A wildflower education

One day I found myself confined to the farm by the flooded North Pine River that my little Anglia Tourer couldn’t cross, with a few Mt. Mee flowers for company and time to look at them carefully, find the children’s poster paints and being to try to paint them.8

Kathleen began illustrating and painting in part to help her document and identify the wildflowers she noticed growing in her environment.

She embarked on a major program of investigation and exploration in 1953, documenting all the native plants that were in bloom across key locations of the Sunshine Coast region.

She documented her findings in a journal that is set out month by month. This journal later provided the content for numerous publications including her first book Queensland wildflowers in 1959, many newspaper columns and later books such as The Bush in Bloom in 1982. A typed manuscript of this journal is held in the Fryer Library.

Wildflowering, by Kathleen McArthur, 1953

Wildflowering, by Kathleen McArthur, 1953 

Wildflowering case studies

Case Study of Christmas Bells - from 1953 Wildflowering Journal, Kathleen McArthur

A flower that captured Kathleen’s heart was the Christmas Bell. These vibrant vermillion and yellow blooms were once collected by the bucket load on the ‘Pademelon’ plains near Caloundra, and even sent by train to Brisbane to be sold.

“Old Arthur Fox is a notable Caloundra identity [and husband to Sylvia]. Twisted by years of suffering he jog-trots out to the Duckholes each day and returns with bundles of Christmas Bells made into bunches with ferns and carried over his shoulder. They have an all too ready sale and to the unknowing this may seem an easy way of making a living – certainly I thought so before yesterday.  Because I had at one time said how I should like to see the bells growing so thickly they made a sea of colour. Arthur Fox had promised to tell me when he found a good patch.  He kept his promise and assured me we would have only a mile to walk to and from the car, so I took along my ten and eight-year-old and set off with Foxy and his wife.  The mile stretched on and on, in and out of Pademelon swamp, and still we walked.  It was pleasant in the very early morning, for we had left at six-thirty, but time and distance made it hotter.

At last we saw them …

Certainly they were in large numbers, perhaps in thousands but still not enough to make a splash across the landscape as my mind had pictured; The bells at Duckholes, though greater in number are only half the size of those in the Currimundi area and many we saw yesterday were plain yellow and plain orange without the vermillion streaks.9

Yellow Christmas Bells were to be found further north behind Noosa and in the following month Kathleen was to find these as well:

“Behind the park, running right through at the back of Sunshine Beach the Christmas Bells are to be seen in thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands.  It must make a striking blaze of colour at the very peak of the season. The reasons for these numbers is undoubtedly their protection by the authorities.  It is a declared sanctuary with large notices advertising the fact.  The notice-boards are undesirable in themselves but when they serve to train the public are most welcome.10

Case Study of Banksia - from 1953 Wildflowering Journal, May, Kathleen McArthur

Kathleen once said if she could be a tree, she would choose to be a Banksia.

And when my blossoms from rain were made
and filled with honey, honey so sweet,
I’d call the honeyeater and the lorikeet,
the noisy friar and the wattle bird.
Oh, then what music would be heard …

Yes that’s the tree whose spirit I’d be,
a banksia growing wild and free.

(A Banksia Tree, K. McArthur n.d.)

She acknowledged the popularity of Banksias across Australia. In this journal entry she introduces the five Banksia species that grew on the coast.

May makes an entrance. Golden Candlesticks (Banksia collina) are burning brightly under the eucalyps on the Northern bank of Tooway Creek and at the Eastern base of Little Mountain beside the Lansborough Road. We are lucky to have them here in Caloundra for they are more commonly the banksia of the mountain (being known also as Hill Banksia) and grow particularly well on the Glasshouses and Mount Mee where they may be found flowering in winter when little else is prepared to face the cold winds. So at this time all our banksias are in flower – Coast Banksia or Honeysuckle (B. integrifolia) Red Honeysuckle or Saw Banksia (B. serrata), Banksia robur, Golden Candlesticks (B. collina) and finally the Wallum (B. aemula). It is this banksia, the Wallum, which gives its name to the poor sandy, often swampy country so extensive in our coastal areas. These are the five banksias of Caloundra.  It is understandable that trees of such character as these should bear Aboriginal names. Three separate names for the coast banksia are Pomera, Tchoomeroo and Burthargong.  The first two are from Stradbroke Island and the last from Bundaberg natives.11

Learning the botanical arts

Kathleen’s education in wildflower painting was informed by her study of other wildflower painters and botanical artists of note. She was very familiar with key artists, and had a particular fondness for the work of Ferdinand Bauer.

The next step in my education was to go to the British Museum of Natural History to see the Ferdinand Bauer Australian paintings … That day I wrote in my diary just two words, ‘exquisite’ and ‘perfect’, and later added: ‘It is a shame these paintings cannot be reproduced for Australians.’12

Page from The Australian Flower Paintings of Ferdinand Bauer, by William T Stearn

Page from The Australian Flower Paintings of Ferdinand Bauer, by William T Stearn

Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826) hailed from Austria and he and his brother Franz established careers as renowned botanical artists working on projects in the Mediterranean and England. Ferdinand Bauer was engaged by Matthew Flinders (upon advice from Joseph Banks) as a botanical draughtsman to work with botanist Robert Brown on Flinders’ Investigator voyage from 1801 to 1803. During this time Bauer made thousands of drawings of plants and animals from Australia, using a complex system for annotating colours and sheen. After the voyage, he continued work on the drawings to prepare plates for printing, refining detail and accuracy.

Little of Bauer’s Australian related work was published until 1976 with The Australian Flower Paintings of Ferdinand Bauer. The Fryer Library purchased an edition and communicated with Kathleen McArthur about it, but she informed them she had already purchased an edition herself.

Kathleen was also familiar with books such as The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt and William Stearn, Florence Sulman’s A popular guide to the wild flowers of New South Wales, and Thistle Harris’ Wild flowers of Australia (illustrated by Adam Forster).


8. Kathleen McArthur, "Wildflowering in February" (unpublished manuscript, January 2019), typescript.

9. McArthur, "Wildflowering in February".

10. McArthur, "Wildflowering in February".

11. Kathleen McArthur, "Wildflowering in May" (unpublished manuscript, January 2019), typescript.

12. Kathleen McArthur, Living on the Coast (Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1989), 28.