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 VERY large spiny monster.
The orange fruits are produced generously, in February, but only on female plants, so a worthwhile thicket would contain plants of both sexes. 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,  a producer of a delicious native bushfood, or an environmentally friendly permaculture plant for Australia. Cutting-grown plants would be preferable, 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.)
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.  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.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful and undervalued plant. It is also a host plant for the Common Crow butterfly

Patricia Gardner said...

Thanks for you comment. I was not aware that the common crow butterfly could breed on it, though it is not surprising. This plant is in the fig family (Moraceae) and that particular butterfly breeds on other Australian plants in the family.

Anonymous said...

Hi Trish, just recently I went to Mt Stanley with NPQ K&D Branch and our host showed us around his leasehold in the Forestry areas. There was a huge example growing over a tree and smaller ones in the general area. No fruit were visible. Do you know where I can obtain a plant? I have a big dead tree that I want to cover and need a very hardy drought tolerant vine for it and this plant seems to tick the boxes.

I have a poor quality photo that I will try to e-mail to you.
Frank S.

Chris said...

If it's okay to post a link, I found where you can buy seed for this plant Frank S.

I was actually going to buy this plant, wanted to do more research, and google brought me here. Because Toowoomba is just up the hill from me. :)

Patricia Gardner said...

Thank you for the link, Chris.
I don't usually publish links to commercial sites, but when something is hard to get, it seems worth spreading the news.
Just remember, more people hate this plant than love it, so planting it is something to consider carefully. However, if you feel you have a suitable property for it, you are certainly helping the environment by augmenting our diminishing native flora.