Wednesday, January 14, 2015


This word is new to me, and I’m delighted to have discovered it.
I have felt, for a long time, that we Australians badly need a word to balance “sclerophyll”
I think most of you would know that sclerophyll means “hard leaf”, and is used to describe many of our familiar native trees and shrubs. Gumtrees, wattles, banksias, grevilleas, she-oaks, melaleucas, and heath plants all have sclerophyll leaves. The leaf-type is so common in Australia that it is used to describe whole ecosystems, as well as individual plants.
But what of the rest? The ones with not-sclerophyll leaves. Ordinary leaves.
We could use a good umbrella term for them, too.

Grey Birds Eye

They are sometimes grouped together as “rainforest” plants.
This is a rather unsatisfactory term, especially to the newcomer to the field of Australian plants, who, unsurprisingly, imagines that rainforest plants must be “plants that grow in rainforests”. A little further investigation reveals that botanists’ and ecologists’ definitions of  rainforests include “dry"rainforests” - a term that is often met with derision.
Dry rain???

Crows Apple
Owenia venosa
A plant of "dry" rainforests.

Then we find that our dry scrubs, or semi-evergreen vine thickets are also classified as a type of rainforest. Fair enough, in one sense, as their plants clearly belong in the same group as those of rainforests and dry rainforests. But it makes us feel uncomfortable. Not only is there not much rain on these scrubs, but it’s really stretching a point to call them forests.

 Gumby Gumby, Pittosporum angusti-folium
A typical "dry scrub" or vine thicket plant.

And as we head further inland, there are wilgas, and a whole host of other non-sclerophyll plants which often thrive in quite open and very dry country, yet they too belong to this "rainforest" group.

Nobody, on seeing an emu apple Owenia acidula growing on a desert sandhill thinks of rainforests.

 Emu Apple, Owenia venosa, on sandhill west of Windorah.

I suspect that the absence of a satisfactory, popular, group word to describe our inland non-sclerophyll flora is part of the reason that Australians have largely ignored these highly practical species when it comes to garden and civic planting.
This is a pity, because these “ordinary leafed” plants from dry environments can be so useful in horticulture.  Drought hardy and usually frost hardy, they tend to have fast-growing deep roots (making them suitable for use near buildings), to be not very large at maturity (making them suitable for suburban gardens and street trees), and are green and shady. They deserve to be much more widely known and used.

 White Beetroot Tree
Elatto-stachys xylocarpa

Yet it's not surprising that they are generally passed over by people who want to grow something green and shady, yet reliably hardy. a suggestion that they should grow a tree of "rainforest" type is most likely to conjure up a picture of a water-hungry giant with shallow, structure-destroying roots. It’s hardly surprising that they look instead to introduced species.

So I’m drawn to the word “orthophyll”, a word which means “ordinary leaf”. It is defined on one internet glossary as “vegetation with leaves mostly of ordinary texture, as opposed to sclerophyll”.
The word seems to have been invented around 1970 by an American botanist (Francis Raymond Fosberg) who needed a useful term for his work on island ecologies. It is used worldwide to include plants such as maples, ashes, and willows as well as non-deciduous plants with “ordinary” leaves. International writers also use it to describe the relevant Australian plants.

White Bollygum
Neolitsea dealbata.
An Australian orthophyll tree.

Some Australian botanists have also used it. Apparently like me, they have thought it seems like a more acceptable term for the group, than “rainforest”. On the whole, though, our botanists don’t seem to be drawn to it.
Perhaps it’s because it’s a little difficult to define “ordinary” with any real precision?
That's the virtue of the word, though. The concept of an ordinary leaf is quite elastic enough to allow for all the variations of texture that can be found in non-sclerophyll leaves.
Orthophyll. I like it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Daphne Beard-Heath

Leucopogon trichostylus
I photographed these pretty little yellow fruits today, in open woodland at Highfields.

The plants are known as daphne heaths.
Today they were heavily in fruit, of the soft, juicy kind that attracts birds. People can also eat them. They are pleasantly sweet, but so tiny that they are hardly worth the trouble.
And it is trouble, to pick them, as they are defended by fiercely sharp-pointed little leaves.

