MR. ERNIE STEPHENS of Freshwater, was guest speaker at the Mossman Branch Meeting on 19th September, 1983. These notes make very interesting reading, and will give an insight into the origins of rare fruits in North Queensland.
White settlement in Far North Queensland commenced at Cardwell in January, 1864, and at Somerset and Townsville in the same year, but it was not until the 1870s that gold discoveries resulted in opening up and settling of a number of localities. These included Cooktown in 1873, Cairns in 1876, Port Douglas in 1877, as ports along the coast to serve the mining settlements on the fields.
Now in the 1980s, these places, with the possible exception of Somerset, are readily accessible, one with the other, and all with the big centres of civilisation and market places of the South. But in those days of infant settlements, it was imperative that people made or grew their own requirements or went without. So, in the matter of food, there was an urgent inducement amongst the early settlers to grow food crops as quickly as possible, and the fact that tropical climate prevailed over much of the area - and particularly the coastal area - induced early trial of a lot of tropical crops. This tendency was assisted too, by the inclusion in the prospecting communities, of many people from overseas tropical countries who tended to bring their native crops with them.
The Acclimatisation Society of Queensland was very actively supplying members of the Far Northern communities with seeds and plants of many tropical crops too. The Society was strongly established in Brisbane at the time, and located at Bowen Park.
Early in 1880, L.A. Bernays, Vice-President of the Acclimatisation Society, conducted an extensive survey of Far Northern localities to ascertain progress and prospects of the cultivation of tropical economic crops under trial by various people. Plant material had been supplied by the Acclimatisation Society to far northern settlers from the early years of the 1870s, and in the latter half of that decade, detailed records of the distribution had been kept so that Mr. Bernays was able to check results fairly fully. His report was published in Parliamentary Papers for 1880. He found that a disappointingly large number of distributions had failed to survive the transportation problems of the period; and in other cases where plants had been established successfully, changes in circumstances of property ownership or development had resulted in the demise of many plants.
However, he found sufficient well-established and thriving plants of a wide range of the exotic species to indicate they could be grown successfully in the North Queensland tropics. He lists the following species actually observed by him to be thriving under the North Queensland climatic, soil, and cultural conditions: Avocado, Bael Fruit, Bread Fruit, Bread Nut, Bananas, Cashew, Custard Apples of all kinds, Cochin Goraka, Coconut, Citrus Fruit of all kinds, Date Plums, Date Palms, Elephant Apple, Flacourtia Plums, Figs, Guavas, Jack Fruit, Jujube, Kei Apple, Loquat, Litchi, Longan, Mango, Monstera, Olive, Peach, Pomegranate, Rambutan, Star Apple, Sapodila, Tamarind, Vi-Apple and Wampee fruit trees, Cocoa, Coffee and Paraguay Tea; Nutmeg, Pepper and Allspice and sundry other economic plants and introduced timber species. Mangosteen he found to give poor prospects of successful establishment; and of hundreds of clove plants distributed, he did not find one successfully established and thriving.
He commented on the worth of two native species - the Herbert Vale Cherry and the Queensland Nut or Macadamia, and the fact that they were both frequently planted in northern gardens. The Queensland Nut has since become a recognised commercial nut, largely cultivated overseas as well as in Queensland. The Herbert Vale Cherry is now known more generally as the Herbert River Cherry, and is still regularly used for jam-making by many of the old established families.
In this report of L.A. Bernays to Parliament, the suggestion was advanced for the establishment of a small nursery in the coastal area of North Queensland for the propagation of tropical plants and as a centre for their distribution. He suggested a six-acre area under nursery cultivation, staffed by a skilled gardener and a labourer and operated as a Government undertaking.
The Government set up its Ministry for Agriculture in 1887 and lost little time in acting on the recommendation. In October 1888, Peter McLean the Under Secretary of the newly-created Department of Agriculture, recommended to the Government that an experimental nursery be established on the Crown Reserve at Kamerunga. The object was to introduce to Queensland the various economic tropical crop plants, try them out under tropical Queensland conditions, assess their possibilities as economic crops for Queensland, and to propagate them for distribution to prospective growers. The original recommendation to the Government was for a cultivated area of ten acres, but when the plan was approved by Parliament the area was increased to 20 acres.
