Thursday, June 30, 2016

White Cypress

Callitris glaucophylla
This is one of our most underestimated local plants. It deserves to be used more often in gardens, streets, and parks.
Its neat shape makes it suitable for formal situations

The fine, dense foliage makes it a useful contrast plant, when grown with other types of trees, as shown here in a natural situation at Maclagan.

Despite its name, individuals of this species vary in leaf colour, from the “white” (really blue-green), to a clear green. In the wild, plants of a variety of canopy colours often grow side by side.

Mature trees reach a height of about 18 metres.

Young trees may respond to damage by producing more than one trunk. For a cypress, pruning or trimming the foliage counts as damage, and is best avoided. Gardeners should supervise their young trees, and if any show signs of producing a second trunk (or more) to compete with the main trunk, these should be removed as soon as possible.
Older trees, however, benefit from tidying up by removal of dying lower branches, to neaten their trunks.

The new season’s cones are starting to be seen around the district at this time of year. Male and female cones are found on the same trees.

As with all conifers, the male cones (above) shed masses of pollen.
They depend on the wind to transfer their pollen to female cones. This is a rather hit and miss method. Unlike those plant species whose pollen is transported efficiently from flower to flower by insects or birds, they can’t afford heavy pollen, but must produce something light, and lots of it, so that at least some of it finds its way to its target.

Once pollinated, the female cones grow into this attractive spherical shape.

Later in the season they will split open to shed their small winged seeds.

White cypress is the famous timber tree, often called “cypress pine” although strictly speaking cypresses are not pines. The honey-coloured timber is an Australian classic, well-known for its use in house frames, floors and decking, where its hardness and its resistance to white ants (termites) and Lyctus borers is an important quality.
However it is also a good ornamental timber, attractively marked and taking a high shine.


Saturday, March 26, 2016


(Yam Daisy)                                                        
Microseris lanceolata, ASTERACEAE

This small perennial has yellow flowers similar to a dandelion.
It was once one of the most important food plants for Aboriginal people of the grassy plains of southern and eastern Australia.
The small sweet tubers are produced each year in early spring, and harvested in summer (about November). In a typical example of the semi-agricultural practices of the Aborigines, smaller tubers were left in the soil, and meanwhile the soil-loosening effect of the digging sticks used by the harvesting women provided good growth conditions. Old records tell of hundreds of women spread across the plains at harvest time, all digging for these nutritious roots.
The plants die back to their underground roots in March, and begin putting up new rosettes of fresh leaves in Autumn. The grasslands where the murnong grew were burned off during this dormancy period, with the burning controlled so that only some patches were burned each year. The whole growing area was burned every 3 years. This controlled the growth of larger plants, which would otherwise have shaded out this valuable food crop.
The roots are washed, then roasted for about 10 minutes. They become soft and rather syrupy-sticky, with a sweet flavour which some people describe as resembling coconut, or a sweet nut. Modern recipes recommend little olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper.

My pot-grown plants produced rather small roots, so I have moved them into better soil, and hope for a better crop next year.

The following sequence shows the interesting development of  the dandelion-like flowers. Their heads droop modestly until the flowers open, then it is time to lift them and attract pollinating insects. They stay upright for just one day, then droop again as the seeds form. When the seeds are ripe, the stems elongate and straighten, holding the seeds up to the wind, for distribution.



As with all daisies, each “flower” is really a bunch of tiny, individual flowers. In murnong, they have  just one petal each.

Murnong is one of Australia’s best bush foods. The prominent 19th Century botanist Ferdinand von Mueller thought it was so valuable as a food plant, that it was the only Australian plant he recommended for development as a crop for white Australians.

Unfortunately, the wild plants, which once attracted people in their hundreds for the annual harvest, grew in the same grasslands as the white settlers coveted for sheep pasturage. Early records say that sheep loved it so much that they would eat the leaves and dig up the roots. (Some accounts say they did it with their hooves. Others say they dug them up with their noses. Perhaps someone who knows sheep better than I can clarify this!) Some squatters claimed that their sheep lived almost entirely on murnong for their first year, on their newly claimed pastures. Whatever digging technique they used, they would exterminate most of the plants in the first year. They rapidly drove the species to extinction over most of its range, causing disaster for the people who depended on it for food.

We will probably never know whether it once grew widely on the Darling Downs. The only record of it being found here, that I know about, was of plants growing naturally at Gladfield, near Cunningham’s Gap, in 1891 - 50 years after the squatters arrived with their flocks and herds.

This is a very tolerant plant, growing well in a range of soils, from acid to alkaline. It tolerates drought and frosts, but no more than very light shade.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Giant Pepper Vine

Piper hederaceum
The storm the other night brought down this sprig from a giant pepper vine in Goomburra National Park.

 These fruits would have been preceded by tiny white female flowers, fertilised by the male flowers (which grow on the same plants as the females). I haven’t ever seen them (they tend to grow too far up in the rainforest canopy), but am told that they have a strong perfume.

