Save Wild Gene Pools

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News Flash, April 2014
The Latrobe City Council in Gippsland has a policy to cut down all non-native fruit trees on roadsides and poison the stumps. A number of apple trees and plum trees have already been destroyed in Yinnar South.  Chris Dash, Council’s Supervisor Arborist said that Council aims to create native indigenous vegetation corridors. However, there are no plans to revegetate the areas left bare by removing the trees, which leaves them open to infestation by noxious weeds such as blackberries. There is also no provision to be made for native birds such as king parrots which rely on the non-native fruit as an important food source, due to loss of original habitat.

While non-indigenous plants are to be removed from roadsides, Chris Dash said that council will continue to plant the garden escape weed agapanthus in council garden beds because they are “hardy”. This is despite the advice in “Grow me instead” (a Latrobe City Council publication) that “…[agapanthus] invade roadsides, bushland and waterways, and are often grown because of their hardiness and impossibility to be killed.” Chris Dash added that the agapanthus are trimmed every year to stop them seeding.’

Latrobe City Council is the guardian of a valuable national gene pool, of which all Gippsland residents ought to be proud. Victoria is the pome and stone fruit basket of Australia for good reason – because it is one of the few states in this vast, arid continent where the climate is favourable.  Gippsland in particular, with its wild roadside trees, is a treasure trove of diverse fruit DNA.

Malus and prunus are the most common wild fruit trees. The malus and prunus fruit sold commercially these days is genetically very limited. Most apples, for example, were bred from a mere handful of ancestor trees.

An ancient apple, Malus sieversii has recently been cultivated by the United States Agricultural Research Service, in hopes of finding genetic information of value in the breeding of the modern apple plant. Some of the resulting trees show unusual disease resistance. The variation in their response to disease on an individual basis is, itself, a sign of how much more genetically diverse they are than their domesticated descendants.
Australia, too, needs to save the wild gene pools.  If disease wipes out our modern fruit cultivars, those genes will be essential to the survival of future food crops.

For several decades Australian fruit enthusiasts have been trawling the Gippsland wild stock, looking for chance seedlings with desirable characteristics such as flavour, colour and keeping qualities. This selection process is identical to the process that originally resulted in cultivars such as the famous Granny Smith apple. Gippsland resident and well-known horticulturist, Neil Barraclough is one who understands the full value of this genetic resource, and during harvest season he is always on the lookout for premium quality roadside apples and plums never before recognised. Without these wild roadside fruit trees we would have none of those excellent new Australian apple cultivars such as Warragul Surprise, Neerim Red and Traf Prince.

Neil writes: ‘I’ve listed over 1,000 apple varieties that were in the past grown in Victoria. First Australia’s fruit varieties came from England, then other parts of Europe, then America and other parts of the world.   With them and the amazing diversity of other fruit varieties we had the genetic base to provide fruit all year round.   With cool storage and a change towards a consumer society we lost much of the diversity.   However since the early days people have been travelling around eating fruit and chucking out apple/pear cores and other fruit seeds.   Throw out 1,000 apple cores and perhaps 10 apple seedlings survive and these are locally adapted, the ones on the side of the road often producing copious quantities of fruit with out sprays or watering.   Of the 10 seedlings perhaps one or two will have fruit equal or better than its overseas parent and much more suited locally.  It’s a genetic resource that may be necessary for our changing climate and less affordable fossil fuels.   Until we come to appreciate its true value it is providing food for wild life and chemical free food for locals.’

The trees also add character to Latrobe City, in much the same ways as the radiata pines on the Mornington Peninsula. Several years ago Mornington Peninsula Shire Council made a push to rid the peninsula of the beautiful lines of ancient dark green pines criss-crossing the landscape. Fortunately, after a loud community outcry, the intrinsic value of the pines was fully appreciated, and now those old windbreaks are actually protected as part of the landscape’s heritage.  The Shire’s Road Side Management Strategy states: ‘Many treelines, including those composed of non-indigenous trees, such as Monterey or Radiata Pines, are culturally significant elements of the Peninsula landscape.’

The same should be recognized of the valuable wild fruit trees of Gippsland.

Wild fruit is part of Latrobe City community tradition. Local residents and travellers such as truck drivers all know the unofficial fruit routes across the region. They know where to pluck the best apples and plums in summer and autumn. People eat them fresh or make pies and cider; horse owners collect apples for their animals. This wild harvest has been going on for years and is an essential part of local culture.

Furthermore, we live in an age of increased bushfire risk. Broad-leafed trees such as apple, plum and pear are actually listed by the CFA as fire retardant trees as opposed to natives. Eucalyptus and tea tree, for example, with their volatile oils (which according to law must be labelled ‘hazardous’ and ‘highly inflammable’ after extraction) are literally fire magnets. As a blaze approaches, the oils evaporate from the leaves and infuse the heated air. These oils actually ignite in mid-air and thus jump across roads and fire breaks. It is in eucalyptus’s interest as a species to attract fire, because this promotes their germination and destroys competing vegetation. Malus and prunus, by contrast, are much harder to burn due to their high moisture content and lack of volatile oils. Trees like these have been demonstrated to slow the progress of fire across a landscape.

Compared with weeds such as gorse and blackberry, malus and prunus present a very low risk. They are found on roadsides and rarely if ever in bushland. This is because they require the rainwater run-off provided by sealed road surfaces. They are unlikely to survive in other Australian conditions.

To sum up some of the benefits of roadside fruit trees to Latrobe City Council, they are –

A precious national gene pool,

A potential buffer against future loss of food crops,

A source of new Australian cultivars,

A culturally significant landscape element,

An important factor in local community tradition,

A fire retardant corridor

Low weed potential

We hope the council will see fit to review this policy prior to any further destruction of non-native fruit trees along roadsides.

Sign the petition now before it is too late.