Thursday, October 6, 2016

Common Bulbine

Bulbine bulbosa
ASPHODELACEAE

Spring is here, and our grasslands are full of the new season’s flowers, like this fragrant little bulbine lily. 










This plant can be expected to keep producing more flower-spikes like this one, through to late summer.






















 











Each individual flower lasts only one day, but new flowers keep opening, up the spike, so each flower-spike is decorative for quite some time.








  Notice those lovely shaggy stamens!

 

 Despite its name, this perennial plant doesn’t actually have a bulb. It does, however, have a corm, with very fat, succulent roots attached to it.




The root at left is of a rather young plant, dug up in December. That little corm has a way to grow before it reashes full size. (Click on the photo for a closer look at it.) However the roots have already stored up a good supply of the starch which is to see the plant through winter.

 Bulbine bulbosa is “deciduous”, which means that its above-ground parts die down when flowering and seed production finish, and the plant then remains dormant until the following spring. The business-like root is the secret of its long life, letting it survive droughts, fire, and frosts.





Its leaves also work to help it make the best of the sparse rainfall of its natural habitat. They are channelled on the upper surface, a design which leads the rain into the centre of the plant, where it gives the roots more water than the surrounding soil.

The leaves are hollow, rather like slender onion leaves, and the plants have been called "wild onion". (Don’t eat those leaves, though. They are likely to give you a severe case of diarrhoea!)
The sweet, nutritious corms were one of the favourite summer foods of the Aborigines, and are said to be the best flavoured of the lily roots.  They fatten up throughout the growing season, and are best dug up at the end of the flowering season. They must be roasted, to make them safe to eat.
Like so many of our Australian plants, common bulbine is more popular in gardens overseas than here, which is a pity. For garden use, the best position for it would be in a garden of perennials where it can pop up again year after year.
It is a colony-forming plant in the wild, and a good colony can be quite spectacular. In gardens, the same effect can be achieved by planting bulbines in groups.
Despite their natural drought hardiness, they looks best if given some supplementary watering during the growing and flowering season.


Annual Bulbine
Bulbine alata
This is the taller of our two local bulbines. The flowers are very similar to the above, but the leaves  look as though they are coated with blue-grey powder.
It behaves as an annual in the wild, but well-cared-for, in a garden situation, it can be a clumping perennial. New plants can be grown from the tiny winged seeds, which should be stored for several months before planting. They are likely to take a month or two to germinate.
This species is found naturally in the Jondaryan area and further west, and is the best bulbine for heavy clay soil.









Monday, September 26, 2016

Volunteers Wanted, Thursday Mornings

Crows Nest Community Nursery
Depot Road, Crows Nest (35 minutes' drive from Toowoomba).


Crows nest Community Nursery is Toowoomba Regional Council's 
ENVIRONMENTAL NURSERY
It specialises in growing the native plants of the Toowoomba Region. 
It opens from 9.00am to 1.00pm every Thursday.
Customers include those who buy in ones and twos for their gardens, and those who buy in thousands for large revegetation projects.
The plants include koala food plants, bird and butterfly-friendly plants, bush tucker, windbreak and honey tree species, and fire retardant plants for people who live in bush-fire-risk areas.

There are also plenty of our ornamental, but little-known, local native species, for the customers who just want something pretty.
 Velvet beauty berry, Callicarpa pedunculata
 Batwing Coral Tree, Erythrina numerosa
 Quinine bush, Petalostigma pachyphyllum

Staffing consists of one TRC-employed manager, and  a team of volunteers. 
There is no formal roster. Volunteers turn up as it suits them. The result is that there are usually between 6 and 10 volunteers on any given Thursday. 
Some are Crows Nest Residents, but most come out from Toowoomba, with some car-pooling to save petrol costs and to have company on the drive.
The nursery is becoming so popular that the volunteers have trouble keeping up with the work that could be done. So do consider joining the happy team!
Volunteers collect seed, store it in the seed bank, plant it, pot the seedlings on as they become ready, grow cuttings, tend the plants on the shelves, and generally do all the little tasks that keep the nursery running smoothly.



No experience needed. There are jobs for people with no prior knowledge of gardening and plants, and jobs for those with more expertise.
 All you need to do is to turn up at the nursery after 9.00am on a Thursday.
Alternatively, you could contact the manager, Lisa Churchward at TRC,
for more information. 
To find the Nursery:
Approaching Crows Nest from the south (i.e. from the Toowoomba direction), slow down at the 80 sign and take the first turn right into Industrial Avenue.
Follow the green street signs (which say NURSERY). 
 

Friday, September 9, 2016

King Orchids
Dendrobium speciosum var. hillii
(Thelychiton tarberi)

Family: ORCHIDACEAE
It’s king orchid time again, and these lovely plants are in flower in gardens, and in the wild.
Like all our native orchids, these are tough plants. You can see that this orchid is thriving in its very exposed situation, high on a tree in a degraded environment, where most of the original sheltering forest has disappeared.


It may have trouble making babies up there in its rather isolated site, though. First, it has to be found by pollinators, such as the stingless bee Tetragonula carbonaria. The chances are better when there are quite a lot of the orchids around top attract them, but it’s all a bit sad for the bees. Like most orchids, these lovely plants are “con artists”, attracting insects to do the hard work of transferring the pollen to other flowers, by promising nectar rewards with their shape, colour, and perfume – but not actually making the effort to produce any nectar. Working without pay is not fair in anyone’s book!
However, despite its fine show, this plant may be wasting its fragrance on the air. If no bee finds it, it will never produce seed, a continuing problem it shares with many of our native plants as our bushland is ever more segmented and it gets harder for the increasingly isolated plants to attract pollinators.

