Thursday, March 27, 2008

Native Leaf Colour

As a child, I could never understand why anyone would plant a deciduous tree. A fortnight of bright colour seemed to me to be a poor trade-off for the dead look that these trees have for a third of the year.
On moving to Tasmania, I began to understand what the fuss was about. Autumn comes in more gently there, and the period of special leaf colour lasts a month or more. Then the colours of the bare branchlets are brought out by being wet - and it is wet all winter long. Deciduous trees have a soft aura of colour in the rain and the mist. They don’t look dead, there, in winter.
So I have little sympathy any municipal policy to sell Toowoomba to tourists as a place of “four seasons”. Those who want to see autumn leaves can easily find better hunting grounds, and some are a mere few hours’ drive to the south of us. I seems a shame, here, to waste good planting-space on deciduous trees.
Meanwhile, we have plenty of natives which have lovely leaf colour and don’t restrict it to the one time of year. One of them is the bleeding heart tree, Omalanthus nutans. This little pioneer tree of rainforests is evergreen, but each leaf turns brilliant red before falling, so there is a scatter of bright red leaves on it all year round.
It is fast-growing, and a good size for gardens. It can be left to become a small tree, or pruned as a multi-stemmed shrub. A plant grown in the sun can form quite a dense canopy, especially if it is helped along by tip-pruning. In the shade it is more open in habit, drawing attention to itself by its bright leaves.
At this time of year it is producing its purple fruits, which attract birds.
Bleeding heart’s natural habitat in rainforest clearings is frost-free, and it appreciates the same conditions in gardens where a sheltered position near a building or a fence is usually easy to find. Like many fast-growing plants, it’s not long-lived. It is a good one to plant next to those slow-growers we put in for our great-grandchildren to enjoy.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dry Rainforest at Highfields.

What a special legacy it would be, to leave behind you a patch of local native vegetation for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to appreciate. Charles and Motee Rogers did this, with a bushland reserve on a site next to the Highfields swimming pool and recreation centre.
The vegetation it preserves gives a little taste of what the Highfields environment must have been like, before clearing and gum-trees took over from the original dry rainforest.
Even this precious remnant is relatively impoverished. The vegetation does not have nearly the richness of the scrub in the nearby reserve in Franke’s Road, (which has an amazing 70 species of local native plants, on a much smaller site). However its accessible situation, so close to the shopping centre, makes it a uniquely valuable piece of public land. The Crows Nest Shire Council has been maintaining the reserve, carefully enriching it by planting appropriate local natives in the more open spaces.
This is the perfect time of year for a visit, as so many of the plants are in fruit. The showiest, at the moment, are the red olive-plums, Elaeodendron australis, with their masses of bright orange, olive-shaped fruits, (See article below).
Also visible from the winding path are fruits of:

Hedge Orangebark, Denhamia bilocularis (Maytenus bilocularis). Yellow-orange fruits.

Native Breynia, Breynia oblongifolia. Red fruits ripening to black.

Box-leafed Canthium. Psydrax odorata forma buxifolia. Black fruits

Stiff Jasmine, Jasminum simplicifolium subsp australianse. Black fruits

Peach-leafed Trema, Trema tomentosa, Black fruits.

You'll find Narrow-leafed Orangebark, Denhamia silvestris (Maytenus silvestris) (Yellow-orange fruits); Scrub Tuckeroo, Alectryon diversifolius, (Bright red fruits - see February article); Tape Vine, Stephania japonica., (Red fruits); New England Pimelia, Pimelia novae-anglicae, (Red fruits); and Scrub Jasmine, Jasminum didymum subsp. racemosum, (Black Fruits) as well, and by the footpath outside the entry to the reserve is a Tuckeroo, Cupaniopsis parvifolia, almost finished for the year, but still with a few bright orange capsules hanging on.
All these fruits attract birds, so this is a particularly good time to go birdwatching there, as well.

Red Olive-Plum

Elaeodendron australe var. integrifolium (Cassine australis var. angustifolia)
One of the showiest local plants, the red olive-plums are making a great display with their orange fruits in the Charles and Motee Rogers Bushland Reserve at Highfields, this month. Like many of our local dry rainforest plants they are very suitable for suburban gardens. They are adaptable plants with dense, dark-green canopies and can be grown as small, single-trunked shade trees, or pruned as multi-trunked screening shrubs. They are plants of relatively low flammability, which makes them much more suitable for the suburbs than the dangerous rows of cypresses that we see springing up all over the area.
Perhaps the most “typical” Highfields plant, olive-plums would be very appropriate signature trees for the area. Our locals are the narrow-leafed inland variety. Closer to the coast the olive-plums have broader leaves and fruits which are red.
They are fast-growing, drought-hardy plants, whose deep roots are not jealous of other plants growing close by - a useful quality in a garden specimen. The berries (on the female plants only) can make a much-appreciated bright spot in a garden at this time of the year, when many flowering plants have finished.
Seedlings of the tough local variety can be bought from the Crows Nest Community Nursery. They are best planted in the ground while still very small, as they like to get their drought-hardy roots deep into the soil at a very early age and will grow faster if the roots don’t get “checked” by being confined. Seedlings produce the best shaped trees. Gardeners may also want to grow a few shrubs from cuttings from known female trees, to be sure of getting berries. (Some nearby males are, of course, needed for pollination.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Glossy Acronychia

Acronychia laevis
Bushwalking has its seasonal delights, and this week, just north of Toowoomba, we found a cluster of those lovely plants, whose botanical name is Acronychia laevis (pronounce it “Acro-NICK-ee-a”). They are also sometimes called “hard aspen” - one of those exasperating names which were given to Australian plants by the early timbergetters.
Aspen? True aspens are deciduous northern hemisphere plants, quite unrelated to acronychias, they are a kind of poplar noted for the characteristic quivering of their leaves, and their bright orange-yellow display in autumn. The soft timber was used by settlers in North America for building log cabins. Hard Aspen? What were they thinking?
Glossy acronychia has stiff, shiny leaves rather like those of lillypillies, with not a hint of quiver about them. They are firmly evergreen, though no doubt the dense, shady canopy thins a bit at the end of winter as with most dry rainforest trees. They have never been a timber tree of any significance as they are too small. Their timber is white, and there the resemblance to aspens ends.
This is one of those delightful trees which grow quickly at first to encourage the hopeful gardener, and then settle down to slow growth and a probably very long life. They can produce a good flush of their butterfly-attracting flowers, followed by a generous crop of very attractive pink and purple fruits, while less than waist-high. The fruits darken as they ripen, and are eaten by green catbirds and no doubt many other rainforest fruit-eaters.
They are unlikely to ever get a trunk wider than 20cm diameter, or to grow more than 10 metres high, and may well take your lifetime or more to get there. An attractive shrub is probably all you could expect in the first twenty years or so.
Every garden should contain some heirloom trees that future generations will thank you for, and this is a good candidate, suitable for a suburban garden.
It likes well-drained soil, some shade early in its life, and shelter from frost. Being a local, it is fairly good at coping with drought, too.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Cucumber, but not as we know it!

Sicyos australis

The star cucumber is not a plant anyone would grow for its fruit! The “cucumbers” are about 1cm long, and consist mostly of soft green prickles. They are held in a star-like cluster on the plant. Like the white flowers, they are gently attractive - but it is the wonderful, baroque leaf-shape which makes this soft-stemmed annual climber worth growing in any shady garden.

Naturalised, in a rainforest garden, its delightful appearance each summer would add to the rich texture of greens appropriate to the style.

It succumbs to both frost and drought. Where it occurs naturally we can be sure that, once, there was rainforest.