Today the landscape of the Volcanic Plain is characterised as a grassland. It is pretty desolate in it’s current state and has suffered much from the effects of grazing. However, there are some remnants of the pre-colonial landscape around and we can use these to reconstruct what it was like. We also have some historical descriptions, like the Hume and Hovell excerpt below, to offer us some tantalising clues.
We know that there was a seemingly endless grassy plain that had a wide variety of grasses, herbs, ephemerals and small flowering shrubs.Trees were rare, due to the semi-arid nature of the climate. There were River Gums along the creeks and rivers, clumps of Casuarina and Wattle, and areas of Grey-Box forest. Among the grasses, Themida Triandra (KangarooGrass), Stipa and Sedges dominate. Chocolate and Vanilla Lilies, Pimlea, Bluebells, and Basalt daisies are among a bewildering variety of small plants. Yam Daisy, or Murnong, was once abundant also, but the sheep loved it so much that today it is hardly found at all.
One amazing facet of the grasslands is the extreme bio-diversity of the region. It is reckoned that the number of species in this eco-system is greater than a rainforest. It is for this reason that the grasslands are the most threatened eco-system in Australia.
We can get some idea of this threatened nature by looking at the surviving remnants of one species: The Sunshine Orchid Diuris Fragrantissima, a terrestrial orchid,whitish purple in colour, that has a symbiotic relationship with a particular fungus. This plant was once prolific. So much so that it was called “Snow on the Paddock”. The sheep must have found it particularly tasty because today there is just one small clump left. Just where it is found is a closely guarded secret, because it is among the rarest plants on the planet. Attempts have been made to propagate it, but because of its symbiotic relationship, this is no mean feat.
The eco-system supported a vast array of fauna – insects,reptiles and marsupials. There are fossils of extinct megafauna to be found at Keilor, including Diprotodons, a wombat-like creature the size of a small bus,and 2 metre tall kangaroos. This deposit is interesting as it is one of the few places where humans and these giant animals are found in close proximity and of a similar age.
Reptiles abound in the semi-arid, rocky environment. You will find, if you look: Snakes, Cunningham’s Skinks, Black Rock Skinks, Marbled Geckos and the Striped Legless Lizard Delma Impar.
Even today there is a huge array of insects, many of which are still undescribed by science. If you are lucky you will see a Blue-Banded Bee.