Almost immediately, applications were called for an officer in charge of the Station, which was given the official title of Kamerunga State Nursery. From a number of applicants the Department selected Ebenezer Cowley. This man had had some fifteen years of association with tropical crops in Africa, Fiji and the Herbert River district of North Queensland, primarily in sugar cane. He was also a Botanist.
Cowley arrived to take up his appointment in September, 1889, and was immediately involved in the clearing and fencing of the nursery land, and the erection of offices, glass houses, staff quarters and gardeners' cottages. At this stage, the land selected for the nursery was under standing rain forest vegetation. Close by, along the frontage of the Barron River, was the township of Kamerunga, John Robb's headquarters for the construction of the range section of the railway from Cairns to Herberton. Robb had laid a railway line from Redlynch to Kamerunga, with his terminal on a Railway Reserve on the river bank one-quarter mile north of the Nursery.
Whilst land clearing and other establishment operations were in progress, Cowley was introducing from overseas countries a wide range of seeds of both economic and decorative plants in order to have seedlings ready for planting out as soon as the land was ready. Amongst the earliest introductions were coconuts, and from these the coconut palms on Green Island originated, planted there by Ebenezer Cowley and his staff.
The nursery land was planted with stock of the various plant introductions, to provide source material for distribution to prospective growers. The plantings were designed to provide an attractive garden display that would attract visitors to the Station. Photographs of the 1895 to 1905 period, still extant, show that a botanic garden effect was indeed achieved; while press reports of that time indicate that the garden was a popular attraction. The original entrance drive to the Station was flanked by a row of Royal Palms on each side. Unfortunately, this attractive approach was across privately-owned land not under the control of the Crown, so was destroyed when the owner proceeded with his own developments. Two palms flanking the Station gateway still survived fifty years later to give an indication of the magnificence of the original entrance.
In 1892, John Robb's Railway Reserve on the river bank was cancelled and the land added to the Kamerunga Nursery. It was planted to experimental plantations of Cocoa and Rubber trees. They appear to have thrived and proved horticulturally successful. Unfortunately, extensive flooding of the Barron River in 1911 washed the plantations away. Rainfall in excess of 70 inches over three days caused extensive erosion on the lower Barron.
Extensive experimentation was carried on with Cocoa, Coffee and Tea, with Vanilla and Oil Palms; with various rubber producing plants; fibre plants including Cotton, Sisal, Sanseviera, Jute and Kapok; Annatto dye; Divi-Divi tannin tree.
Sugar cane was grown experimentally in the Nursery. Cowley went to New Guinea in 1892 and again in 1893 to collect varieties for propagation and trial at the Nursery. "Batoe", a very sweet chewing cane was one of his introductions. Henry Tryon, the Government Entomologist also collected cane varieties in New Guinea and brought back sixty-six varieties for trial at Kamerunga Nursery. Amongst these was the variety "Badilla" that became the mainstay of the Queensland Sugar Industry over some forty to fifty years.
Tropical Fruits introduced and grown experimentally included most of the lesser-known varieties such as Mangosteen, Sapodilla, Rose Apple, Malay Apple, Star Apple, Litchi, Longan, Five Corner, Mabolo, Bread Fruit, Jack Fruit, Flacourtia Plum, Otaheite Apple. All these were grown in the Specimen Garden, and many survived till comparatively recent times, to provide source for plant distribution to interested prospective growers.
Throughout the first decade of the present century, extensive lists of tropical plants and seeds available for purchase from the Kamerunga State Nursery were advertised regularly in the Queensland Agricultural Journal. Many of the odd trees and plants in old gardens scattered about North Queensland originated from the Nursery. All the lesser-known tropical fruits and many ornamentals, as well as all the recognised commercial field crops, were included in the Nursery's offerings. And they were readily accepted by settlers all over North Queensland.
Wartime exigencies led to the closing of Kamerunga State Nursery early in 1916. The property was put up for private lease with a condition attached that the tree plantings had to be maintained. Descendants of the original lessees are still on the property and are still maintaining surviving remnants of the original plantings. However, the majority have died from old age.
