Bill Cane.

A short history of a pioneering Australian Plant Enthusiast.

Bill Cane

William Lancashire “Bill” Cane was born in Carlton, Victoria, in 1911. When the First World War broke out, his father enlisted, and while overseas was wounded and repatriated. Then, in Bill’s words, “things became desperate, he went back, and this time did not return”

In 1919, when Bill’s mother died, he and his three brothers were made wards of the state, and sent to live with relatives near Sale in Gippsland. He attended the Wurruk Primary School, a one teacher school. Bill recalled that he loved to read, and wanted to learn, but apparently did not enjoy his schooling until the last two years, when Dick Uncles helped and encouraged him, and urged him to go on to High School. Financial constraints prevented this, and at the age of thirteen Bill gained his Merit Certificate, and was able to leave school. He always remained grateful to Dick Uncles for his interest.

It was during his school years that Bill first became interested in growing plants, and showed the first signs of the innovation that was to mark his later work with native plants. He recalled that he was only growing things like peas and beans, and a small plot of wheat about six feet square, which he watered with the contents of the tin dish used for washing, and observed that his plants and wheat grew better than those of the other boys.

After leaving school, Bill got a job working on a farm owned by a Sale butcher named Jackson. For milking cows, cutting wood, grubbing blackberries, etc. he was paid five shillings per week and his keep, which even in those days was very low. This was eventually raised to seven and sixpence, but Bill was most unhappy, and after four years he left to try and make a living on his own.

Like so many others, he went rabbit trapping, and lived for a time with Charlie Thistlethwaite and family at Little Plain near Valencia Creek. I remember Bill telling me that he grew flowering plants like gladiolus there, on the proviso that he also grew vegetables for the family. He had great success with pumpkins which he grew in the fertile environment of the pig-sties. It was at this time that he started his involvement with bees, helping Charlie rob wild hives in “bee trees” for the family’s honey. Working at night, Bill held the lantern while Charlie took the honey, but he soon found out that he received most of the stings.

Bill decided to become a beekeeper, and started off with 100 hives of wild bees, which he obtained by cutting down an estimated 200 bee trees. His first season was a disaster, losing the entire stock, and he was forced to start again, cutting down another 200 trees. This time, with a better season, and a bit more knowledge, he was successful, and went on from there to become a successful apiarist. At first he moved around using horse, jinker, and sulky, but in 1936 he wanted to move further afield, so he hired an A model Ford truck, and took his bees to the bush at Nowa Nowa. in East Gippsland.

During this period Bill started his study of native plants, starting with the Eucalypts, and the plants which were a source of pollen for the bees. He bought a microscope, for the sum of twenty pounds, a lot of money then, and with it compared the pollen grains carried by the bees, with pollen on plants flowering in the vicinity, thereby building up his knowledge of the honey flora. He also realised the obvious shortcomings of local common names, and commenced to learn the botanical nomenclature, a practice which he later encouraged other apiarists to adopt.

Always a man of enormous energy, Bill used to think nothing of riding his pushbike from Nowa Nowa to Melbourne and back for a weekend’s break.

Bee keeping was not always plain sailing however, and sometimes he had to return to trapping or farm work to supplement his income. At this time, when beekeepers used the rail network to shift their hives over long distances while following the nectar flows, Bill was possibly the first to use semi trailers, which took his hives and equipment as far away as Tamworth in New South Wales, and Kingston in South Australia. Bill also became active in apiarist associations, first at Bairnsdale, and then at both state and national levels, was president of each for several years, and also served on the Eastern States Honey Council.

In those days, honey from north of the divide was considered superior to, and attracted a higher price than honey from Gippsland. Bill was having none of that, and set out to overcome this prejudice, by entering his products in the Victorian Apiarists’ and Royal Shows, where he consistently won prizes, thereby proving his point. If I remember correctly, he regarded honey from the Black Sallee, E. stellulata, as the best of all, although hard to get in quantity.

