glance it resembled Persoonia myrtilloides, another rare plant, but we soon changed our minds when we found that unlike all Persoonias in which four sepals roll back down the corolla, this plant had six strappy petals, sometimes seven or even eight, and they were spreading. Not only that but the anthers were adnate and very pale (see attached photo).
Atkinsonia ligustrina is a robust upright shrub with many red–brown stems that divide into a canopy of smooth, red–brown, brittle branchlets. The leaves are opposite, although at times appearing randomly placed because one or more leaves has fallen. Each leaf is elliptic, spreading, green (and bright green when new), (20)–25–(30) mm long, (5)–7–(10) mm wide, discolorous and slightly fleshy, the lower surface covered in felted hairs; apex obtuse; base tapering; margins entire; petiole about 2 mm long.
The inflorescences (in November) are axillary, in racemes almost the same length as the leaves, up to 8 tubular flowers on each raceme, pedicels short, petals narrow, strappy, yellow, spreading and about 7 mm long; anthers adnate, short, pale. Initially the fruit are green, ovoid–oblong (like a small olive) and about 15 mm long, but when they mature (in March) they become scarlet. They are not persistent, and all fruit will have fallen (or been eaten) before flowers set for next spring.
Atkinsonia ligustrina is a member of the family Loranthaceae, the mistletoes, which includes common genera such as Amyema and Muellerina. All are parasites on other plants, especially eucalypts. However, Atkinsonia ligustrina is unusual in that it is the only one of this group that is terrestrial, and not epiphytic. It is a hemi–parasite on the roots of neighbouring trees and shrubs: it obtains nutrients from them, but its own leaves make chlorophyll. The four families, Olacaceae, Loranthaceae, Viscaceae and Santalaceae make up the Order of Santalales, the parasitic plants.
Atkinsonia ligustrina is classified a rare plant, ROTAP 2RCa, which means that it has a maximum geographic range of less than 100 km, that it is rare, that it occurs in a National Park, and that it is adequately conserved. It occurs mostly in the upper Blue Mountains, but has been recorded as far south as Yerranderie and as far northeast as Mellong.
Atkinsonia ligustrina was named by Ferdinand von Mueller, the great nineteenth century botanist and Director of the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens and Herbarium, to honour a remarkable lady who lived and worked in the Blue Mountains at Kurrajong Heights. Caroline Louisa Waring Atkinson had been born in 1834 at her parents’ property “Oldbury”, near Sutton Forest and Berrima on the Southern Tablelands of NSW. She was the youngest of four children. Her father, an author, died when she was only 8 weeks old, leaving her widowed mother to bring up the family. Her mother was also an author, this time of Australia’s first children’s book “A mother’s Offering to her Children”. She remarried, but disastrously, for the new husband, George Barton, “became violently and irrevocably insane not long after the marriage”, resulting in the family needing to leave Oldbury.
Thus Louisa, as she preferred to be known, lived most of her life at “Fernhurst”, a house that her mother, Charlotte Barton, built at Kurrajong Heights in the Blue Mountains. Louisa was a somewhat frail child with a heart defect, but there was nothing wrong with her brain, and under her mother’s tutelage she developed many skills. She became a well–known botanist, journalist, novelist and illustrator. Along the way she acted as un–paid scribe for the unlettered people of the community, and she organised and taught in the district’s first Sunday School.
In her literary career, Louisa’s first claim to fame came with the publication, when she was 23, of a novel “Gertrude the Emigrant”, the first by an Australian–born woman to be published in Australia. She was also the first author to illustrate her own work. Her second novel, “Cowanda, the Veteran’s Grant” had a cover design by S T Gill. Numerous other novels followed, each with an educational and moralising import. Continued on page 5
In 1853, aged 19 she had her first series of illustrated natural science articles published in the Illustrated Sydney News under the title of “Nature Notes of the Month with Illustrations”. Later in 1860 for about ten years The Sydney Morning Herald published her series of natural history sketches titled “A Voice from the Country”. She also became well–known as an amateur geologist, zoologist and taxidermist. There seemed little she could not do.
Louisa is acknowledged as a leading botanist who discovered new plant species in the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands, and she championed the cause of conservation during a period of rapid land clearing. She would often visit the Grose Valley, Mt Tomah and Springwood, and collect specimens for both Rev Dr William Woolls (a well–known teacher and amateur botanist) and for Ferdinand von Mueller. As a consequence of the quality of her information and the professionalism of her approach she was commemorated in a number of names of native plants: Atkinsonia ligustrina, Erechthites atkinsoniae (now Senecio bipinnatisectus), Epacris calvertiana, Helichrysum calvertiana, Xanthosia atkinsoniana, and Doodia atkinsonii (no longer a recognised species, no modern synonym, but believed to be a form of the modern Doodia caudata).
In 1865, when Louisa was 31, she and her mother returned to Oldbury, where her mother died in 1868. Louisa married the following year, when she was 35: James Snowden Calvert was a wounded survivor of Leichhardt’s expedition of 1844–5, and had been manager of Cavan station at Wee Jasper near Yass. He too was keenly interested in botany. Louisa bore a daughter in April 1872, but unfortunately succumbed to her heart condition 18 days later.
Louisa Atkinson is remembered in the local community as a pioneer of dress reform. She discarded the long dresses of the period for trousers because they were much more suitable for bushwalking and pony riding. Needless to say, this aroused “some twitterings in the ranks of the colonial Mrs Grundys” of the area.
text and photos by David Coleby, Australian Plant Society (APS) Blue Mountains Group.