There were also  a few out-of-season flowers.

Like all beard-heath (Leucopogon) species, they are tiny, and have woolly white “beards” on their petals. (Leucopogon means “white beard”.)

Daphne beard-heath is a small shrub with garden potential.

This wild-grown plant is scruffy, as wild-grown plants often are, but with ordinary garden care and occasional pruning it would probably make a neat, dense garden shrub. A few of these in the garden, with dense canopies of their fierce foliage, would make excellent nesting sites for small birds.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Trials and Tribulations

Tribulus terrestris, Tribulus micrococcus.
These two pretty yellow-flowered annuals are making colourful summer splashes at present, on the black soil plains west of Toowoomba
One is a native plant. The other introduced.
They are somewhat similar looking, but have some obvious differences which make it easy for us to know which one we’re looking at.
Barefoot country children have no trouble telling us which one is Tribulus terrestris, variously known as caltrop, bull-heads, catheads, or goatheads. It’s seedheads, which are just beginning to form now, break into sections when ripe. Each section has three wicked sharp points. No matter how they fall, one always points upwards, often causing pain to people and animals.

Caltrop is the smaller of the two plants, and has smaller flowers. It tends to hug the ground, in a rather open network. It is originally from the Mediterranean, but has become naturalised all around the world.

The native Tribulus micrococcus, known as yellow vine or spineless caltrop, is a larger, showier plant with bigger flowers.

Close-grown groups tend to form a dense, ground cover.

Neither of the plants is good for livestock. An excess can poison animals, especially when they have responded to rain with rapid, lush, leafy growth. Farmers also find that they grow rather too easily and can be weeds in their cultivations.
However, those of us who don’t have to worry about that, can enjoy them as part of the  wildflower display which always makes our blacksoil plains so beautiful at this time of year.
I’ve never heard of gardeners growing either of them on purpose, though it could, no doubt, be done. Perhaps yellow vine has the potential to become a favourite easy, self-seeding plant, popping up each year and delighting the gardener. Don't do it where it might escape and pose a threat to livestock, though.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Grow Cassias for Butterflies

If you grow native cassias, you will always have yellow butterflies in your garden.

Butterflies like to hang around their host plants - the plants which have the right kind of leaves to feed the babies of their particular species - and cassias are hosts to a number of butterfly species.

Cassias have been subject to one of those name changes that botanists inflict on us, periodically. They are officially Senna species these days, though most people still call them cassias.

The Crows Nest Community Nursery has two good local species of shrub-sized Senna for sale at the moment - Brush Senna and Brigalow Senna. At an affordable $2.50 each, it is a great idea to put in a group of these pretty, sun-loving plants, making it easy for butterflies to notice your garden and move in. 
(If you can’t manage to get out to Crows Nest nursery on a Thursday morning, to see their large selection of local native plant species, you can always order plants from them by ringing the nursery on Thursday mornings on 4698 2990, and arranging for pick-up and payment in Toowoomba.)

The butterflies you will attract, by planting native cassias, are likely to include

the small grass-yellow,

the large grass-yellow
and the even larger lemon migrant
and yellow migrant.

Native cassias also seem to bring sunshine into the garden, with their summer-long display of bright yellow flowers.
They are always aware of the sun, these plants, closing their leaves at dusk, and opening them again in the morning.
Sennas are tough, drought hardy plants. Our local species also tolerate all but the hardest of our local frosts. Their lifespan is somewhere between four and ten years. Plants that are pruned, fertilised and watered once a year after flowering (in autumn) live the longest.
They will grow in full sun, where they make dense screening foliage. They are also happy to fit in politely between other shrubs, never overwhelming them, but fitting their flowering branches into the gaps.

These Senna coronnilloides are sharing the dappled sunlight under some trees with some wilgas.

New plants are easy to grow at home from seed.

Put them into a coffee cup, cover with boiling water and leave to soak overnight, before planting those which have swelled.

