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The Break-up of Gondwana; 135 Million Years Before Present (MYBP) To The Present Day
Roll the mouse over the thumbnails from Left to Right to see Gondwana drift apart
Gondwana A Potted History
The theory of Plate Tectonics, that the continents are a relatively thin and fractured skin floating over the mantle and that they move slowly
around through disturbances from below, is now fairly universally accepted. It is thanks largely to research in modern countries that once
formed part of Gondwana that we can be so certain of this.
At one stage in Earth's history (From the Late Silurian period c. 415 Million Years Before Present) all the continents were massed into one
super continent now referred to as Pangaea. By 340mybp Pangaea began to split in two, Laurasia (containing what will become Eurasia
and North America) from the northern half and Gondwana from the southern half. As the sea filled the gap between the two Super
Continents the land plants, and many land animals were isolated. Evolution would continue largely separately on the two land masses, the
effects of which are still clearly visible today, Such as the lack of marsupial mammals in Eurasia for example.
During the Early Cretaceous period (~125mybp) the first ancestors of Angiosperms (flowering plants) began appearing, most likely in what
was to become West Africa and North Eastern South America (the Atlantic would not yet open for several million years). They quickly
spread over Gondwana and diversified rapidly and spread up into North Africa, Europe & Asia.
The Cretaceous also saw the break up of Gondwana, the Atlantic opened up, Africa and
South America broke off from the still temperate and unfrozen Antarctica. 90mybp the
Indian sub-continent begins an epic journey north, finally colliding with Asia 50mybp
starting the formation of the Himalayas, & it is still going north at around 6cm per year
pushing the Himalayas & the Tibetan Plateaux behind up ever higher. Between 80 and
60mybp the New Zealand Sub-Continent began to part from Australia with the spreading
and sinking of the Tasman Sea taking many of their common plants with them. The term
'New Zealand Sub-Continent is used as much of what is present day New Zealand was
formed by later volcanism & tectonic action. The then, much larger, landmass still
stretched from below all the main islands of modern New Zealand to New Caledonia
along the Lord Howe and Norfolk Rises and also out along the Chathams Rise. These
are named for the Lord Howe, Norfolk and Chatham Islands respectively, all of which
small relic points of land show their continental origins by their very high levels of
biodiversity and endemism (species found there & nowhere else) today.
From 60mybp onward New Zealand was isolated from Australia and it's unique flora &
fauna began to further develop and diversify, but the earlier links are still evident. The
Manuka or tea bush (Leptospurnum scoparium) is found in both countries in only slightly
differing forms, the Hop Bush (Dodonaea viscosa) are found on both sides of the Tasman
Sea. There are several examples of plants that have diversified more in on country than
the other such as Pittosporum and Celmisia which have more on the New Zealand side
and Epacharis on the Australian side. Some arose on the western side of the Tasman
Sea & their light windborne seeds were blown to New Zealand where they grew & in time
diversified into many of the unique species found there today. It would seem that all
members of the Daisy family arrived in this manner as the first fossil record of Asteraceae
is from the Oligocene (just 34-24mybp), long after New Zealand become isolated.
After the Tasman Sea opened only Australia and Antarctica remained attached until 45-
50mybp when the South Tasman Rise was breached and the uninterrupted circum-polar
Antarctic Ocean was formed. Australia & New Guinea are still drifting northwards today
& in around 20 million years the top of Australia should reach the Equator. The
separating of Australia & Antarctica had dramatic global consequences. With the
opening of the Antarctic Ocean a circum-polar current developed, so diverting the warm
waters from equatorial regions which could previously flow all the way to the Antarctic
shore. Without warm water air currents polar Icecaps began to form and slowly higher
The floating arks of the fragmented Gondwana took many of their plants and animals with them as they slowly made their way to their
current locations. As they travelled their climates and conditions changed, the inhabitants were forced to adapt to the conditions, those that
are here today could, those that couldn't are found only as fossils in the rocks and sediments. Those fragments (Africa, India & South
America) which collided with Laurasia met with sudden influx of new species from the north and of course many Gondwanan species
moved north and continued evolving there. The cactus family Cactaceae, for example has spread to above the Canadian border from its
South American origins. In the other direction a familiar example from the animal kingdom, the Jaguar, a northern feline invader and it's
relatives soon displaced the indigenous large marsupial predators.