A few giant pepper vines can still be found in the rainforest remnants on Toowoomba’s eastern escarpment. In earlier times they were so common in the Toowoomba district that they had a reputation for causing a major summer influx of white-headed pigeons, as they came to feed on the ripe fruits. This tells us something about how very much our local vegetation has changed since then. Anyone seen a white-headed pigeon lately?

Pepper vines have ornamental potential. They can be used both as small plants in hanging pots (in a shady spot where their broad “shade-leaves” would show to advantage) ....

or on a strong trellis or pergola of the sort that we more often see covered with Wisteria. Used the latter way, the pepper vine’s smaller “sun-leaves” would create a shady arbour, and the pretty summer fruits could be seen (together with the birds they would bring to the garden).

Curiously, the flowering stems produce even smaller leaves if they are going to flower. This lets us know when flowers and fruits are “in the pipeline”.
Giant pepper vines begin life as  root climbers, ascending the smooth surfaces of trees or rocks (or, potentially, a shady brick wall). This tendency to climb like ivy is the reason for its name “hederaceum”, a reference to the Latin word hedera, for “ivy”.
Here’s one whose high hopes are about to be dashed!

Stems of mature plants lose the clinging roots. However their nodes where leaves and roots were once attached, continue to be marked by distinctive rings. Pepper vine trunks are easy to distinguish from all those unidentifiable climbers that disappear up into the rainforest canopy.

The root-climbing habit gives giant pepper vine a tendency to cling rather closely to its supporting frame, clothing it in greenery and outlining its silhouette.
This dead tree has acquired a very quaint appearance! 

Fortunately for the beauty of the rainforest, the pepper vines avoid the smaller stems, so the host trees' own canopy is never overtaken by its pepper vines.

Stems which find nothing to cling to do not build high bulk, as with some climbers, but hang downwards in long festoons, sometimes almost reaching the ground. The effect, as they sway gently in the breeze, is cool and attractive.

Growers of the related Indian pepper of commerce (Piper negrum) say their plant restricts itself to whatever size of trellis it is given. Clearly ours would do the same. The festoons could be trimmed off if neatening is required. In the case of a pergola, they could be left to form curtain walls.

The Festoon Falls in the Bunya Mountains were named after a magnificent curtain of pepper vine, which enclosed the falls. My mother remembered it from her youth, but said it was destroyed in a cyclone “round the time of the war”. If you visit the site, you can see that the enormous trunk of the vine still grows at the top of the falls, but that the supporting trees from which the curtain used to hang have gone. The existing trees now support a few festoons...

... but it will be many years before the whole curtain will be restored.

Giant pepper vine is a frost tender plant. It grows moderately fast in Toowoomba’s climates, including its droughts, if it is in a shady site with well-mulched soil. Like all rainforest plants, however, it grows even faster if watered.

About Pepper
Worldwide, there are approximately 1,000 species of Piper.
Although the fruits and leaves of many of them are used in cooking, the best-known is , the source of the common pepper we buy in the supermarket. It is imported from Southern India, and the same plant is used to make white, black, green and red pepper.
White pepper is the hottest form, and consists of the naked seeds of green-picked fruits. They are separated from the flesh by soaking in a hessian sack for several weeks, causing them to ferment. Then they are trampled and washed until none of the fruit or skin remains on the seeds.
To make black pepper, the green fruits are spread on a cloth to dry in the sun. Their tangy black pepper flavour is developed by enzymes present in the fruits, as they dry and change colour.
The green-coloured pepper seeds we buy are “hot”, like the black, but not particularly flavoursome. The green colour is fixed by plunging them into boiling water for twenty minutes (to kill the enzymes), then sun-drying or freeze-drying them. Despite their inferior taste, there is a commercial demand for them, to enhance the appearance of mixes used in transparent pepper mills.
Left to ripen on the vine, pepper fruits turn yellow, then red. Dried ripe fruits are considered to have poor flavour and are rarely used, except in the same ornamental pepper mixtures. Their colour may be retained by freeze-drying, but  a commonly used commercial technique is to treat both red and green peppers with sulphur dioxide. While it preserves the bright colours, it has no appeal for those who would rather avoid unnecessary chemical additives in their food.
Pepper fruits can also be used fresh. The green ones are a staple of Thai cuisine. The red have a distinct fruity flavour.
Our native Piper hederaceum seeds less hot than Piper nigrum, but have a pleasant spicy flavour.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Lovers Twine

Glycine clandestina


This is a pretty irritating little plant.

At its best, which it is at this time of year, it is pretty, with its clusters of little mauve flowers liberally sprinkled over the plants, which twine up through other plants in the garden, never climbing higher than about 60cm. It’s so pretty that I wonder why I am such a grump as to find it irritating for most of the rest of the year.

But I do.

It’s just that it spreads so sneakily, spreading through the garden, producing so many of its thread-like little twining stems that they go into tangles, neither very pretty once the best of the flowering is over, nor really ugly enough for me to make a serious push to get rid of them completely.

Not that I ever could.

The fine stems also spread unperceived over the ground, rooting at the nodes. Each root grows into a little tuber like a miniature parsnip, making it impossible to pull the plants out. The fine stems simply break off. To get rid of them is a matter of digging out the tubers individually.

