Land systems

Land systems: an Australian 'invention'
Botanical history
Mulga-Eucalypt line

The Botanists

Charles Darwin Reserve lies within the Avon Wheatbelt bioregion of the South West Botanical Province, known for its remarkable species richness. This area is recognised internationally as a 'hotspot' for biodiversity and an area needing urgent conservation action. The heritage of a succession of botanists has provided the technical basis for understanding, valuing and protecting the vegetation.  

The first botanists were the original Indigenous people who knew the plant life intimately as a source of food, medicine,  fibre, shelter and weapons.  Particular plant species had totemic meaning for groups and individuals.

The British who settled the country ignored this knowledge, but some of it lives on in the descendants of the people who were occupying the country before European contact. The settlers’ interest in plants was primarily economic. Could their sheep and cattle eat the plants?   Botanists were originally employed to assist the development of agriculture, but the rich and varied native flora has always fascinated them and they collected and classified enthusiatically.


Von Mueller and the Mulga-Eucalypt Line

The name ‘F. Mueller’ is seen following the scientific name of many Western Australian plant species.  Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, as he became, was Government Botanist of the State of Victoria.  He collected in the Shark Bay region of Western Australia in 1877, where he would have observed the change in the vegetation and species from Geraldton as he moved towards Shark Bay, where the Mulga - Eucalypt Line begins.  Another Bush Heritage Australia property, the former Eurardy Station, lies not far from von Mueller’s route. The Mulga-Eucalypt Line runs across Charles Darwin Reserve a little north of the homestead. The line indicates a zone of transition, rather than a clear boundary.

The description and mapping of this line dividing the south-western from the arid zone vegetation, has been refined by a succession of eminent geographers and botanists including L.Diels and Pritzel, E. de C. Clarke, Charles Gardner, Dr N.T. Burbidge and Dr J.S.Beard, culminating in the currently accepted maps of the Biological Regions of Australia.


One of Von Mueller’s special interests was the study of Australian eucalypts. He named the oil mallee which brought Denis Mason to Whitewells Station in the early 1950s.

Charles Darwin Reserve came close to having von Mueller collect in the area. The explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and his party disappeared in 1848 on an expedition to cross Australia. Von Mueller accompanied A.C. Gregory as botanist on his 1856 expedition in northern Australia. Gregory had been in the Lake Moore area in 1846. When Jimmy Mungaro in 1868 reported the remains of white men in the desert east of Lake Moore, it was suggested that it might be the Leichhardt Party. Von Mueller urged the Western Australian Government to send a search expedition.  He was offered the leadership but was unable to come, and the job went to John Forrest who passed just north of Charles Darwin Reserve on the expedition in 1869.  

Charles Gardner

Charles Gardner was Western Australia’s Government Botanist from 1929 to 1950. He contributed to the definition of the plant regions of the State, especially through his 1942 paper The Vegetation of Western Australia with special reference to climate and soils (J Proc R Soc West Aust 28:11-87).  In 1935 he produced a very popular book West Australian Wildflowers (West Australian Newspapers Ltd) which has been revised several times and is still in print as Wildflowers of Western Australia


Charles Gardner was a very keen botanist and was a very good friend of ours.

He did some work up there,  in fact most of his holidays he used to spend with us, he used to tour around the countryside botanising, in fact he named the Darwinia masonii after me. It was on the south side of Mt Gibson, and down on the plain, just on the right before you go up the hill Paynes Crusoe there. It was just about up from there.

Denis Mason, 24July 2006, interviewed by C.Nicholson

The Darwinia genus was named for Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Darwinia masonii is found only on the banded iron hills of the Mt Gibson Range where iron ore mining is proposed.  The propagation of the Darwinia is being studied intensively to ensure its regeneration on the minesite.

Gardner left many of his wildflower paintings to the Benedictine Community at New Norcia. The paintings are on display there.

John Beard

Dr John Beard, a forester, covered much of Western Australia in his field work from 1963 onwards, and devised a system for mapping the vegetation by plant communities. He described the physical structure of the community, such as woodlands and shrublands, then sub-divided them into associations such as ‘medium height woodland’, or ‘shrubland with scattered trees’, and noted the main plant species in them.
The mapping was done by identifying the vegetation communities observed in the field on aerial photo mosaics and transferring the marked boundaries onto maps of the region. Beard’s map of his traverses indicates that he travelled along Wanarra East Road across Whitewells Station.

Beard’s 1:1,000,000 scale map of the Murchison which included Whitewells, Mt Gibson and Ninghan Stations, was published in 1976.  (Beard, J.S. The Vegetation of the Murchison Region.  Explanatory Notes to Sheet 6, 1:1,000,000 Vegetation Series, Vegetation Survey of Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1976).   An illustrated summary of all the plant regions, Plant Life of Western Australia, was published in 1990 by Kangaroo Press.

Recent botany

Beard’s maps for the whole of Western Australia were digitised in the Microstation Geographic Information System in the 1990s by botanists Greg Beeston of the Department of Agriculture and Angas Hopkins of the Department of Conservation and Land Management. This enabled them to calculate the area of each vegetation community, the percentages remaining after agricultural and other land clearing, and the percentages protected in conservation reserves. These calculations have been used by the Western Australian Government to set limits on land clearing and to set priorities for creating conservation reserves. They were used by Bush Heritage to support their funding application to the Commonwealth Government for the purchase of Whitewells Station in 2003 and its inclusion the National Reserve System. Beard’s mapping has also been used in defining the bioregions (IBRAs) of Western Australia.

Sum of area





Total (sq. m.)

Hectares on Charles Darwin Reserve


Bare areas; rock outcrops




Bare areas; salt lakes




Hummock grasslands, mixed sandplain - open mallee over sparse dwarf shrubs with spinifex ; red mallee mallee & mixed sparse dwarf shrubs over Triodia basedowii




Medium woodland; York gum




Medium woodland; York gum, salmon gum & gimlet




Mosaic: Succulent steppe with thicket; Melaleuca thyiodes over samphire / Shrublands; bowgada open scrub




Shrublands; mixed acacia thicket on sandplain




Shrublands; bowgada & Acacia quadrimarginea on stony ridges




Shrublands; bowgada & jam scrub




Shrublands; bowgada & jam scrub with scattered York gum




Shrublands; bowgada scrub with scattered York gum




Shrublands; thicket, Jam & Allocasuarina acutivalvis on ironstone




Grand Total





Charles Darwin Reserve supports 12 vegetation associations as classified by John Beard in the 1960s and 70s.

A subsequent survey by the Rangeland Survey Team in the 1990s identified 15 land systems as classified on the basis of vegetation, soils and geomorphology. Sandra van Vreeswyck of the Department of Agriculture was the survey team’s botanist. (Link)

Botanical survey is not yet complete, although extensive collections were made by Western Australian Herbarium botanists Sue Patrick and Daphne Edinger in 2003 and 2004, and the weed species were collected by Dr Ian Clarke of the Herbarium of Victoria in 2005.

In 2007 volunteer Len Warren summarised for Bush Heritage the information about York gum. He found that although the York gum woodlands of the south-west of Western Australia were once widespread and common, and are now scarce and a high priority for conservation. Little research has been done on their botany and ecology. Len Warren, Conservation of York Gum Woodlands on Charles Darwin Reserve: Lessons From the Wheatbelt of Western Australia.