Present day strongholds of Gondwanan origin flora include Andean and Southern South America, the incredible flora of the Cape floral
kingdom and much of the rest of Southern Africa. The now sadly much depleted flora and fauna of Madagascar, famous for its Lemurs a
classic example of a Gondwanan mammals. The Indian subcontinent split perhaps too early to take much of the flowering Gondwanan flora
with it and its traumatic journey north and its subsequent collision and associated influx of Laurasian plants with Asia eradicated much of
what remained. There are still representatives, such as Parochetus comminus the ever-popular 'Blue Clover' found today throughout the
Himalayas and high up in the mountains of East Africa. The Australasian plate (which includes New Guinea) drifted close enough to the
Islands of Indonesia to allow stepping stones through New Guinea over the land of what is now the still shallow Arafura sea into Northern
Australia. Plants such as Rhododendron northiae of the tropical rainforests of Northern Australia are obvious later arrivals. Aboriginal
Australian man probably also come via this route. The large unbroken and flat nature of Australia resulted in extensive deserts forming after
separation from Gondwana. For these new habitats new plants evolved from the original Gondwanan stock, giving rise to many of the now
familiar plants of the Australian arid 'Bush'; Eucalyptus, Wattles, Banksia and Grass Trees amongst them. The mountainous Southeast of
Australia and Tasmania remain the 'most Gondwanan', here the wet and cool climate is much as that of the temperate forests of Gondwana,
it is in these areas that most of the plants that are to be found elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere are to be seen.
It is not just plants which were carried in these Southern Ark continents as they drifted, animals from opposite ends of the world are still
closely related and others show very similar evolutionary paths. The many Marsupials for example in Australia and South America remain as
testament to Gondwana.
The plants still show many similarities, to give the most attractive example is perhaps in the family Proteaceae. The wonderful Waratah,
Banksia & Grevillea of Australia, the Proteas of South Africa and the much desired 'Chilean Flame Bush' (Embothrium coccineum).
Elsewhere in the former Gondwana where the climate has remained suitable to their survival members of Proteaceae have persisted. The
incredibly diverse and unique flora of New Caledonia has many representatives, but where the climate was colder there are fewer if any.
Tasmania has but a few compared to the mainland, 2 Banksia (c. 50 species on the mainland of Australia), one Grevillea (c. 340) and one
Waratah (4) are among the most note worthy. New Zealand has but two representatives, the Toru (Persoonia toru, of a genus many
members in warmer, drier Australia including 2 in Tasmania) and the New Zealand Honeysuckle (Knightia excelsa). It is worth noting that
both of these are found in warmer areas, mainly of North Island. Where the climate is very wet and cold Proteaceae are generally either
poorly represented or absent. This family of hundreds of diverse garden worthy plants tells us not just of the present southern continents
origins but also something of the adaptive potential of plant groups.
Hopefully the reader is now clearer on what Gondwana was i.e. the Southern Super Continent whose constituent still form much of toady's
land mass in the Southern Hemisphere. Also what constitutes a 'Gondwanan Plant', i.e. a plant for which its evolutionary origins can be
traced back to the flora of Gondwana.
The most frequently cited example of 'Gondwanan Plants' are the Nothofagus or Southern Beech. A genus of around 40 extant species of
trees found in Australia (3 Species), Chile & Argentina (9 species), New Caledonia (c.5), New Guinea (c.14) and New Zealand (4). Fossil
evidence has shown that they were long the dominant trees over much of Antarctica but none have been found in Africa, thus we can
surmise that Africa had split from Gondwana before Nothofagus arose or that conditions there were never suitable to their establishment.
The correlation of the distribution is more easily seen from bottom-up perspective, rather than the equatorial projections we are more used
to. With a map centred on Antarctica one can imagine a strip running from Chile to New Zealand running through Antarctica (See Poole,
1987, Wardle, 1984 & White, 1994).
Where Are The Gondwanan Plants Today?
Why Should We Grow Gondwanan Plants.
Amongst these plants are to be found some of the most beautiful in the whole plant
kingdom, with species exhibiting every colour and form imaginable. More usefully
Gondwanan plants are to be found in a great diversity of habitat and in many cases
have become very well adapted to them. Where we are on the Northwest coast of
Scotland there are several great obstacles to gardening, the near continuous violent
salt-laden westerly winds, the high rainfall and lack of soil. These conditions are not
ideal for growing the majority of the more common 'garden plants', which object to one
or more of these constraints. Amongst the plants of Gondwana origins one may find
many 'garden worthy' subjects perfectly adapted to just these conditions.
