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Plant Focus

Valonia Oak Restoration Project, Castlemaine, Victoria

A restoration project that will be of interest to IOS members is taking place in the Australian state of Victoria. A plantation of valonia oak (Quercus ithaburensis subsp. macrolepis) at Castlemaine, Victoria, dating to the late 19th century, has suffered deterioration due to a decade of drought, and only three of the original 14 trees are still alive. Acorns are being collected from the surviving trees with a view to producing new trees to replant and restore the historic stand.

A living valonia oak next to two dead ones (Photo: Stuart Read)

The valonia oaks were originally planted as a source for tannin (see Marcie Mayer’s article in International Oaks No. 25 for the importance of this species in the island of Kea, in Greece, also due to its role in the leather tanning industry). This oak is in fact one of the principal sources of tannin and during the 19th century British firms were importing thousands of tons of acorn cups from Turkey. In Australia, wattle species were used for tanning, in particular black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), which yields about 45% tannic acid from its pulped bark[1]. The leather and footwear industries were two of Victoria’s fastest growing industries by the end of the 1870s, thereby providing a substantial source of employment.  Because of its superior quality, large quantities of Victorian wattle bark, a component used in the leather tanning process, were sought by overseas tanners. By the late 19thcentury uncontrolled bark stripping had brought the population to the edge of extinction.

Epicormic shoots (Photo: Stuart Read)

According to Joan Hargreaves[2], “Government concern over the effects on both the footwear and tanning industries led to the instigation of the Wattle Bark Board of Inquiry in 1878… The Manager of Cunnack’s Tannery in Castlemaine, Alexander Goudy, informed the Board of Inquiry that Castlemaine had been depleted of wattle bark through indiscriminate stripping of young trees by Chinese miners… To overcome the costs of transporting bark from further afield, the tannery planned to use an alternative tanning agent.”

Mr George Cunnack, tanner, currier and leather merchant of Castlemaine in June 1879 had two Wardian cases (transportable wooden boxes with glass lids used in the propagation of plants) made up in London and sent to Smyrna, Turkey, where acorns and 20 rooted plants were collected and sent to Australia. Under the direction of William Ferguson, Curator of the Macedon State Nursery, acorns were planted in a paddock adjoining Cunnack's tannery. The trees first produced acorns in about 1893 and trees were distributed to several locations in the State of Victoria. Only three of these plantations survive, including the Castlemaine stand.[3]

Decorticating bark on Quercus ithaburensis ssp. macrolepis  (Photo: Stuart Read)

A Statement of Significance in the Victorian Heritage Register reads: “Cunnack's Valonia Oak Plantation is of scientific and horticultural significance due to the plantation being the first planting in Australia. The site supplied acorns to set up other plantations in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. The plantation is one of only three in Victoria, and the species is uncommon in cultivation. The specimen in the north east corner produces very large acorns and is the largest and finest specimen in Victoria.[4]

The condition of the trees in Cunnack’s Plantation has deteriorated in recent years, as a result of a decade of drought and two wet winters. Most of the 14 original trees are dead or dying, decorticating and sprouting epicormic shoots. Only three have survived. Acorns have been collected from these survivors and germinated. The dead trees will be removed and their stumps ground, with the wood being offered to local wood turners.  Once the new seedlings have reached a suitable size, the stand will be replanted. Participants in this restoration project include Heritage Victoria, Mt Alexander Council, Winters Flat Primary School, Yamina Collectors Nursery and the International Dendrology Society.[5]

[1] Watson, P., Black Wattle - Boots, Bettongs and Flynn, Hobart District Group of The Australian Plants Society - Tasmania Inc., http://www.apstas.com/blackwattle.htm (accessed Dec 2, 2014)

[2] Hargreaves, J.M., Tariff protection and politics: Castlemaine 1870-1901, Master of Arts thesis, (Deakin University, 1999), 237.

[3] Read, S., Bendigo Goldfields, Yearbook 2013, International Dendrology Society, 157.

[4] Victorian Heritage Database, http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/#detail_places;5399, accessed Dec 2, 2104

[5] Myers, B., Bits ‘n Bytes Botanical – September 2014, International Dendrology Society (Australia)