In 1947, Bill bought two acres on Brewer’s Hill, just out of Maffra, where he built a house, married Norah Linton in July of that year, and began to establish his Clearview Nursery. At the end of the block by the irrigation channel he built his honey processing sheds, and between those and the house, erected his glass and shade houses. It was also in 1947 that he met the botanist Jean Galbraith, with whom he enjoyed a close association for the rest of his life. Plant specimens that Bill collected were sent to Jean for identification and forwarding to higher authority. Although he accumulated a large library of plant books over the years, he credited Jean’s field guides, plus his own powers of observation for most of his knowledge of botany and native flora.

Bill was now able to start propagating and experimenting in earnest, and soon was achieving results which were formerly thought impossible, for example growing selected forms of Corymbia (formerly Eucalyptus) ficifolia from cuttings. Always happy to share his knowledge, his method was published in Your Garden magazine in December 1958, where it was read by Russian botanists who contacted him for details, as a result of which, Eucalypts were successfully cutting grown in Russia.

In 1944 Bill heard of George Althofer, obtained his catalogue, and corresponded with him for 15 years before actually meeting him. In 1947, George’s Burrendong Arboretum was almost destroyed by floods, and suffered another very wet year in 1948. Bill propagated and sent hundreds of plants to George to help re-establish the Arboretum, and continued to do so till the end of his life. He also contributed plants to several other arboretums, and established one which bears his name at the Boisdale school.

Also bearing his name is Banksia canei, named in his honour by the late Jim Willis, the Victorian Government Botanist. (see below). Bill also enjoyed a good relationship with Jim, and with a quiet grin confessed that he used to argue with him. Realising that this Banksia was different, Bill collected specimen material for Jim, and the new species was eventually described and named. It was only one of many undescribed plants, and new records for the state found by Bill Cane. Many new plants were introduced into the nursery trade by Bill, both manipulated hybrids, and naturally superior, variegated, or unique colour forms of species found in the bush and propagated from cuttings, an art he perfected by constant experimentation. Using his unique methods he was able to strike cuttings of notoriously difficult plants which defeated the efforts of others. Typical of these were the Persoonias, his last passion, and his collection contained species from all over Australia. He used to grow Persoonia chamaepeuce to order because of the perceived difficulty in striking cuttings. His secret was quite simple, take the cuttings from a dense part of the plant where the stems were blanched and tender. Another instance of his skill back in the 1950s, was striking cuttings of the Blue Tinsel Lily in two weeks, after being told it was impossible. A very modest man, he only tagged his own plants with the Clearview name under pressure from his family, his main emphasis was always to promote the growing of Australian plants, and to preserve them either in the wild, sometimes by replanting, or in gardens and arboretums. I was with Bill when he took plants of a semi double form of Philotheca myoporoides to replant on a ridge above the Insolvent Track north of Maffra, after a Forest Commission burn off caused a large burning Eucalyptus sieberi, or Silver-top to fall on the original plant with fatal consequences. He knew the burn off had taken place, and went straight up to check on what was one of his special plants.

Some of his plants are Callistemon Father Christmas, Correa Clearview Giant, Leptospermum Clearview Fairy, and the Clearview Grevilleas “David”, “John” and “Robin”. He was apparently more stubborn with his hybrid Crowea which was known in the trade as Cane’s hybrid, and the double form of Philotheca verrucosa, which he found near Heyfield, was always referred to simply as the Heyfield Double Wax. Gaining personal kudos was never in the picture with Bill.

With Arthur Swaby, Bill was at the forefront of moves to establish the Society for Growing Australian Plants. In the early years he regularly travelled to Melbourne to attend meetings, sometimes as often as once a week, and also spoke at meetings in Sydney, and in Western Australia, while over there on collecting trips. Bill considered the part he played to be his main achievement, and in recognition of his services he was made a life member.

