Sunday, February 24, 2008

Scrub Boonaree

Alectryon diversifolius
“Alectryon” is a Greek word meaning “rooster”, and the name can seem a bit of a mystery until you see this showy plant in seed. The modest seed capsules show no hint of the glory to come until February, when the shiny black seeds ripen and their attached red arils swell, bursting the capsules open and expanding to form a fleshy “cockscomb” hugging a beady “eye”. Those who appreciate modernist sculpture will have no trouble seeing a rooster in the result.
Birds love red and black things, so when we come across a plant with seeds of these colours, we know that it is trying to attract them to a feast. What the plant wants, is for birds to spread the seeds around the nearby countryside. The technique is successful, and the plants are quite common in our district as a result. We often see them as remnant plants (of the original dry rainforest/vine scrub), in paddocks where cows prune them into attractive, dense shrubs or single-trunked bushy little trees. They are disappearing, though, as much of our district’s ex-rainforest land is vanishing into the rapidly expanding dormitory suburbs of Toowoomba. Like so many of our local dry rainforest plants, boonarees are eminently suitable as garden plants. They are highly adaptable. They can be left alone to grow into small trees of perfect size for a small suburban lot, or pruned to make neat, dense hedges or screens. They can take very heavy pruning, so can be kept as a waist-high plant even when they have quite a large trunk. They are very long-lived, despite their small size.
As the plant’s second name “diversifolius” implies, the leaf-shapes vary. Juvenile ones have pretty, toothed edges, reminding you of delicate little holly leaves, while mature ones are smooth edged. Pruning encourages flushes of bright red new leaves of the juvenile shape.
Also typically of dry rainforest plants, these plants can grow quickly if conditions are good. When times are tough they can stagnate for years, staying alive in extreme drought conditions even when quite small, but gaining an undeserved reputation for slow growth.
For this plant, “good conditions” consist of shelter from frost, too much sun, and drying winds. Ideally, they would be planted small (straight from a tube). With some mulch, the occasional watering, and some pruning to shape if desired, you have all that this undemanding plant needs to grow well.
The specimen in this photo is a quite old, naturally occurring specimen, that has been inherited by lucky householders from a farm which was subdivided into acreage lots. Its foliage extends right to the ground, probably because it has spent many years being munched by livestock before it was at last left to grow free.
They are readily available from the Crows Nest Community Nursery or Future Forests, both of which specialise in local native plants.

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