Mindful medicine

Wildflower season at Jirdarup Bushland is mindful medicine

By Gabrielle Pither

Ding. Ding. Ding…

I pull into the carpark at the Jirdarup Bushland Precinct and switch off my phone to quiet the incessant buzzing. As Mental Health Week in October approaches, there’s no better time to switch your phone to ‘do not disturb,’ and channel a little mindful medicine as you take a stroll through Jirdarup Bushland.

Spring walk in Jirdarup

It’s 10am and there’s still a slight chill in the air and a dampness to the ground, despite the sun casting a warm golden glow over the gumtrees – the scent of eucalyptus a welcome break from the smells of the city. Jirdarup is a uniquely preserved slice of bushland nestled amidst the Perth hustle. As it nears peak wildflower season in Western Australia, the bushland offers a mindful moment with every glimpse of new flowering flora, and if you look carefully…orchids.

As I step onto the well-worn trail, memories of my childhood spent orchid hunting with my grandfather in Ongerup come flooding back. Grandad was a botanist and could rattle off the scientific names of most native species of West Australian flora.

‘Grandad! We’ve found another cowslip orchid!’ my two older brothers and I would shout enthusiastically. Like many native Australian orchids, what the cowslip lacks in height it makes up for in vibrancy – large yellow flowers, with cream or pink tones, and splashes of magenta on its upper three petals. ‘Caladenia flava,’ Grandad would say good naturedly, even though he knew it was falling on deaf ears.

According to West Australian flora researcher and orchid expert, Andrew Brown, there are 470 orchid species currently known to occur in Western Australia. These strange but beautiful blooms have fascinated scientists and nature enthusiasts for centuries, and since 2000, 24 species have been identified in the Jirdarup Bushland. Cowslips make up one of the 24 and by mid-September you’ll be welcomed by a couple not far from the George Street corner where two benches are situated invitingly.

I take a seat and focus on the rustling of the leaves, and the distant chirping of a willie-wagtail. A bobtail basks lazily in the sun on the track beside me. Letting the life in the bushland anchor my thoughts, quiets the background noise buzzing inside my head. I’m smelling, hearing, and seeing Jirdarup – consciously mindful.

Mental health organisation Headspace defines mindfulness as the ability to be fully present in the moment. It’s the ability to be aware of that ever-present static noise – our thoughts and feelings – without being overcome. Statistics from a 2019 study suggest people who spend 120 minutes or more in nature per week experience consistently higher levels of physical and mental wellbeing. That’s an easy 20 minutes per day. Headspace provides guided techniques for you to follow, but a healthy dose of the Jirdarup Bushland could be just what you need to get started.

Growing up surrounded by the native scrubland of Ongerup, going bush is like coming home. Life in the bushland works a kind of healing magic.

The orchid season brings forth a dynamic display of nature. A time when the bushland comes alive with swathes of colour – delicate flowers telling stories of resilience as they remerge every year. Near the Harold Rossiter carpark, among the undercarriage of a large gumtree, new green leaves hint at the presence of life – a promise of delicate pink fairy orchids. Feminine hues and a willowy silhouette, she’s the ‘stereotypical’ Barbie of the orchid world. And just like Barbie, the fairy orchid is rarely seen without her friends – all the fairies dancing the night away in Barbie’s dreamhouse garden.

It’s when we’re quietly mindful that our thoughts can creatively weave a little magic, a form of escapism that somehow brings clarity when we return to the real world.

Thelymitra macrophylla, I hear Grandad exclaim from beneath his tweed flat cap, as I spy violet sun orchids on the left towards the George Street corner. Nearly 50cms tall, the sun orchid remains closed except in strong sunlight – like every good Australian they’re at their liveliest when the skies are blue, and the days are longer.

Orchids take on many different shapes and sizes, often named after their playful likeness to something else. The soft-yellow floppy-petaled donkey orchids, are dotted through the bushland from the main entrance at Etwell Street, to the George Street corner. Blotched with brown and purple, they’re as soft and whimsical as their Disney counterpart.

My eyes, nose, and ears are consumed by curious imaginings, and I feel the tension leaving my body.

When viewed from the chalky white bushland tracks, the diversity of the bushland is hard to ignore – wattle blossoms and banksia intermingled, their radiant yellow and orange hues echoing the changing seasons. By November, the red running postman will be weaving its way under the bright orange flowers of the native Christmas trees. The running postman goes where humans dare not. Moodjar is the Noongar name for the Australian Christmas tree, and according to Aboriginal folklore it’s a kaanya tree, a sacred tree, where the souls of the newly dead rest before they continue on their journey. It’s bad luck to rest under the shade of a moodjar.

Unwilling to put my soul at risk or counteract the benefits of my mindfulness with bad luck, I re-tie the laces on my sneakers and continue on my way. Up from the George Street Reserve on the right towards the Baron-Hay Court entrance, red and green kangaroo paws stand in contrast to the sand mound they stem from. Luminous in colour, the red stands out like the baubles on a Christmas tree. Western Australia’s floral emblem can be purchased from most local nurseries – your own piece of bushland healing to take home.

The bushland flora is a soothing constant amidst the highs and lows of busy days. Grass trees, or balga, are quintessentially native Australia – charcoal coloured trunks, reedy foliage, and what appears to look like a spear pointing towards the sky. Ironically they’re neither grass nor tree, but rather distantly related to lilies. Balga is their Noongar name, and just like the traditional custodians of our land, they’ve been here for a very long time. Growing at roughly two and a half centimetres per year, some of the more mature balga in the bushland are over 200 years old. What magic has the balga seen?

Contentment is finding peace in the little moments we’re not striving for anything.

  • It’s noticing the eremaea, and evergreen shrub with its fiery orange blossoms – soft flames licking at sturdy trunks.
  • It’s salt and pepper bush, holly banksia, and blue dampiera weaving threads of soft pink, violet, blue, and white into the scrub.
  • It’s the honey myrtle and the bacon and egg bush frying themselves in the sun.
  • It’s the hardenbergia, pea climber, unravelling my day, despite its tangled appearance.
  • It’s counting the delicate pink blossoms of swan river myrtle to help quiet me to sleep at night.

I make my way back to the city’s bustle, and my head is no longer filled with the day’s buzzing of yesterday’s mistakes and tomorrow’s worries. Instead, it’s filled with tiny, strange orchids, dancing fairies, whimsical donkeys, and sleeping spirits lying underneath glowing orange canopies.

Nature as a form of therapy isn’t a recent concept, and you don’t have to read a high-profile science or health journal to realise how much better you feel after getting amongst some greenery. The idea of nature prescriptions, where doctors prescribe time spent in nature to improve mental health, is gaining traction around the world. But nature isn’t a drug, and you don’t need a prescription. Jirdarup therapy is entirely cost-free, accessible to anyone willing to lace up their walking shoes.

I encourage everyone to take a stroll through Jirdarup and visit the Friends website if you want to find out more or get involved.