For the exposed West coast of Scotland a good example is that of seaside hedging for
wind breaks. Plants of Northern hemisphere origin suitable to growing as a windbreak
while still being aesthetically pleasing are few; Rosa rugosa, Elaeagnus x ebbingei,
Contoneaster spp. & Hydrangea spp. In parts with more shelter, brooms and Ceanothus
in drier areas. This list is far from complete but one must agree it is fairly representative
and even some of these are somewhat lacking in the aesthetic.
Many of the plants of the Southern Hemisphere are particularly well adapted to places
exposed to strong salt-laden winds. Looking at a globe it is easily seen that the
Temperate Southern Hemisphere has far less landmass than the Temperate Northern
Hemisphere. As mentioned earlier after the break-up of Gondwana a circum-polar
ocean developed, stretching right around the globe and interrupted only by occasional
small islands to slow the winds or break up the waves. The Southern seas have
become notorious for their mountainous seas and storms. The 'Roaring Forties' and
'Furious Fifties' have claimed many ships. It is on these Islands and the brave bits of
land that stick themselves into the path of the winds that many of the best plants for our
exposed coastal areas are to be found.
From these Gondwanan shrubs we are spoilt for choice, amongst the most commonly
used are the near indestructible Olearia macrodonta, O. cheesmanii, O. solandri, O.
traversii and tens of other species of Olearia of New Zealand. Escallonia spp., most
frequently E. rubra var. macrantha & hardy Fuchsias of many varieties from the bottom
of South America, Hebe spp., larger species such as H. eliptica, & H. salicifolia which
grow wild in both New Zealand & Chile, as well as other sorts like H. speciosa,
H. x franciscana and H. parviflora make excellent flowering hedges that are barely
bothered by the wind. For a more plain hedge there is the apple green of Griselinia
littoralis. Bereberis darwinii is excellent as a spiky hedge in a windy spot with it's
thousands of rich golden flowers.
W Arnold-Forster 'Shrubs For The Milder Counties' Published by Alison Hodge, Penzance, 2000. The new second edition of this work
originally written in 1948 contains an addendum of plant-name changes by Peter Clough, former head gardener at Inverewe, near to us. Full
of the authors experience of gardening on an exposed Cornish moor with descriptions of hundreds of exotic shrubs from all over the world,
many of which, new to us then, have become garden favourites 50 years later.
W. J. Bean 'Trees & Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles' 8th ed., Vols. 1-4, Published by John Murray, London, 1980, Supplement 1988.
90 years after it was first printed this is still the standard work on the subject.
M. I. H. Brooker & D. A. Kleinig 'A Field Guide to Eucalypts' Vol 1 . Bloomings Books, Victoria, 1999. Covers Southeastern Australia and
Tasmania, and so all of the hardiest species.
Yvonne Cave & Valda Paddison 'The Gardener's Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Native Plants' Published by Random House,
Auckland, 1999. Obviously predominately written for native gardeners there, but crammed with good pictures & up-to-date descriptions of
most of the varieties you are likely to encounter in gardens & nurseries here.
W. M. Curtis , 'The Students Flora of Tasmania', Published by D. E. Wilkinson, Tasmania, 1967-94
'Flora of New Zealand' Volumes 1, 2 & 5 Published by A.R. Shearer of Wellington.
'Flora of Southern Africa' is a massive work in many parts which is available from the National Botanical Institute in Southern Africa (see
V. Heywood Ed. 'Flowering Plants of the World' Batsford, London, 1978. Though the classification of some of the families has change
since its publication it remains a thorough & accessible work giving information on all major Angiosperm families.
Graham Hutchins' 'Hebes Here & There' and available from County Park Nursery, Hornchurch, Essex
Jamie Kirkptrick, 'Alpine Tasmania' Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997. An excellent clearly illustrated field guide with some lovely
photos by Peter Domrovskis in the middle.
Any of Lawrie Metcalfe's series of books published by Random House 'The Cultivation of New Zealand ……'
P. Olde & N. Marriott 'The Grevillea Book' Vols. 1-3, Published by Kangaroo Press, New South Wales, 1995
David M. Moore, 'Flora of Tierra del Fuego' Anthony Nelson, Shropshire, 1983
Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix's 'Garden Plant Series' published by Macmillan are invaluable as sources of many fine images and often
useful information on the plants in their natural habitat. Most applicable to Gondwanan plants are 'Shrubs', 'Perennials' Vols 1 (Early) & 2
(Late), 'Annuals and Biennials' and 'Conservatory & Indoor Plants' Vols 1&2 which contains many plants hardy outside in the milder
Counties, we have also found that most of the estimates of hardiness are rather conservative in these volumes.
