If you walk along the clifftops from Manly to Royal National Park, you’ll walk through coastal heathland that has grown there for millennia. It may look like it’s all the same type of scrub, but it’s not.
Nestled among this coastal vegetation is a unique type of heath called Eastern Suburbs banksia scrub.
Eastern Suburbs banksia scrub, or ESBS as it’s known in Western science, has Aboriginal cultural significance and is home to many animals. In 1788, when Europeans first reached the lands of the Bidjigal and Dharawal peoples, ESBS occurred throughout what is now known as eastern Sydney, North Head and parts of Royal National Park.
Today, over 90% of this beautiful heathland has been cleared – and what remains is scarce, weedy and scattered across its range.
ESBS was one of the first ecological communities determined to be in danger of extinction by the NSW Government. Because so little ESBS survives today, the NSW and Australian Governments have determined it to be critically endangered. This means that without our help, it will likely disappear forever.
A critically endangered ecological community
An ecological community is a unique mix of native species that live together, often on a particular soil type in a particular location.
ESBS grows throughout Sydney’s eastern suburbs in ancient wind-blown (aeolian) nutrient-poor sand as 2 closely related subcommunities, coastal sandplain heath and coastal sand mantle heath.
Coastal sandplain heath
This low woodland or shrubland community grows on deep sand dunes around Sydney’s eastern suburbs, such as Botany and Woollahra. In this subcommunity around Sydney you’ll see large woody shrubs or trees such as stunted old-man banksia (Banksia serrata) and scrub she-oak (Allocasuarina distyla), whereas north of Botany Bay it may contain wallum banksia (Banksia aemula).
Woody plants such as tea-trees, grevilleas, peas and wattles form a dense shrub layer and the ground layer is made up of sedges and herbs. Some smaller plants such as wedding bush (Ricinocarpos pinifolius), grass tree (Xanthorrhoea resinosa) and tree broom-heath (Monotoca elliptica) are also found in this subcommunity.
Coastal sand mantle heath
This heathland community grows on sand that was blown onto cliffs and settled in shallow sandstone depressions. These sand mantles occur above some of Sydney’s major sandstone headlands such as North Head, Malabar, La Perouse and the Kurnell Peninsula.
This subcommunity often contains a range of large woody shrubs, including coast tea-tree (Leptospermum laevigatum), wallum banksia (Banksia aemula), scrub she-oak (Allocasuarina distyla) and heath-leaved banksia (Banksia ericifolia). It has a diverse range of woody shrubs such as wattles, geebungs, peas, grevilleas and paperbarks. Sometimes patches of low-growing eucalypts like red bloodwood (Corymbia gummifera) and smooth-barked apple (Angophora costata) grow in this heath.
These 2 wind-blown sandy habitat types may support different forms of the ESBS ecological community, but they share many species and characteristics:
- they are resilient and tough enough to cope with drought, salt spray and blustery conditions
- they need managed fire to regenerate, like many Australian plant communities.
Another heathland community also shares the clifftops with ESBS, but it has a different mix of plants that live in more nutrient-rich sand that comes from the erosion of coastal sandstone.
Shelter and food for wildlife
ESBS is home to many animals. Birds are relatively easy to see as they flit from flower to flower, but look closely and you’ll find many insects. These animals help pollinate ESBS flowers and get rid of pests.
Late winter and spring are the perfect time of year to explore ESBS as it transforms from a blanket of green into a blaze of colour. Iconic Australian species like boronia, wattle and banksia bloom alongside pink heath, bright yellow peas, and the bold red flowers of the mountain devil.
These flowers attract animals that rely on these plants and others for food. The nectar-rich flowers are an important food source for the eastern pygmy-possum, as well as lorikeets and honeyeaters such as the New Holland honeyeater, wattle bird and eastern spinebill. Smaller birds like wrens, silvereyes and finches also live within ESBS and feed on insects and seeds.
You may also see cockatoos in the taller shrubs or trees in ESBS. If you hear a crackling sound above, stop and look up.
Other plants within ESBS provide pollen to many insects, including native bees and hover flies. Caterpillars, beetles and other herbivores eat the leaves of these species. In turn, these insects attract animals that feed on them, including bandicoots, birds, frogs and lizards.