A planted weed

Ammophila arenaria (Marram Grass) is a coarse, spreading grass of coastal sands which grows to about a metre tall.  It is found all along the Victorian coastline except in areas where there are limestone cliffs or salt-marshes.   Marram Grass is native to western Europe and was first introduced into Victoria, from England, in the 1880s as a means of stabilising sand dunes which had become severely eroded due to heavy clearing of coastal vegetation by European settlers.  This practice was continued for the next 100 years through the devices of various government agencies, chief amongst which was the, now defunct, Soil Conservation Authority.   Today, Marram Grass is considered to be an environmental weed and the Victorian Government does not use or recommend it for coastal revegetation programs.  In addition, there are many local programs where efforts are being made to remove it from native vegetation and to encourage local species in its place.

Marram Grass is not entirely without its virtues in coastal vegetation.  It is probable that in many areas where it had been introduced, all of the native vegetation had been removed and only bare, eroding sand remained.  The Marram Grass stabilised and built up the dunes in areas immediately adjacent to the sea, a process that often allowed native species, particularly shrubs and herbs, to re-establish.  The result has been a semi-natural vegetation (other non-native species are also regular components) along much of the Victorian coast and while this is not the most desirable outcome from a conservation standpoint, it is arguable that that things may have been much worse without its introduction.

Ammophila arenaria - Marram Grass
Ammophila arenaria
© Paul Gullan/Viridans Images 

One of the problems with Marram Grass is that the kind of dunes it creates are normally much steeper than than those that would have otherwise developed, with the consequence that some native flora and fauna (e.g. Little Penguins) find it difficult to survive in this environment.  Another is that it comes to dominate the landscape to such a degree that native grasses and sedges cannot compete.

Ferdinand von Mueller, Victoria's first Government Botanist, was the person who recommended that Marram Grass be employed as a sand-binder when the erosion problems were presented to him.  He was familiar with the species in Europe where it was often used for the same purpose.  Von Mueller apparently didn't consider using the the native sand-binding grass, Spinifex sericeus (Hairy Spinifex) possibly because little was known about its propagation and there was no seed store of the species available at the time.  Marram Grass seed, on the other hand, was readily available from England (even though it took some months to import it) and techniques for establishment were well known.  In addition to these practicalities, von Mueller was one of a group of 19th century European biologists who thought that it was their responsibility to introduce useful species of animals and plants to colonial settlements around the world. 

This concept was known as acclimatisation and von Mueller, along with Frederick McCoy, the director of the Melbourne Museum,  was one of the founders of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria.  The problem with those involved with this process was that the determination of what was a useful or desirable species was an arbitrary one, often dictated by the personal bias or self-interest of individuals.  As all of the Society's members were Europeans there was an inclination to assume that species from that part of the world were superior to those from the colonies.  Thus the introduction of trout to rivers, deer and rabbits to grasslands, songbirds and deciduous trees to urban gardens and blackberries to bushland gullies, were all meant as improvements to the natural environment. 

© Paul Gullan, Viridans Biological Databases