While modern technology allows us to access the wilderness in more ways, it may be that in some ways we have lost the necessity, or maybe even the desire, to read the landscape. As a botanist and a bushwalker, I find that plants are important in helping me orientate myself in a landscape.This is not a new idea; indeed, it has been used for a very long time.

Indigenous people were the ultimate readers of the landscape because in order to survive they needed to know where to go, what to eat and where to find it at what time of year. They had a very long time to learn which plants could be used for food, tools and shelter.Traditional pathways were often defined by features of the landscape such as changes in vegetation or geology, which also means that they can in some places, still be recognised. Consider the Bundian Way, the ancient path from Kosciuszko to the coast and the changes in the plant communities along the way. Some of the changes along this track would be subtle (the decent in altitude means a gradual increase in tree height), others more dramatic and obvious (the patches of “black scrub” near the Snowy River).

Early explorers often either took botanists on their trips or were proficient in botany themselves. Beckler, the botanist on part of the Burke and Wills expedition preserved specimens of 490 species, which were used to describe new species, provided an early account of past plant distributions and information on rare species. Many specimens from early explorations still exist and are an important verifiable record of many species, as are the accounts of the landscapes in old notebooks. On his 1844 expedition, Leichhardt collected hundreds of plant specimens or sketched what he could not carry. He observed the indigenous use of plants and even dissected emu stomachs to determine which fruit they ate so that the expedition could supplement their rations. He was obsessed with experimenting with native substitutes for tea and coffee.

European settlers used the descriptions of explorers to guide their search for fertile soil. Eucalypt distribution was considered an accurate indication of soil condition: red gum was indicative of good soil, but land dominated by grey or yellow box was of poor quality and to be avoided. In the mid 1860s, the surveyor Goyder studied the land around Adelaide and, based on soil and vegetation, drew a line that indicated the climatic limit for wheat. Settlers often lived in the same location for generations, and so began to understand how plants changed with the seasons and how they provided an indication of other aspects of the land (e.g. soil fertility). Some of these settlers also mapped the vegetation, some of this information is still used, or provided a base for improvements.

In general, what plant grows where is determined by climate, geology and topography. Not only do some plants only grow in certain areas, but a group of plants (a community or vegetation type) is restricted to areas where the conditions are right. So it follows that we should be able to use plants to help us move around a landscape. How can we use this in our modern day explorations of the bush?

Plants can show us where water is. I recently found myself near the summit of Mount Bogong considering spending a night, but was concerned about the lack of water. Knowing that the alpine species Celmisia sericophylla only grows in drainage lines was helpful because I looked for its distinctive grey foliage (obvious even some distance away), followed a soak downhill and eventually found a trickle of flowing water. Not all of us are botanists or can put names to plants, but even knowing that lush looking plants with broad leaves grown near water is useful in this situation. The arrangement or density of plants is also a useful guide: Eucalyptus camaldulensis and Bauhinia gilva suggest water at depth as they fringe seasonal waterways in the Channel country.

Plants may also tell us something about the quality of the water. Melaleuca halmaturorum only grows around salt pans, Phragmites australis is able to tolerate water half the salinity of salt water and succulent plants such as Tecticornia and Sarcocornia around a lake or water source indicate that the water is likely to too salty to drink. Conversely, Juncus krausii can indicate a freshwater seepage in a saltmarsh, while manna gums (Eucalyptus viminalis) growing close to the coast can be indicative of a creek.

Finding water is not only important for survival, but it is also where animals congregate and this can enhance a foray into the bush. Understanding how animals relate to their habitat can also be helpful, for example animal paths can be used for moving through the bush. Unsurprisingly, they choose the easiest route and are often along more sparsely vegetated spurs.

Vegetation structure is an important consideration for choosing a route when walking off track. Shrubs are often a different colour and texture to grassland, for example. Satellite images or even a view from a summit allow us to examine potential routes from a distance and plot the best course. Some plants can be discerned from a distance and suggest routes to be avoided: the alpine shrubs Kunzea muelleri and Podocarpus lawrencei grow in boulder strewn areas; Richea continentis, not only has spikey foliage, but grows in boggy and wet areas.

