Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cockspur Thorn

Maclura cochinchinensis
This is a plant which leads a double life. In its native rainforest, it may only make its presence known by the generous scatter of squashy orange fruits on the ground, or a spectacularly ornamented tree canopy seen across a valley somewhere. Growing in the open, as it often does in paddocks which have had rainforest cleared from them, it becomes a large, scrambling shrub 6 metres across. (The photo below shows at least five plants). It has fierce thorns, and is an excellent dense bird-shelter.
The climbing habit is only developed where the plant grows in the shade and has something such as a large, sturdy tree, to climb on. In this situation the seriously prickly bits can be kept well above head-height, and the beautiful yellow-brown furrowed trunk appreciated.
Though not for the faint-hearted, this plant has enough virtues to make it worth considering growing in a garden which has room for a large spiny monster.
The orange fruits are produced generously, on the female plants, in February. They show some resemblance to their relatives the mulberries in appearance but not in flavour. They are delicious to people and birds, and have potential as a chookyard plant or as a producer of a delicious native bushfood. Cutting-grown plants would be preferable for both these purposes, as the grower could then be sure of planting mostly female plants, with just a few males for pollination.
Cockspur thorns could also be used like their American cousin the osage orange (Maclura pomifera) as hedge capable of retaining cattle and horses. (Osage oranges were popular with early Australian settlers, and have gone wild around some old New South Wales towns - another example of introduced plants being valued in this country where their Australians relatives are not.) Cockspur thorn hedges might have particular appeal for those interested in the permaculture concept.
The “bark” from the roots is sought after by art-in-bark practitioners for its useful shade of bright orange. Related plants are used for dyes in other parts of the world, and this plant probably has the same capacity.
This common local native plant is disappearing rapidly as it is so highly unsuitable for a suburban garden, and Toowoomba's suburbs seem likely to engulf much if not all of the original rainforest country in this district. Sadly, it has also been removed from at least one local environmental reserve, by a misguided volunteer group who fail to recognise the value of anything prickly! I would like to think that it could be retained on acreages and farms because of its very great environmental virtues.
Meanwhile, it is a useful indicator plant. Where it pops up naturally, as it does in many places in our district, we can be sure that the original environment was rainforest of either the wet or dry kind, and can plan our other plantings - even if we don’t really want cockspur thorns in our backyards - in the knowledge that here is an ideal site for a rainforest garden.

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