Ancient Indigenous Forest Trees

Forest beside Lake St Clair, 1863 (ALMFA, SLT)

Ancient Indigenous Forest Trees were described early by explorers, scientists and settlers as 'mighty', or even 'the largest trees in the world'. Henry Hellyer made circumference measurements of north-west coast trees in 1827, but height and felling of large trees remained an obvious problem. In 1849, for example, amateur botanist Gunn mentioned that cross-saw blades were only 6 to 7 feet (2 metres) long; in the north he had measured one tree 49 feet (15 metres) in circumference.

Sir John and Lady Franklin each had a large tree named in their honour, Sir John's near Tolosa, Glenorchy, Lady Franklin's 'just off the Huon Road' in the Mount Wellington foothills. In 1849 too, Hugh Hull described a blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) of circumference 86 feet (26 metres) and estimated height 330 feet (101 metres) in Glenorchy, in which 'fifteen persons sat down to lunch'. The Rev Ewing in 1849 talked of a Vale of Giants near an upper tributary of North West Bay River, noting they were Swamp gums (Eucalyptus regnans); the possible location of Lady Jane Franklin's 'tree'. The artist Marianne North searched for 'the famous tree called Lady Franklin' in 1881, but apparently little remained of it. North travelled south to the Geeveston area where a tree was measured at 76 feet 'round' (23 metres).

Such trees were cut down for their commercial sawlog value, a single tree eulogised by an unknown poet of 1854 to be worth 'near' £300 (a senior colonial administrator's annual salary). Interest mounted with the discovery and introduction to England of the American Giant Redwood trees, with correspondence between the United States and Victoria as to which had the tallest and biggest trees. It was 1889 before the Royal Society reported specifically on the subject of Tasmanian tall trees. 'I believe your Tasmanian trees beat ours' (in height) noted the Victorian correspondent. Very tall trees at Table Cape, on the banks of the Arthur River and at the south end of Mount Barrow, possibly up to 400 feet (123 metres) were spoken of. Age, girth, and height of giant trees however were apparently never systematically investigated. In 2004 enormous controversy still rages over the remaining ancient giants of the forest. Possibly the most massive of these at 79 metres tall and 18.7 metres girth, estimated at 350 years old, christened 'El Grande', was a Eucalyptus regnans in the Florentine Valley. It was accidentally torched and killed in a Forestry Tasmania burn in 2003.

Further reading: T Bonyhady, The colonial earth, Melbourne, 2000; H Thomas, Guide to excursionists between Australia and Tasmania, Hobart, 1881; H Vellacott (ed), Some recollections of a happy life, Melbourne, 1986; B Beale, 'Death of a Giant', Bulletin Magazine, 13 August 2003.

Gwenda Sheridan