Saturday, December 13, 2008

Consider the Lilies

Here is a selection of locals:

Dianella caerulea
Typically a plant of our open forests, this grass-like plant forms a tuft up to 45cm across and about the same height. It is quietly attractive even when not in flower. The summer flowering stems reach to twice the height of the leaves, and have dainty flowers followed by showy blue fruits.
They are drought, frost and sun hardy plants, often chosen by landscape architects for bordering paths, adding linear accents in flower gardens, scattering among shrubs, planting in massed groups to exclude weeds, interspersing with grasses in planted meadows, or taking indoors in pots.
Another common name for them is “flax lilies”, as nineteenth century research found that a high-quality fibre of commercial quality - perhaps high enough to make good linen cloth - can be obtained from them. That this has not been followed up has more to do with the absence of need for another fibre crop, in this age of synthetic materials, than from any inadequacy on the part of our local native plants. The original Australians used them to make string bags and baskets of very good quality. Hobbyists may consider them worth growing for spinning, weaving, or basket-making. (The fruits have also been used to make a blue dye.)
The modern bushfood craze has seen the fruits being eaten raw, though the flavour is rather insipid. Traditional aboriginal use of the plant, however, seems to have been limited to eating leaf bases or roots after preparation. Some of the species have irritating berries, and there is some question about the safety of fruits of all the species. D. caerulia is has been pronounced by some authors to be safely edible, despite great variations in the results of scientific tests. If you must experiment, don’t give them to children, and limit your own consumption to small amounts.

Thysanotus tuberosus
It’s easy to think you’ve lost this lovely little plant, as it dies back to its underground tuber each year. It actually is quite easy to lose, though, as it depends heavily on a certain soil fungus. Inoculation with fresh soil taken from around established plants may help.
The plant is so lovely, though, that it’s worth going to some trouble to grow it. It needs well-drained soil and dappled shade, and doesn’t like close competition from taller plants.

Murdannia graminea
These plants grow particularly well on the bora ground at Gowrie Junction, in the very shallow soil among the basalt rocks. They also like dappled shade among eucalypt trees, often at their best in the summer after a bushfire.

The three-petalled mauve flowers are closely related to “wandering jew” - but they don’t wander at all. They can be produced prolifically, on each little plant, after rain in summer. They open fully only when the plant is in sunlight, and close when shade comes across them.
When not flowering, the plant’s grass-like leaves are inconspicious. It dies back to an underground tuber each year, thereby surviving difficult droughts and harsh winter frosts.

Crinum flaccidum
These are plants of river flats, where the soil is occasionally flooded.
For most of the year, they exist only as large (1kg) underground bulbs. In late winter, some flaccid leaves appear, and sprawl messily across the ground. The sweetly scented flowers appear after summer rains.
The bulbs are capable of burrowing! By contracting their roots, they pull themselves down through the surface soil of their loamy habitat until they reach the underlying clay, as much as a metre below the surface.
There, they are sheltered from extremes of weather until summer, when the warmth and the rains penetrate deep.
Gardeners should plant the bulbs with their tops about a handspan deep, and let them find their own level.
They reproduce by bulbils which form at the bases of the dying flowers (so don’t trim them off!) They contain their own water supply, and can germinate without any added water. They are worth planting even though they might, in very dry times, take up to 10 years to flower.

Proiphys cunninghamii
This lovely plant grows on red soils in the wetter parts of the region, in Eucalypt forests or the edges of rainforests. In the garden, they look their best if the sun rarely touches them. They like fairly good light, though. These are not indoor plants!
Mine spend two-thirds of the year in a pot on a shade-cloth-covered patio. They get put away in the bush-house over winter when they lose their leaves.
Beautiful, heart-shaped, dark green leaves appear in spring, and grow up to 50cm high. The heads of up to a dozen gleaming white, fragrant 3cm flowers appear about Christmas time. As they die, round green bulbils develop behind each flowerhead. These ripen to orange, at which point they are ready to plant. They take two years to reach the flowering stage, by which time the bulbs are 5cm in diameter.
The plants don’t like to be disturbed when they are in their leafless phase, so moving and dividing is best done in summer after they flower.
They need protection from frost.

Commelina diffusa (Commelina cyanea)
This is our common native blue-flowered "wandering jew". It’s one of those plants that people seem to either love or hate. It’s very pretty at this time of year if well watered, but it tends to be invasive.
I let it grow in the rougher places about the block, but weed it out - never with complete success, in the gardens close to the house. It certainly has potential as an ornamental plant, but would need to be grown a confined place, and cut back firmly - even mown - when it starts to look straggly.
Frost knocks it, but it regrows from its roots.

Barcoo Rot

Early white settlers in the outback typically depended on “supplies” brought to them by bullock wagon, and later by train. The bulk of these consisted of flour, tea, and sugar. Meat they had, since they rode on a wave of pastoral expansion, or could always shoot some of the native animals. Fresh fruit and vegetables were a luxury, often hard to obtain due to the unreliability of both water supply and knowledgeable gardeners.
The link between the disease known as “Barcoo Rot”, and the lack of vegetables was not made until some time after it was known that lack of vitamin C caused scurvy. Scurvy was seen as a disease of sea-goers, and the idea that the sufferers, far inland, of the “rot” had actually contracted scurvy for the same reason that sailors did - the lack of fresh plant food - was slow in coming.
Once the concept was understood, however, (and the phrase “Eat your greens” entered the vocabulary of mothers the world over) Australians looked around them for plants which could solve the problem. Native plants with edible leaves found new respect, despite their often rather ordinary flavour. “Wandering Sailor” - also known simply as “scurvy weed”, was one of them.
Aborigines, incidentally, rarely ate leaves. They obtained their vitamin C from the very large number of edible fruits which surrounded them. These were not usually obtainable in belly-filling quantities, and were usually treated with contempt by white settlers who saw no point in eating tiny quantities of fruits of unappealing flavour, often consisting mostly of seeds.

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