A. L. Poole, 'Southern Beeches', Published by Science Information Publishing Centre of Wellington in 1987.
James B. Reid et al 'Vegetation of Tasmania' Published by Australian Biological Resources Study, Hobart, 1999. Great book if you are
really interested in Tasmanian plants, very up-to-date and full of interesting info on not just the ecology of the Island itself. Not cheap, or for
the uninitiated, has a massive bibliography.
John T. Slamon, 'A Field Guide to the Alpine Plants of New Zealand' Godwit, Auckland, 1999. Most of the commonly encountered
upland plants of New Zealand are described with photographs.
'Tylor's Guide to Seashore Gardening', ed. F. Tenenbaum, Published by Houghton Merlin Company, New York, 1996
John Wardle, 'The New Zealand Beeches - Ecology Utilisation & Management', Published by New Zealand Forest Service,
Christchurch in 1984.
M. E. White, 'Greening of Gondwana' 2nd edition, Published by Reed of New South Wales in 1994.
Hugh D. Wilson, 'Field Guide: Stewart Island Plants' Manuka Press, Christchurch, 1994. Exceedingly useful book if you ever visit the
southern most of New Zealand's three main islands. All 580 vascular plants native to the island are described and illustrated with much
other useful information besides.
For more books see our Recommended Reading List.
Phew, hope you managed to take in some of that! Basically lots of plants from the colder bit of the Southern Hemisphere grow well here so
we offer them for sale, in the hope you will buy them, be impressed with them & come back for more.
References and some other useful publications
The Wollemi Pine a relative of the Monkey
Puzzle has grown little changed for more than
150 million years. In 1994 it was discovered
growing in an isolated gorge in the Blue
Mountains of New South Wales.
plant and much animal life was excluded from the giant continent. The periodic warm periods that our planet experiences occasionally
allowed some re-colonisation via Tuerra Del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsular. The loss of the warm equatorial waters to the Antarctic gives
an ominous warning to us in Britain. In Scotland we lie on the same latitude as Labrador in Canada which is locked by sea ice in winter as it
lacks the warming effect of the Gulf Stream coming up form the Gulf of Mexico with which we are blessed.
Nothofagus is a genus that has it’s origins in Gondwana & today has species spanning the Southern Hemisphere.
From West to East: Nothofagus antarctica (Chile), Nothofagus cunninghamii (Tasmania) & Nothofagus solandri (New Zealand)
The Chilean gesneriad Mitraria coccinea
Growing from a rotting Scottish pine log.
Mason Bay on the west coast of Stewart Island
off the south of New Zealand. These massive
waves are being blown in by a typical summer
storm. There is nothing to interrupt the winds
between here & Antarctica or Chile.
Many Eucalyptus may be coppiced into hedges of vibrantly coloured foliage, Callistemon the Bottle brushes of Australia for a lax hedge,
what better site than a hedge of Embothrium, the flame red flowers illuminating the garden in June. The Southern Rata, Metrosideros
umbelata, with it's masses of red pom-pom flowers has the honour of being the dominant shrub on the Auckland and Campbell Islands below
New Zealand at more than 50º South or the beautiful Pohutukawa, Metrosideros excelsa, for the frost-free windy garden. It is probably wise
to stop this list here before I loose what few readers have made it this far!
The main failing of the hardy Gondwanan plants is that many are not cold hardy enough to survive everywhere in Britain, those living
Grampian, upland Yorkshire or Northumberland may find that many of the plants I have listed above, while excellent at coping with wind are
vulnerable to their harsher frosts as the uncommonly winters of 2009-10 & 2010-11 proved. But the Southern Hemisphere is not a
universally mild and temperate place, as with the Northern Hemisphere, there are cold regions and mountain ranges to be found. Indeed
some of the highest mountains outside the Himalayas are to be found in the Andes. The Southern Alps of New Zealand, the Highlands of
Tasmania, the Snowy Mountains & The Grampians of South East Australia and the Drakensberg of South Africa all have many excellent
plants to offer those who live in Braemar.
This is a fairly epic tale, click here for the Light Version.