In 1985 Bill became ill, and was diagnosed with a terminal illness. A surgical procedure gave him an extra 12 months, and typically, he used this time to travel and collect, propagate, and send to Burrendong as many endangered plants as possible, for he believed that no plant is safe in the wild. I enjoyed several field trips with Bill, and on one into the Moroka Gorge in search of a pink flowered form of Zieria robusta, we found an interesting low-growing hybrid Persoonia. I also had the great pleasure of taking him on his last two field trips to collect a few special species for George, to The Watchtower, high above the Moroka, and Mount Elizabeth north of Bruthen where we collected the rare Hibbertia hermanniifolia, and Nematolepis frondosa.

Bill Cane passed away in the Maffra District Hospital on the eighteenth of January 1987, and lies in the Maffra Lawn Cemetery, under a plaque adorned with Corymbia ficifolia.

*Photograph. The photo at the beginning of this article was taken by Peter Madden of Maffra, on a plant trip to the Little River Gorge in East Gippsland, and shows Bill, hair blowing in the wind, gazing at the cliffs and doubtless wondering what new or rare plants are growing among the crags. While taking part in an SES exercise I had noted a huge plant of Persoonia confertiflora, and we took Bill up to see it. I had also collected specimens of a possible undescribed Baeckea in the gorge, and along the rim where Bill is standing, grows Eucalyptus saxitilis, which had recently been noted for the area.

*Acknowledgement. Much of the information in this account of Bill’s life comes from a taped interview with Bill made by the late John Nicholls of Maffra, a retired teacher and keen gardener. I think John would approve of me using it in this way to to place an account of this remarkable man’s life and achievements before a wider audience.

The following was written by the late J H Willis, and was taken from a photocopy in my possession of an article which I believe was printed in an SGAP publication.

*Bill Cane and his Banksia Canei.

I first met Bill Cane in the 1940s, at the National Herbarium of Victoria where he was an occasional country visitor, always bringing some plant of interest for inspection.

He once mentioned that he’d seen specimens of Hairy Boronia (Boronia pilosa) ten feet in height near Bengworden, south-east of Bairnsdale, Intimating that we knew this heathland species only as a low bush up to knee-height, it was tactfully suggested that perhaps he was confusing it with some other taller plant at Bengworden, but Bill stuck to his guns.

A few weeks later, herbarium staff were amazed to see, through their library windows, what appeared to be an uprooted tree moving slowly of its own accord across the Domain lawns – one recalled the Shakespearean episode of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood ‘removing to Dunsinane’. In truth, it was tiny Bill Cane carrying, and quite obscured by, an enormous ten-foot specimen of undoubted Boronia pilosa, thereby proving his point! How he ever manoeuvred it into a Melbourne tram remains a mystery.

Bill delighted in refuting popular tradition that this or that plant could not be cultivated. Few gardeners have essayed to grow native cherries (Exocarpos spp.) because of their part-parasitic habits; yet I have a magnificent Cherry 40 ft tall that began as a tiny seedling, in Bill’s ‘Clearview’ nursery at Maffra. As an apiarist he supplied us for years with delicious Yellow Box honey from his local hives.

Throughout eastern Victoria, Bill Cane was constantly on the lookout for ornamental native plants to enhance the garden. Those having unusual forms, – variegated foliage, deviant flower colours, superior blooms etc, were introduced into his nursery from cuttings, and he also collected much seed for propagation. In his wanderings among the mountains, Bill made several new records for Victoria (e.g. Eriostemon virgatus at Mt. Kaye) and extensions to the known range of other plants.

Twenty years ago it was my pleasure to name a remarkable and undescribed Banksia species in honour of this enthusiastic, tough and nuggety, lovable plantsman; the formal description of Banksia canei appeared in Melbourne Herbarium’s journal Muelleria Vol 1, pp 118 –120. (July 1967)

In memory of Bill.

There’s a quiet mountain hillside
above the first big waterfall,
where we found that special geebung
on the slope, ‘neath white gums tall.
And I’ll think of you old friend
when e’er I visit there,
for I’ll wish to have you with me
in that sweet Moroka air.

Copyright D J Fraser. 2010.

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