Unlike some of their closest relatives, king orchids are tree-dwelling plants. Their fine seeds are happy to germinate on the rough park of perfectly straight trees like the one below. All they need is for the right kind of fungus to be already there, to help the helpless little seeds to begin growing.


And orchid seeds are unusually helpless, which means they must become parasites from birth. Most parent plants provide their seeds with a little food package (endosperm) to feed the newly germinating baby plant. Orchids, in their enthusiasm for producing enormous numbers of their very tiny seeds, neglect this rather basic precaution. If none of their seeds can latch onto a suitable fungus nursemaid to provide them with the necessary nutrients, then the orchid’s efforts to create a new generation will fail.
Orchids are one of the most successful plant families in the world, proving that, all things being equal, it pays to be a user. All is not equal in our local environment, however, and our district’s once-rich orchid flora is dwindling away.
All praise to those who give it a chance to recover, by conserving and restoring patches of our local bushland.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Forest Daisy

Brachyscome microcarpa
FAMILY: ASTERACEAE
As usual in our fortunate part of the world, signs of spring appear almost as soon as the signs of autumn have gone.
Trees are bursting into new leaf, birds are looking around for mates, and little daisies are starting to open their bright eyes.


We have so many native daisies, that it can be difficult to identify them all. This one, however, is distinctive, with it’s unmistakable leaf shape, and its (relatively) large mauve flowers.


A plant of eucalypt woodland on light, well-drained soil (such as at the Bunya Mountains), it could make a useful, ankle-high ground-cover.
It prefers to grow in dappled shade, and where there is not too much competition from other plants.
It is commercially available (in several colour forms), but it may be difficult to buy plants of local provenance.
Once established, this is a plant that would need little care, resisting both drought and light frost.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What’s Good about Lantana?

FAMILY: VERBENACEAE

 
It’s easy enough to list the things we Australians DON’T like about that invader from South America, Lantana camara. Alas, that we inflicted it upon ourselves, with our careless gardening habits!


1. It colonises disturbed soil with dense shrubbery, 2-4 metres tall, crowding out smaller plants and preventing regrowth of native trees.
2 As the native vegetation is lost, so is the wildlife that depended on it.
3. Lantana behaves as a nurse plant to privet, an even worse, tree-sized weed, enabling it to establish a virtual monoculture on what was previously rainforest land. The privet forest on the Eastern slopes near Toowoomba, is a classic example of this.
4. Lantana has huge economic impact, reducing the productivity of pastoral and forestry land.
5. Its leaves are poisonous to stock, (some varieties more than others).
6. It’s a prickly, scratchy nuisance to bushwalkers.




Lantana has some Good Points Too
Whenever a super-weed like lantana creates a new environment, some native animals will find a niche to their liking, and thrive.
 

1. Small birds like wrens find lantana thickets an ideal place to live, eating the succulent fruits, and building nests in the scratchy thickets.
2. It shelters small mammals, such as antechinus, bush rats, and bandicoots.
3. Reptiles, especially small skinks, make use of the shelter.
4. Butterflies love the nectar-rich flowers, which provide them with food over a long season (albeit while slowly exterminating their species by crowding out their host plants).
5. The pithy stems are used as homes by the primitively-social reed bees (Exoneura species). These bees are important pollinators of native plants.
6. It improves soil quality, and controls erosion on slopes.



Does this mean we should love lantana, after all?
Well, no. Not really.
A natural mixture of native plants is the basis for a richer, more varied ecosystem. It hosts more kinds of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects than lantana ever could, and stabilises the soil just as well.
But lantana’s good points can be a reason for avoiding the “bull at a gate” approach to removing it. We have to keep in mind that clearing weeds is not a beneficial environmental activity in itself. It’s what comes after the clearing that matters. If no thought is put into where they are to go, those little creatures which managed to make lives for themselves among the weeds, then clearing them only causes a net loss of biodiversity.
“Softly, softly”, is the answer.
If we’re hoping that natural regeneration of plants will provide for the displaced wildlife, we need to clear in small doses, and monitor whether regeneration, of the kinds of plants we were hoping for, is really happening.
Were our expectations unrealistic? If clearing doesn’t result in a cheering surge of new growth - and it often doesn’t in our dry and erratic climate - then active revegetation is needed. Plants must be planted, and tended until their survival is assured, and meanwhile, the cleared area will need constant weeding of lantana (and other weed) regrowth so the carefully-planted seedlings aren't lost to shading and root competition. Too many bushcare projects have been sent back to square one by lack of follow-up!
Working with nature is the way to go, when revegetating. A half-and-half approach, blanket planting planting pioneer species to modify the environment, can provide both fast shelter for wildlife and a suitable mileu for natural regeneration of  longer-lived species. This only works if there is a natural seed source nearby, of course. Revegetation of rainforests and scrubs, on the other hand, can be slowed down by mistaking fast-growing dry sclerophyll plants such as wattles and eucalypts for pioneers, though. These greedy plants rob the soil of moisture, slow down the growth of other plants, and simply establish themselves as the dominant vegetation.
Sometimes, the best approach to clearing lantana consists of leaving it alone for a few years, and getting on with planting, instead. Once refuges for wildlife have been established, the clearing can go ahead - but always in proportion to the shelter available.
Now is the time to be planning it. The frosts will be over before very long.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

White Cypress

Callitris glaucophylla
FAMILY: CUPRESSACEAE

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

Murnong

(Yam Daisy)                                                        
Microseris lanceolata,  
FAMILY: 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.