Plants change in response to elevation. This may seem an obvious statement, yet the changes may be easier to notice by observing plants where the topography is complex, undulates or if fog obscures the view. Not only do plants decrease in stature as elevation increases, but the general vegetation changes from one dominated by tall trees, a shrubby mid-layer to a more open; to a low and less-complex vegetation type. Simply recognising the dominant tree is another way to see changes in elevation: driving from Corryong to Thredbo there will be a change from red gum, to alpine ash to snow gums, each with their own distinctive shape, height and bark type.

Forgotten your compass or GPS batteries are flat? Lusher, more diverse vegetation often grows on the south side of hills where it is usually damper and more protected from the afternoon sun. In some situations, lichens and moss may also be more abundant on the south side of rocks and trunks of trees.

Plants can help us choose good camping areas, and not just because the best place is one without plants. It can be very tempting in the alps to set up camp in a treeless valley or next to an alpine stream. But there is a good reason why snow gums cannot grow here (it is called an inverted treeline) and why you should not pitch your tent here either. Cold air drains from high to low elevation and accumulates in these valleys, so if you choose to camp here you will probably be very cold at night and end up with a frozen or wet tent. It is much better to camp under the shelter of trees, I have learnt this through trial and error myself.

Substrates for tents can also be an important consideration, and again, plants can help with our decisions. Grassy areas indicate fertile soils, while heath or shrubs can indicate rocky soils. In mallee areas, chenopods are usually found in the damper swales between dunes where the soil has a higher clay content. By comparison, on sandier dune tops it may be harder to anchor a tent, and dominated by the fiercely prickly Triodia irritans. Carnivorous plants, although sometimes small and hard to spot, can indicate damp, infertile areas. desert oak (Allocasuarina decaisneana) stands are a great place to camp as they should have plenty of high density (good burning) firewood, but the leaf litter is non-flammable (thus a natural fire break around your camp fire).

The size and shape of plants can also tell us something about the landscape. A tree may be big in size because it is old, but it may also grow in a particularly favourable area with plenty of nutrients and access to water. Similarly, camping in exposed locations where vegetation is stunted and wind-pruned may prompt us to drive the tent pegs in more firmly than usual.

The amount of human or natural disturbance can also be gauged by examining the vegetation. In grasslands, the presence of yam daisies (Microseris species) indicates that fertiliser has not been added to the land for ‘improvement’. In forests, recent (~5 years) evidence of fire on the bark of trees might indicate the understorey is composed of dense regrowth and perhaps not amenable for a walk. It is best not to camp at old stock camps, as the soil often has large seed heads of caltrop (Tribulus terrestris) or even khaki weed (Alternanthera pungens). Both produce very uncomfortable and persistent burrs, and the former is sharp enough to puncture tyres. A colleague tells the story of trying to navigate back to a vehicle in fog without compass or GPS where the slightly denser vegetation and sapling eucalypts in a particular area alerted him to there being a disturbance, in this case the road, which meant his car was nearby.

Sometimes it is nice just knowing about the plants that comprise a landscape that can make a trip outdoors rewarding.There is pleasure to be found in finding a plant not found anywhere else, like Melaleuca magnifica on the Arnhem Land plateau, or understanding the history of an area (for example large, old moss covered Nothofagus cunninghamii in Gippsland would indicate a long unburnt area).

Explorers were curious about what they saw, and we can still be. People are often attracted to the unusual, perhaps it is the sense of discovering something different, so they will walk to a wetland or soak in an otherwise dry location, or to a patch of trees in a grassland.

Everybody sees something different in the bush: from the big picture vistas, to the smaller, no less interesting, details of an animal track, scat, flower, leaf or beetle. Plants can help in our discovery of our landscapes, and you don’t need to be a botanist to appreciate and begin to understand them.

Of course, these are just some examples and there will be many exceptions depending on the location. I would not recommend any novice wanderers try to travel using bush lore alone, but rather to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the Australian wilderness.Traditional owners gained intimate knowledge of their environment from generations of experience; instead, we have the benefit of contemporary tools like topographical maps, GPS devices and emergency beacons. All of these should be considered requisite gear for any adventure.