Brush Senna
Senna acclinis

You get double environmental points for growing this local plant. Not only is it a butterfly host. It is also a threatened plant, having lost most of its rainforest edge habitat through clearing. A few plants can still be found growing wild on the western edges of Toowoomba, at sites such as Kingsthorpe Hill and Birdwood Sanctuary, but it is rare to find them in the district nowadays.
It is occasionally mistaken for the Easter Cassia (Senna pendula var. glabrata), a South American plant which fell out of popularity in gardens because of its tendency to grow to large, too fast, too leggy and too weedy-looking. It has never disappeared from the district, though, as it has jumped the fence to become an environmental weed. It may come up in your garden whether you want it or not. The brush senna is a more civilised plant, with a longer flowering period.
It grows to between waist and shoulder height (depending on whether or not you have pruned it), and makes a dense screen.
It may self-seed to some extent, if you are lucky, but a more reliable way of making more plants is to grow them from seed.
(If seedlings come up, and you are not sure whether you have this plant or Easter cassia, look carefully at the edges of the leaves. Easter cassia’s leaves have a narrow gold line around the edge.)

Brigalow Senna
Senna coronilloides

This equally desirable plant loves the heavy black soil to the west of the Range, but is happy on all soils.
Its fine leaflets are blue-green.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Butterfly Season

With the hot weather, we move into the full butterfly season, and what a beauty we’re having this year!
I suppose you have all noticed that this is a big year for caper whites (Belenois java teutonia)?
This is the butterfly with the fairly plain wingtops, white with black edging,

and the beautifully marked underside which you only notice if you look a little more carefully, or see one at rest.

I don’t think anyone knows quite why they sometimes have a spectacular year like this. We haven’t had one since before the 2011 floods, so perhaps they do better when the weather is dry.
People speak of them “migrating”, which suggests a purposeful journey with a planned end in mind. What they are really doing seems to be more of a random radiation. Perhaps they have exhausted their local host plants and are simply flying away in hope of finding more. They turn up in great numbers in the southern states where the host plants don’t occur naturally. There manage to find the few cultivated specimens, where they can be seen flying in a whirling mass around the plant. The males and females fly in separate migrations, but obviously succeed in meeting up, as they have been seen laying eggs in Victoria. (If they can’t find a caper plant, they lay on unsuitable plants, and the caterpillars die.)
They also fly out over the Pacific Ocean in their many thousands. Odd specimens have been known to turn up as far away as Samoa.
The butterflies breed on our local native caper plants, Capparis arborea, C. mitchellii, C. lasiantha and C. sarmentosa. Like most local butterfly host plants, gardeners rarely plant them, so the butterflies breed in the country and can only be enjoyed in our towns because they are strong flyers who will often drop in for a refreshing sip of nectar in our gardens. (Butterflies with less strong flying skills and migratory urges are disappearing from our urban areas, as they just can’t make the flight from the increasingly distant breeding sites.)
Most of our local native capers grow on country roadsides. They are prickly plants, so are grown only by butterfly enthusiasts, and tend to be cleared from farms and acreage estates by owners who don’t want to deal with the prickles.

They can also be completely defoliated whenever the butterflies have a big breeding year. They bounce back to beauty and good health afterwards, with all the freshness of a well-pruned plant, but the only people who grow them are those who value the cloud of lovely butterflies more highly than a high standard of year-round perfect beauty from their plants.
Roadsides are potentially subject to clearing for road-building, as our population increases, as well as “beautification” by those who prefer a well-mown, neat and tidy road verge to native vegetation. Depending on your personal aesthetic and philosophical viewpoint, a natural roadside environment is a rich and  environmentally productive ecology, or an ugly “hotch potch”. Unfortunately, destroying a patch of biodiversity is very, very much quicker and easier than replacing it, so the people who think nature needs tidying up, and are prepared to do something about it, have a disproportionate  advantage, when it comes to living in their preferred Australian landscape type.
The long-term future may hold fewer of these spectacular caper white population explosions. Let’s enjoy them while we have them.
For more on this butterfly and its host plants, see my posts for November 19, 2009 and December 4, 2008, or simply type the butterfly’s name into this site’s white search box at top left.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A New Way of Identifying Local Plants

It’s always been a problem.
You see a pretty tree in the local bush, or rainforest, or on your new block of land. You want to find out what it is, but nobody seems to know.
There’s a new tool that has just been released this week, that helps with a big chunk of the problem. It is an interactive identification key, on a USB, called:

