[Trish Gardner has researched and considered this topic for many years and has made useful contributions to this section, as have Peter Cullen, Maurice French and Ed Willey]
The pre-European vegetation of what is now the urban area of Toowoomba would have been an expression of the topography, rainfall distribution and soil moisture levels across the area and the vegetation’s management by the indigenous community.
Toowoomba lies in a shallow basin whose eastern edge is the steeply downward-falling scarp of the Great Dividing Range at an elevation of about seven hundred metres. The basin is about five kilometers across and a hundred metres deep, is bounded to the north, west and south by low hills, and drains to the northwest.
The soil type is predominantly a red lateritic clay, with brown stony basaltic soils along the hill tops and ridges around the city and alluvial soils along the creek lines.
The prevailing winds for much of the year are moist easterlies which rise up the escarpment and drop rain along the eastern edge of the basin. The rainfall decreases significantly from east to west across the city whilst the rate of evaporation rises, so that the city becomes progressively drier towards its western edge. During the winter strong dry southwesterly winds blow intermittently, but there is usually little rain from that direction.
The southern half of the basin is drained by East and West Creeks, both of which rise close to the inland side of the escarpment and flow northwards on either side of a middle ridge, joining in the city center to form Gowrie Creek which runs northwestwards and drains into the Condamine River. The creeks are shallow and run fairly permanently, and before European settlement and drainage extended on both sides to form swamps.
The area was settled by indigenous people long ago, who would have lived as best they could from the naturally occurring plant and animal life of the district. They would have managed the flora and fauna to the limit of their technology to provide as much food and other resources as possible, but we do not now know how, where or for what ends this was done. The type and level of management would have varied across the area to make the best use of the natural resources.
The interactions of topography, soil type, rainfall distribution, soil moisture levels and human management would have created a mosaic of vegetation types with intergrading and shifting boundaries, and the resulting vegetation across the Toowoomba basin would most likely have been a patchy and shifting transition from dry rainforest through softwood and vine scrub to sclerophyll forest.
By the mid twentieth century only one small area of dry rainforest and scrub still remained to the west of the escarpment, in the Boyce Rainforest. It has been well maintained as such and contains some typically rainforest species such as giant stinging trees (Dendrocnide excelsa). Before recent developments on Prince Henry Drive there was a shining-leaved stinging tree (Dendrocnide photinophylla) near the exit gate from the one-way section of the Drive, and two small remnant groups of Watkin’s figs (Ficus watkinsiana) still exist on Mt Lofty. Prince Henry Heights was early on referred to as Yam Ridge and as Tick Hill; both native yams and scrub ticks are primarily associated with softwood and vine scrub.
Scattered remnants of this vegetation including deciduous figs (Ficus superba var. henneana) and Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla), celerywood (Polyscias elegans) and ribbonwood (Euroschinus falcatus) trees still occur across much of the city, with an isolated remnant Moreton Bay fig tree as far west as Colvin Road in Drayton. There is a probable reference to rainforest species including giant stinging trees still growing as far west as the hills north of Gowrie Junction in the nineteenth century.
The combination of red clay soil and forest with extensive shade, leaf fall and surface litter without compaction would have resulted in moister, more open and more fertile soils than we see across the city today, and there were springs along the lower slopes above the swamps. This and other factors together with the few records available suggest that softwood and vine scrubs were much more widespread across the Toowoomba basin than we can envisage today. Franke Scrub on the western side of Highfields is a remnant of this vegetation, which would have been common on moister slopes and gullies across the whole of the Toowoomba basin. Since being fenced from cattle about ten years ago both Franke Scrub and another scrubby gully north of Kingsthorpe have thickened up and are showing natural regeneration of araucarias and other softwood and vine scrub species.
Photographs from the 1870s show the area below Picnic Point was dominated by eucalypts (Eucalyptus, Cory-mbia and Angophora species), and remnant eucalypts are still common across the whole of the city both in parks and as isolated trees.
The lower part of Queens’s Park was recorded as having originally been an Aboriginal camping and gathering space and to have been kept open by fire. This area would have been on the edge of the swampy East Creek, which as late as 1872 was described as having ‘thick reeds and rushes’. The area was used in the mid nineteenth century as a European camping ground, splitters lived and worked there, and the surrounding forest was grazed by horses and bullocks. It has since been filled in and built up above flood level to form the lower oval of Queen’s Park.
The moister soils just above the swamps and creeklines would have supported ribbons of softwood and vine scrub and the swampier soils along the creeks both weeping bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis) and black tea tree (Melaleuca bracteata). These species can still be found along the creeks in the city, although few if any would be original specimens.
European squatters and settlers arrived in the Toowoomba area in the early 1840s, driving their flocks ever northwards on the inland routes through northern New South Wales. The extensive grassy plains of the Darling Downs offered good grazing and the land was taken up quickly, and Drayton became a settlement at the top of the escarpment on the route down to Moreton Bay (now Brisbane). As the European population grew Drayton suffered from insufficient water supplies, and settlement expanded northwards into the well-watered and timbered basin that now contains Toowoomba city (initially known as the Drayton Swamp). This brought the Europeans into increasing conflict with the First Australians already established in the area. In 1851 Christopher Rolleston, the Darling Downs Commissioner for Crown Lands, reported that European settlers were deliberately destroying bunya trees in the area with the aim of ‘keeping blacks out of the neighbourhood’, although it may also have been to access their useful timber for building and furnishing their new homes.
Between 1845 and 1860 the need for space for housing and farming and for timber for building, furnishings and firewood led to rapid destruction of the local forests, with useful timbers such as hoop and bunya pines and red cedar being selectively logged ahead of the tougher and less useful eucalypts. Twenty people held licences to cut trees in the Drayton Swamp in 1850, fifteen of whom could cut hardwood only whilst five held general licences which would have allowed them to cut rainforest species as well. One of these licensees employed nineteen men.
Experience by the Friends of the Escarpment Park has shown that softwood species such as bunya pines and Wonga vine (Pandorea pandorana) regrow readily in bushland parks when broadleaved privet and lantana are removed, provided at least a few remnant plants remain, and it is likely that across the Toowoomba basin much of the vegetation would have been patchy softwood and vine scrub in pre-European times.