There have always been some people like yourselves who are interested in trying out something new or unusual in the plant world. For this reason, we can sometimes find most unusual plants in most unlikely places. I wonder if your organisation keeps a record, or has ever considered establishing a record of location of rare plants within its area. Since the early years of this century, there have been quite a number of plantings of unusual plants even just in your Douglas Shire.
At Daintree, the Osborne Brothers who operated the early sea transport between the ports of Cairns and Port Douglas and the Daintree River, tried out a number of fruits. In later years, Mexican Limes, probably from their early plantings, were spread over the Daintree flats by floods, and caused a minor problem in some pasture paddocks.
On lower Daintree, a rubber plantation was established very early, but labour problems associated with the latex tapping made the crop un-economic. The property became an Aboriginal Mission Station, and now is a cane farm. On it, there is an interesting record of early Daintree days. This is a gravestone that marks the final resting place of a pioneer school teacher, Mary Julia Cronin, who in 1899 was appointed to two half-time schools at Daintree River and Baileys Creek, travelling week about from one to the other by boat. She survived only a brief time before developing pneumonia and dying.
Port Douglas became a busy port to service the Hodgkinson Goldfield when a road was found up the Mowbray River and over the range. The flats along the river near this road were quickly brought under farm production to provide food and fodder for resident and travelling population. Two farmers in particular were interested in fruit crops - Jim Reynolds, mainly in the various citrus fruits, and Messrs. Montgomerie & Robbins in some of the lesser-known introduced fruits. 'Round about the 1930s to 1950s, there were still several of the rarer plants at Robbins property, as it then was. And in the 1960s, H.M. Bowden had avocado, cocoa and pepper plants in Port Douglas.
At Mossman, J.D. Johnston was settled at Mango Park early in the century and was keenly interested in the exotic fruits. He had a number of good mango varieties as well as Litchi, Longan, Five Corner, Mangosteen, Cocoa, and others. His descendants maintained interest in the rarer fruits.
Mangosteen has continued to be a rare fruit. Fifty years ago there was one tree at Kamerunga State Nursery, two at Mango Park, and one at Dunk Island - all mature trees; and a young one at W. Jones in Mossman. I raised several seedling trees in 1936 and planted one in my own garden at Edge Hill in 1937; gave one to B. Barnicle of Aumuller St., Cairns and one to Frank Fraser at Ingham. My own specimen fruited in 1950. And I have a further seedling planted at my present home at Freshwater, and now twelve years old but not yet fruiting. No doubt there are a few other Mangosteens planted since I was actively interested in tropical fruit propagation.
I wonder if any of you grow the Bell Apple or know of any vines growing and fruiting. Botanically it is known as Passiflora laurifolia and is a native of the West Indies. I had it growing and fruiting about forty years ago, but have not seen it for quite a while. And another one - does anyone know of Galip Nuts growing anywhere in the North? They are Canarium polyphyllum. An old note book of mine indicates a Galip tree at Mango Park was carrying a crop of ripe nuts in May, 1963.
Canarium polyphyllum. Obtained seed nuts from Dept. of Agriculture, Rabaul on 4th February, 1936. Planted on 7th in black sand at 1-inch depth. On 25th March, 2 seedlings up with curious pronged growth and 2 others just breaking through sand, 47 days germination.
On 4th August, 1936, transplanted 12 seedlings into tubes. On 22.9.36 gave 2 trees to City Council Nursery.
On 23.9.36 gave 1 tree to C.J. Hamilton at Aeroglen, 1 to B. Barnicle at Aumuller Street, Cairns and 1 to J.D. Johnston at Mango Park. By mid-1939 the trees were 5 to 7 feet high.
In July, 1937, Mrs. Robin Heale brought back four young plants from Singapore. I obtained 2 cuttings from them and both struck. By December, 1938, the vines were flowering freely, but not setting. The flowers appear to need cross pollination to set and the pollen ripens early in the flower life. Six weeks from pollination to fruit ripening.
Hovenia dulcis. Planted seed 21st June, 1938. Planted out young tree in September, 1938 and had a few fruit in 1944. Good crops ripening in March, 1945 and 1946. Distributed several tubed plants late in 1938. There was a fruiting tree in Mr. Marshall's parents' orchard when they had the area that is now Freshwater Caravan Park.
DATE: May 1984
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