And the flowers all produce hairy little pea-like pods of seeds, so new plants spring up all over the place.

Some gardeners seem fond of them, and say that they “prune” them, and get more attractive plants as a result. “Pruning” can be done, and does reduce the general messiness. It consists of combing the fingers through the tangles of lovers twine, pulling it off the other garden plants, until the patch of garden is reduced to a reasonable appearance.

the plants bear some resemblance to that other little native purple pea, Hardenbergia violacea (below). Hardenbergia, however, flowers earlier in the year and  has single leaves...

while the leaves of lovers twine are trifoliate.

Unlike some native peas, glycines can safely be eaten by stock.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Small-leafed Water Vine

Clematicissus opaca
(Cissus opaca)

I have failed (again) to catch this plant in flower, so am showing you the spent flowers, without their petals and all ready to grow into the little black fruits which will ripen in autumn.
 I suspect that the petal phase of the flowers must be rather short, as this plant had plenty of bud and plenty of spent flowers, but no petals to be seen.

Another clue to the plant's family are the seeds. There are only 2-4 per fruit, and they are so large they almost fill the fruit, but you can see they are unmistakably grape seeds.
You can eat the fruits, but as with most local native grape species they are only tolerable when very ripe, and even then not very interesting.

As so often happens with closely related plants, one member of the group is adapted to drier conditions. This member of the grape family is in the Cissus group, and the secret of its drought hardiness is its large tuber. In very dry or frosty conditions it dies back, regrowing from the tuber when warm weather and rains come.

The tubers get very large – as much as 30cm long and 15cm in diameter. A friend who is a clever gardener suggested I plant one in a pot, with the top of the tuber exposed. The result is a rather nice pot plant, which needs a bit of light trellis to support it.

Young tubers are said to be edible, and can apparently be eaten raw or roasted. They have a pungent taste which has given the plant the alternative common name of “pepper vine”.

The plant grows into a light vine. Grown in the ground, it needs only a small trellis or can simply allowed to ramble though a shrub or sprawl over rocks. Even the smallest garden would have room for  few of these plants.

Their leaves take so many forms that they can be difficult to identify in the wild. The leaves have 3–7 stalkless leaflets, arranged like fingers on a hand. The distinguishing characteristic is the middle “finger” which is much longer than the rest. The leaflets can be narrow to medium width, toothed or not, softly hairy or smooth and shiny, and have whitish or reddish backs.

Note the sprig at top right of the photo, showing a tendril coming from the stem opposite a leaf. (Click on the photo for a closer look.) This is another clue that the plant is in the grape family Vitaceae. Unlike some grape species, however, this one has few tendrils and on some plants there may be none to be seen.

In times of desperate drought, when water restrictions make garden watering impossible, it is reassuring to know that plants like this will survive even if their beauty is temporarily lost.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Crows Ash in Flower

Flindersia australis
November is Flindersia flowering time.

Sometimes the flowers are discreetly tucked among the leaves.

Sometimes the November flowering is accompanied by a partial leaf-drop.

But never before have I seen such a complete, spectacular leaf-drop as the trees have had this year in Redwood Park.

Meanwhile, the capsules which have been hanging on the trees for almost a year, are ripening fast.


Now is the time to collect the seed, if you’d like to make more of these lovely trees. The seed is very easy to grow if you plant it very fresh.

Long Jack

Flindersia xanthoxyla

In the Toowoomba area we have three local Flindersia species, all growing in similar dry rainforest habitats close to the great Dividing Range. The smallest and most drought hardy is the leopard ash F. collina.  Next in size is the crows ash, F. australis. The tallest of the three is long jack, F. xanthoxyla.
Old specimens soar to heights of up to 45 metres, in rainforests.
They are difficult to photograph in that situation, so here is a smaller one growing in a paddock near Toowoomba, where we can see its upright growth habit and and dense green canopy.

The above plant is growing naturally on its site. It must have begun its life in a patch of dry rainforest, before its growth was slowed by the conversion of its home into this open paddock.

Long jacks grow naturally from Lismore and Maryborough, between the Great Dividing Range and the coast, so they are at the dry edge of their natural range here in the Toowoomba area. As you would expect of a sub-coastal plant, they like to be well watered when young, and are happier if well mulched. Given these conditions they reward us with fast growth.

They make magnificent specimens in parks and large gardens, and are used in timber-growing projects. Xanthoxyla means “yellow wood”, and this tree's pale yellow timber is particularly amenable to steam-bending, so it was used in coach-building and would be very good for bentwood furniture and the like.

Flindersia capsules are ripening around the district at present. I found this Long Jack capsule (at right) last week, under magnificent tree in the nice little patch of dry rainforest in Charmaine Court, Highfields.


Unlike the sturdy capsules from crows ash tree trees F. australis,  (on the left, in the above photos ), Long Jack’s capsules tend to break up as they fall, so I saved this survivor to put on my mantelpiece. I am handling it gently in the hope that it will look pretty for at least a few weeks.