Wildflower meadows and rare blooms boost biodiversity in Melbourne

28 March 2024

Discover tranquil native wildflower meadows and exquisite endangered plants in your neighbourhood thanks to passionate experts doing their bit to boost biodiversity.

Read on to inspire your inner botanist or follow the links to jump to sections of interest.

Parkville’s native wildflower meadows

Katherine Horsfall, a PhD candidate from the University of Melbourne, is passionate about restoring grasslands and creating native wildflower meadows to boost biodiversity in urban areas.

She’s one of the green thumbs behind two native wildflower meadows in Parkville, supported by the City of Melbourne.

“We keep losing our grasslands to urban development and agriculture, which have made some ecosystems critically endangered. Less than one per cent of our grasslands remain,” Katherine said.

“We need reliable, affordable techniques to bring these plant communities back from the brink.”

A smiling women with light brown hair and glasses in a leafy space
Katherine Horsfall

Katherine’s first wildflower meadow in Parkville was on Gatehouse Street.

Next, she turned her attention to Oak Street, equipped with ever-evolving knowledge about how to approach modified urban soils and dry summers, and how to adapt horticultural technologies for local ecosystems.

With her colleagues Professor Nick Williams and Sophia Blosfelds from the Green Infrastructure Research Group, Katherine designed a seed mix that included 33 native wildflowers and 10 native grasses.

Then a dedicated team of volunteers grew wildflower seed for the project at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley campus.

“With each new meadow we learn something new. For Oak Street, we’re really making flowers the showcase and amping up species diversity to supply lots of resources for butterflies, birds and bees.”

Wildflowers and tall trees
A sunny day in the Gatehouse Street meadow

The naturalistic approach Katherine uses involves planting native species from seed, which leads to a low maintenance meadow with less gaps for weed invasion.

“Direct seeding takes out the step of sowing seeds in nursery trays – where you plant and mulch, plant and mulch, lose some plants along the way and don’t really end up with a mass-planting effect,” Katherine said.

“The approach we take is a much denser style where plants are merged together from seed and they sort themselves out in a more natural way. It’s about getting nature to do a bit more of the engineering.

“As we plant everything from seed, it’s kind of an exciting slow-burn. The meadows go through an ‘ugly phase’ before becoming something really wild, layered and diverse.”

Two people planting seeds in a wide expanse of sandy soil
The seeding team at work in Parkville

The Oak Street meadow features indigenous grasses and wildflowers including murnong (yam daisy), once a staple food of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people, as well as everlastings and iconic kangaroo grass.

As well as the ecological benefits of native wildflower meadows, they also have great aesthetic value.

“I’m a fan of beauty, and if you’re going to do this kind of work in urban landscapes you need to make it approachable and acceptable for people who live alongside it,” Katherine said.

“If we can showcase the absolute beauty of these species in the city, people are more likely to accept it as a planting style. In my experience, a lot of local people are really interested in biodiversity in public landscapes. I’m surprised by how many people walking past know the species of plants, or have studied them.”

A butterfly on a yellow flower in a meadow
Native wildflower meadows support birds, bees and butterflies in urban areas

Katherine hopes many more urban spaces will be transformed from lawn and gravel into vibrant meadows in future. The learnings from Parkville will help create reliable, repeatable models for other locations.

“I’d like to see this being business-as-usual for roadsides and roundabouts – with a bit of care up front we are confident we can create self-sustaining pockets of nature that are grassy for parts of the year and flowering for others,” Katherine said.

“If we have more native wildflower meadows we can employ more people to grow these seeds, and see more cultural burning on Country. Cutting or burning once a year instead of regular mowing would save on fossil fuels and fertilisers.”

Over the next four years, Katherine will continue working with the City of Melbourne to investigate how best to incorporate recycled soil resources – such as soil dug up during construction – into native planting.

A carpet of wildflowers next to a walking track
Wildflowers border a peaceful pathway at Royal Park
A grassy linear meadow alongside a walking track
Growing grasses and wildflowers through direct seeding creates resilient understorey habitat

Cultivating endangered plants in parks and gardens

Alongside creating native wildflower meadows in the city, we’re also working to protect some of Melbourne and Victoria’s most endangered flora. There are 1557 Victorian plant species currently at risk, and this number is rising.

