Saturday, February 16, 2008

The New Baby

Whalebone Tree
Streblus pendulinus (Streblus brunonianus)
What excitement there was at our place last week. We didn’t even know the mother had a boyfriend!
She is a whalebone tree, Streblus brunonianus, and I found her baby tucked in a shady and sheltered place under a nearby Bhutan cypress - a bonny wee plant, the picture of health, with half a dozen shiny, dark-green leaves. The hiding place reminded me of the places where cows hide their new calves, and, just like a mother cow, our mother whalebone was positioned nor far away, pretending that nothing new or interesting had happened.

I couldn’t have been more surprised. I had always thought of our tree as a sort of maiden great-aunt. The analogy came easily to me, I suppose, because I am of the age-group which was rich in great-aunts-without-partners. So very many of the potential great-uncles had disappeared to the far side of the world, lured by the excitement of the patriotic adventure they called “the war to end all wars”. Not nearly enough of them came back. In the case of our tree, the analogy probably leapt to mind also because my great-aunts were of a generation which knew what to do with a whalebone corset. The whalebone trees got their name because of their strong, flexible, almost unbreakable twigs.
Aunty Whalebone is a little old lady, relict of a past way of life here. Gregarious by nature, she must have spend her childhood in a sheltered environment surrounded by friends and relations. Little whalebones need sheltered spots, to thrive when they’re young.
Then most of her generation became victims of another kind of war - that between the white settlers, hopeful farmers, and the vegetation which got in their way. Why she was saved from being cleared with the rest, I have no idea. Perhaps she was a shapely young tree by then. Her potential for shading a few cattle or a chookyard may have been the reason she was left standing when the vine-scrub/dry rainforest around her was razed. Many such survivors in paddocks around Toowoomba attest to the nature of the original environment.
The clearing event may have happened as long ago as the 1860s, and our tree would have grown little, in all that time, in the hostile environment of the open paddock.
The dairy farm was sold to a developer in the 1980s. It was mowed, one last time, for hay, then newcomers, including us, began converting it into suburban gardens.
The whalebone tree has loved the change. For the first fifteen years she looked much the same, though the broad scar which once covered half of her trunk slowly began to close. Then the trees around her reached her own height and suddenly she took a healthy interest in community life, beginning to grow again, keeping pace with her companions. Now she has almost doubled her canopy.
I did want to give her company of her own kind, but it took me many years to find out what her kind was. So little are our local trees known that it was not until we saw another one, unmistakable because of the tightly bunched thicket of branches, atop the trunk, that characterises whalebone trees. It was in the Bunya Mountains National Park, where a nearby ranger performed the identification for us.
Then it was many more years before I was able to find a nursery which sold these plants. Rainforest plants had come into fashion some years before, but the hardy breeds that grow in the dry rainforests can still be difficult to source. However I now have a couple of small plants of unknown sex growing in Aunty’s corner of the garden.
Curiously, seedlings come with two kinds of leaves. Some (including our new baby), have leaves like those of adult trees. Others produce a few dozen very elongated juvenile leaves, with small lobes at their bases, before they settle down to produce typical adult leaves, shaped like those of our new baby, but rarely more than 4cm long. I wondered whether this might be an indicator of the sex of the plant. If you know more about it, would you please be kind enough to add a comment at the bottom of this article?


Mick said...

Hello Trish,I love your site.

I suspect our gardens are similar given your descriptions of cupaniopsis parvifolia and streblus seedlings popping up around the place. Clerodendrum and Ehretia are also quite prolific this year. There is alway bridelia and jasminum ... and lantana and boxthorn and asparagus.

We have two old multi trunked streblus that are quite a feature of our Garden. I assume they suffered more than the streblus in your garden and were once cut down to make room for dairy cattle. They have come back from the dead and now have this amazing shape. Who knows how old they are?

Sorry I cant post a picture.


Patricia Gardner said...

They could well be centuries old, Mick. I think we tend to underestimate the age of dry rainforest/scrub trees because they are naturally small trees. This is unfortunate because I think people who clear scrub might recognise the value of a very big tree, but clear away a smaller one It is also unfortunate when it comes to clearing for housing development, as a well-established, attractive, local native, naturally small tree is something of very great value in a suburban garden.

Unknown said...

That's interesting you say some seedlings have adult leaves. I have only ever tended seedlings in a nursery and didnt even know they hadadult leaves. As such, i suspect the leaf shape osnot related to sex as all seedlings ive seens (many 10s) all had the long, thin leaves..

Patricia Gardner said...

Thanks for that comment. I would just love to know why there is that particular difference. It doesn't seem logical that it would be random. Whereabouts are you? I wonder if there might be some genetic difference between plants in the Toowoomba area and the seed-collection site for your nursery. Maybe our climate is drier and frostier? If so, would this cause a change in the needs of seedlings, that are for some reason reflected in an evolving difference in infant leaf shape?
My "baby" was tucked well away from frost, but of course its ancestors may not have been.