It’s available from or , where you can also see some good illustrations showing what’s in the program.
The plants it covers are trees (including fern trees and palms), shrubs, climbers, and mistletoes. The definition of “rainforest” is very broad. All our local dry rainforest and scrub plants are in there, even those which are technically of "rainforest type", but grow in obviously non-rainforest situations out on the Downs. You’ll find wilgas, for instance.
The program costs $80.00. My first thought, being a frugal body, is that it is somewhat expensive. However, I had a second thought which is that it contains so very much more than could ever be put into in a single book that’s it’s a bargain. For instance there are over 12,000 photos!
The best thing is the key itself. My experience with conventional plant keys is that I can get lost somewhere in the pick-a-path process. This key, having the advantages of computer technology, lets you arrive at an ID from many different angles.
The keying-out process begins with the total list of plants, all 1139 of them, and every time you add a bit of information, it gets shorter, until you are left with the answer to your question.
First you put in what type of plant you have (tree, climber, palm, etc). At once, the list is shortened as other plant types are subtracted from it.
Then you might put in that your mystery plant has pink fruits. All the plants without pink fruits disappear from the list. Put in a few other characteristics that are obvious to you - maybe the geographical area, the size of the fruits, and the length of the leaves, and you may even end up with just your target plant left on the list already!
If you haven’t got there yet, there are loads of other questions you can answer to work towards an ID. At first some of these can look daunting. Is the leaf elliptic, ovate or lanceolate, for instance? What do the words mean?
No worries, clicking on a little icon next to the words brings up an illustrated description of all the leaf shapes, so you can easily find the word that best matches your plant sample.
The plant descriptions are also a help. Each plant name in the list has little icons beside it.
Clicking on them brings up a written description with photos, and a black and white sketch showing important identifying features. The pictures are a help when you have got the list of possible plants down to the last few, but can’t decide which one is your unidentified plant.
The other great thing is that there is a species index. You click on a plant name that interests you, and by the time you’ve read the description and looked at the photos of the whole plant, plus close-ups of the trunk, flowers, fruits, leaves (both sides) and so on, you really feel you know the plant.
Great stuff!

Monday, November 10, 2014


Cuttsia viburnea
Now flowering - and what attention-grabbing flowers these are!

Found in damp gullies and close to creeks, in rainforest understorey, they stand out in the shade (or semi-shade), drawing the human eye. The strong honey scent of their nectar-rich flowers also attracts the attention of many insects, which in turn brings the birds that come to feed on them.
If fertilised, the flowers produce heavy seed crops in their little capsules. However,  as with many bisexual-flowered plants, Cuttsia plants are not self-fertile. Separate timing of the maturing of their flowers' male and female parts means that the flowers of isolated plants remain unfertilised, despite visits from many suitable pollinators.To produce seeds it must grow close to a friend or two.

A solitary plant makes a lovely garden specimen, but seed production matters if we are trying to re-introduce lost ecosystems or reproduce something like a natural environment in our own gardens. Don’t overlook the possibility of planting several quite close together if space is limited. This would result in something resembling a multi-stemmed large shrub or small tree.
Cuttsias grow best where there is constant soil moisture. Where this can be provided, this is an excellent plant for an understorey situation or a shady corner. Established plants do tolerate some drought, but would need to be helped along if the dry spell is prolonged.
They are claimed to be frost hardy.

There have been a few attempts to give this plant a “common” name. Some people call it elderberry (but it’s not an elderberry, and Australia has several genuine elderberry species which might even be growing side by side with this plant in the wild). Others call it native hydrangea (but it isn’t related to hydrangeas, and doesn’t resemble them much, as you can see). The name “native hydrangea” is more commonly used for the closely related Abrophyllum ornans, so like “elderberry, is not a particularly practical one. Others call it honey flower, which is very appropriate considering its strong nectar scent. Unfortunately, if you say “honey flower”, people are more likely to think you are speaking of another Australian plant, Lambertia formosa. Falling back on the botanical name, as we have done for grevilleas and quite a few other Australian plants, seems the best solution to achieving a user-friendly name for everyday use.