The Phillips Fox Billabong is an ephemeral billabong located next to the Main Yarra Trail in the southern section of Yarra Flats Park. Ephemeral means that it contains surface water some of the time and is dry at other times. This is a common situation in Australian billabongs with our variable rainfall and flooding patterns. In fact many of our ecosystems have had to adapted to wild extremes – floods, droughts, fire, cold, heat etc. This actually creates quite complex ecosystems that have various components that can flourish during these different phases.
It is the billabong in the park that most frequently contains water now days. This is due to it having the lowest entry level for floodwater into it of all the billabongs in the park, and it also has runoff into it from the adjacent escarpment.
The floor of the billabong is a good example of a floodplain wetland environment. It might look like it is full of weeds but they are largely native species that are forming a healthy ecosystem. Some of the plants are annuals and can quickly flourish after a fresh inundation, while others are perennials that are slower growing and can cope with some dry spells as well. Various knotweeds, sedges (Carex sp.), Lesser Joyweed and rushes are the main plants.
It is surrounded by floodplain forest. The trees are mainly River Red Gums with some Manna Gums and Blackwood & Silver Wattles. Some of the River Red Gums are hundreds of years old and many have hollows which wildlife love. River Reds need to be over one hundred years old to start developing hollows, but the older the better.
The dense thicket forming understory shrub is Tree Violet which is native but a badly behaved one – it is rather out of control.
Pre-European settlement, these riparian woodlands were fairly open with scattered areas of understory shrubs and lots of native grasses. Today these native grasses have been replaced by pasture grasses in Yarra Flats Park due to the fact that it was all cleared for farmland in the late 1830’s. Many weeds -small and large- have also been allowed to invade the area.
The Koori people frequented the area for food gathering and cultural reasons. Just behind the billabong is the ancient ”Stepped Tree” which was used by the Koori for centuries.
In 1839 it became part of the “Charterisville Estate” which was established by David Charteris McArthur who was the Melbourne manager of the Bank of Australasia [forerunner of the ANZ Bank]. Most of the native vegetation was cleared and gardens, orchards and vineyards were planted around the billabong.
Charterisville House (which still exists on Burke Road North) was used extensively by the Heidelberg School Impressionists from around 1890 to 1900. Many of these great artists would have stood next to this billabong admiring its Australian aesthetics. The Artist’s Trail painting “Moonrise” by Phillips Fox shows the billabong in 1900.
In 1912 Chinese established market gardens around the billabong. These lasted until the enormous flood of 1934 when everything was washed away. The Chinese wall nearby is a relic of this era.
Please take some time to reflect on the disparate cultures that have all been drawn to this spot. Some have done so for the productive nature of the soil but the unique attraction of this river landscape has also been a powerful drawcard for many.
The task of regenerating the natural environment of this beautiful spot has begun, which is a task that will take the next 5 to 10 years to complete.