Thursday, February 28, 2008

An Ornamental Grass Suitable for Gardens

 Native Fountain Grass
Pennisetum alopecuroides
Family: POACEAE
There is a growing interest in putting a patch of native grasses in our gardens. This comes partly from the realisation that they have ornamental value, and partly from a wish to expand the “bird-attracting garden” concept beyond the currently popular plantings intended to attract honeyeaters.
It is in flower at the moment, and looking particularly good after all the rain we’ve had. These photos were taken in the Condamine valley, upstream of Killarney (by the Condamine Gorge Road) last weekend.
It is one of Australia’s most commonly grown ornamental grasses. It forms a clump above knee height, with graceful arching leaves. The “foxtail” flowerheads are deep purple-black as they emerge, and when the flowers are fully open the large yellow anthers are also showy and shed generous amounts of insect-attracting pollen. As the seeds develop, the heads fade attractively to silver- yellow.
This very frost-hardy grass is also quite drought resistant, but (as is obvious from its name) it looks best if it can be watered, or grown in a part of the garden where water naturally collects. It is happy in heavy soils, and where drainage is poor.
Locally collected seed is the best source of this plant, and it will grow when fresh. The clumps need renewing every spring, by being cut back to two-thirds of their height

The Weed Issue
You sometimes see claims that this fountain grass species is a “weed”, as it is “not native”. This is perfectly true in states outside Queensland and New South Wales. The growing awareness that a plant native to Australia can be a weed outside its natural range is a familiar issue to those of us who share an enthusiasm for growing local natives. A (very) few Australian plants from elsewhere have become environmental weeds here, and are no more welcome in our bushland than privet and prickly pear. There is no justification for growing a plant with obvious potential to become an environmental weed, but here in the Condamine catchment this plant can be grown with a clear conscience.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Growing the Prettiest Mistletoe


Now is the time to go looking for seeds of the glamorous brush mistletoe, Amylotheca dictyophleba. (Family: LORANTHACEAE)
It was flowering exuberantly early in the new year, and the first fruits are now ripe. Like many rainforest mistletoes, this plant of the dry rainforests grows on a great variety of hosts including introduced trees, so you’re sure to be able to find a suitable place in your garden to plant this showy ornamental.

The one in the photo was growing on a silky oak tree (Grevillea robusta), well placed at face height for maximum viewing pleasure. It’s a common plant around Toowoomba where it’s found on jacarandas, camphor laurels, introduced figs, and London plane trees, as well as river she-oaks (Casuarina cunninghamiana). No doubt they will happily grow on most local native rainforest and scrub tree species. Most of the plants are self-sown, though, and do not often find themselves in positions where they can be enjoyed to the full.
The large fruits are as attractive as the flowers, in their mixed bunches of green, red, purple and black. Squeeze some ripe black fruits carefully, and you’ll see a sticky thread attached to the end of the seed. This can be attached to a tree branch in a likely place, and with luck will grow to produce a new plant.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Outstanding Mistletoe


 Amyema linophylla subsp orientalis
Family: LORANTHACEAE
Those who live west of the dividing range might be familiar with this one. The leaves are so well camouflaged on their usual host bulloaks (Allocasuarina leuhmanii) that the plant goes unnoticed until it flowers in February, giving the impression that the trees have suddenly gone all hippie and rebelled against their usual rather boring style of flower. (If you’re going to San Francisco...)
The plant’s name is Bulloak mistletoe, but it can often be found on belahs (Casuarina cristata), and occasionally on other trees including blackwoods (Acacia melanoxylon) and budda (Eremophila mitchelii).
Mistletoes can and do grow on other mistletoes, and this specimen had a little passenger, a harlequin mistletoe, Lysiana exocarpi subsp tenuis, showing some of its red and green buds.

Scrub Boonaree

Alectryon diversifolius
Family: SAPINDACEAE
“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.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cockspur Thorn

Maclura cochinchinensis
Family: MORACEAE
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.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The New Baby

Whalebone Tree
Streblus pendulinus (Streblus brunonianus)
Family: MORACEAE
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?