Our new Threatened Plant Living Collection Plan is helping us cultivate endangered species in our parks and gardens,.

Created with Russell Larke, Senior Curator of Horticulture for Cranbourne Gardens, the plan showcases the matted flax-lily, morning flag and shiny tea-tree flowers, to name a few.

“As a kid I loved chasing my grandma around the garden and learning about how cool native plants are, and that has never left me. Now, as a dad, I’m deeply committed to passing down this knowledge to my little girl and playing my part in conserving these precious plants for her and future generations,” Russell said.

Russell on Mount Dawson looking at the threatened Commersonia dasyphylla plant, which had not been seen in Victoria for more than 70 years. A population of this species will be established in the City of Melbourne

“I believe that increased community involvement holds the key to safeguarding Victorian plants from extinction. In many cases people who live and work in urban environments don’t know where to start when it comes to protecting threatened species and we hope that this work will provide people with the tools to reimagine how they can contribute and become involved.

“By actively involving people in local city gardens through initiatives like our Threatened Plant Living Collection Plan, we have an opportunity to showcase the beauty of these plants while simultaneously establishing backup planting locations for highly threatened species. It’s a win-win!

“The project has prompted so many conversations with other councils and shires, urban planners and landscape designers who want to actively contribute to plant conservation while building beautiful landscapes.”

To learn more, browse the Threatened Plant Living Collection Plan (PDF).

The Grevillea gariwerdensis is one of the species outlined in the Threatened Plant Plan

Where to spot native flora in your neighbourhood

From the vast collection of exotic, rare and endangered species at the Royal Botanic Gardens, to the peaceful Trin Warren Tam-boore wetlands in Royal Park or the floral clock in Queen Victoria Gardens, there are so many places for plant lovers to explore in the City of Melbourne.

Browse our guide to parks and gardens to explore more locations in your neighbourhood.

“Immerse yourself in the beauty of city gardens and take the time to notice the plants around you. The plant diversity found in various landscape types and garden beds is truly remarkable,” Russell said.

“In city gardens, you can experience a virtual tour of the world’s plant diversity. Nevertheless, there are plenty of opportunities to enhance the diversity and ecological value of these landscapes through the introduction of new Victorian plants. This will not only contribute to local biodiversity but also offer a chance to cultivate a more distinctive global identity for the city.”

A purple chocolate lily flower
A chocolate lily (Arthropodium strictum) in bloom

How to grow a wildlife garden at your place

From native plants to bee hotels, there are lots of ways to make your home more wildlife-friendly and foster new habitat, even if you just have a balcony with pot plants. You can source native plants from local indigenous nurseries.

“We’re lucky in that we’ve got some great indigenous nurseries locally, like VINC and Bili, where you can browse and select plants for your place with expert advice,” Katherine said.

“There are many species that can be grown successfully at a small scale, on a nature strip or balcony. There are several local community groups, too – like the Friends of Royal Park – that are trying the direct seeding approach. These groups offer a wealth of knowledge for the community.”

Purple chocolate lily flowers and yellow daisies
More chocolate lilies, growing alongside yellow Podolepis linarifolia, which are part of the daisy family

Russell said that the Threatened Plant Living Collection will also lead to more varietals being available to home gardeners.

“The Threatened Plant Living Collection aims to introduce a diverse range of threatened species into urban landscapes, not only to support their conservation but also to experiment with growing them as garden plants,” Russell said.

“Ultimately, we are looking to build a Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria collection of rare and threatened Victorian plant species for home gardeners to cultivate and protect in their own gardens, so stay tuned.”

Not sure where to start with native planting in your garden or pots? Book a free session with one of the City of Melbourne’s knowledgable Gardens for Wildlife volunteers.

A person in standing among trees, looking at a plant
Our Gardens for Wildlife volunteers can provide advice for your garden, even if you just have pot plants on your balcony

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