Thursday, August 28, 2008

Butterfly Season has Started Again.

This little darling is an orange palm dart (Cephrenes augiades).
I like to think I have attracted it to my garden by planting a piccabeen palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), which is its larval food plant.
It’s a male butterfly. You can tell by the fancy way it holds its wings - a characteristic of the males of its species. I was blessed, as a child, with a father who amused us (and no doubt himself) by making wonderful paper gliders, and this butterfly reminds me of some of his more elaborate efforts.

My poor old piccabeen had a hard time of it for its first ten years. I couldn’t water it as it deserved, so it grew slowly. It was always in a state of rags and tatters, as it apparently represented an oasis for the palm darts which found it early in its life and have bred on it ever since. I am interested to see that, now the tree has matured somewhat, they no longer make mincemeat of it and it has turned into an attractive tree. It's had no artificial watering now for at least ten years. I'm often amazed at how our local natives, even the theoretical water-lovers, can take everything our climate throws at them.
It’s still a long way from representing the palm grove of my dreams. (Sigh!) Of course I should have planted a dozen of them at the time. This is not a tree that makes a good garden statement on its own.
Meanwhile I am glad that I have provided for some butterflies. We Australians have always been able to attract a good variety to our gardens simply by planting flowers, so the adults can find a sweet drink. We have counted on living close to bushland containing the native plants on which they breed, to provide the great variety of species we once were able to attract. As the boundaries of Toowoomba gallop ever outwards, with bush being replaced by cleared and gardened acreages, our butterfly variety is declining.
Some species (probably including the palm darts) can survive on introduced plants, but others are quietly vanishing.
Has anyone seen a fourbar swordtail lately?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Plant called "Twin-leaf"

Roepera apiculata (Zygophyllum apiculatum)
Here’s an interesting plant, in flower in Irongate Environmental Reserve at present. It looks quite out of place, so softly fresh and green in such a dry area and at such a dry time of year.
It’s a short-lived perennial which grows in drifts and patches, getting to about a foot high. It self-seeds readily, so patches can persist indefinitely. The leaves refresh themselves annually in late winter.
Bright yellow butterflies were showing great interest in the patches of twinleaf. Perhaps it was the flowers they were welcoming. Nectar must be in rather short supply at present. Perhaps they were also egg-laying, though I found no caterpillars and am not aware of this as a known butterfly host plant.
The seeds will be followed by pretty, green five-winged seed capsules, each with five shiny black seeds inside.
Twin-leaf looks as though it would be a good pasture plant, and is yet another of the native plants which has an undeserved reputation for toxicity to stock. Like all Australian plants suspected of causing problems for pastoralists, it has been carefully researched, and the finding is that stock simply refuse to eat it in its green state. It’s a different story once it’s old and dry, however, when sheep will eat it happily, and with no ill effects.
I suspect that the natural occurrence of this plant would act as a soil pH indicator, as I only know if it growing in places where the soil is alkaline.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pretty Purple Wanderer

Hardenbergia violacea
Family: FABACEAEThis little climber is making splashes of purple in our local bush at the moment. It is a plant of our open forests, from rainforest edges to quite dry situations.
Its beauty and hardiness make it popular in gardens as well - though the plants we buy in Nurseries are more likely to have come from other parts of Australia. Hardenbergia is a widespread and variable plant, and nurseries offer a number of forms including a larger and more vigorous version of our local climber called “Happy Wanderer” and a popular little shrub called “Mini-ha-ha”. It is probably the case that varieties with narrower leaves are the most drought hardy.
The locals are very acceptable as garden specimens, and easy to grow from seed. Never very large plants, they are suitable for a light trellis, or can be allowed to climb through existing shrubs and small trees. An effective way to use them is to plant them beside a native hibiscus. The hibiscus has as open growth habit, so the Hardenbergia is always visible within it. It flowers earlier than the hibiscus, and adds to the length of that shrub’s season of beauty.
Hardenbergias are frost hardy, and prefer to grow in a sunny, well-drained spot.

A Corky-stemmed Silkpod.

Parsonsia leichhardtii.
Here’s something just a bit different.
This climber which was flowering last week in Frankes scrub created discussion because of its corky stem.
Of the two photos, the one at right shows a piece of stem 2m from the ground, and the lower one is the same at ground level.
I identified it, tentatively, as Parsonsia leichhardtii, but my sources made no mention of a corky stem to be expected on this species. I was delighted when friends Phil and Cheryl offered to take samples of the plant to the herbarium to get the opinion of botanists down there. They agreed that it was the “black silkpod”, P. leichhardtii, but considered the corkiness of the stem to be unusual in the species.

It is a small vine. I think that a 2m x 2m trellis would be adequate to contain one, and would be a worthwhile, if not showy garden specimen - a green screen ornamented in spring with gently pretty cream flowers, and in Autumn with its spindle-shaped seedpods which open to let the seeds float away on little brown silky parachutes.
It has the added virtue of being a butterfly host plant. Growing host plants is the best way to attract butterflies to a garden.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


 Myrsine variabilis (Rapanea variabilis)

Our local mutton-woods are coming into flower again, so be on the lookout for these shiny leaves and the brown buds clustered along old wood of the stems. They will open up to become cream flowers, then ripen into bird-attracting purple-blue fruits in summer. Muttonwood can grow as a small tree with a narrow, erect outline. If grown in the open it develops a dense canopy, and is unlikely to get any higher than 6m.
If pruned it forms a multi-stemmed screening shrub, showing its new bronze leaves to advantage.
In nature, this fast-growing plant also often grows in the understorey of dry rainforest, apparently happy to share root-space with larger trees overhead. It likes hillside sites, and grows better if given a good ground-cover of leafy mulch.
It’s hardy to both frost and drought.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Not Fruits, but Galls!

I seem to have got away with a rather conspicuous mistake in last week’s post.
The photo of Sandalwood “Fruits” was in fact a photo of some galls.
Here are some genuine fruits, from the same tree - and the red one was edible already, I discovered. I was a bit surprised to find them at this time of year.

Here is a better photo of some of the typical galls we find on our local Santalum lanceolatum.
Galls are growths on plants which can be caused by parasitic fungi, bacteria, nematode worms, gall insects, or mites. The trick is done by the plant itself, which makes abnormal growth in response to a chemical irritant produced by the parasite.
In the case of an insect gall the mothers deposit their eggs, together with a dose of irritant, in the plant tissues. As the babies hatch, the gall begins to form, with the growing insect inside it. When the baby insect reaches the right age, it bores a little escape hole. Each species of gall insect has its favourite host, which responds to it by forming galls of a characteristic shape.
Some galls (notably the “mulga apple” which forms on mulga trees) are a favourite aboriginal food. They are picked while the grub, which is considered to be delicious, is still inside.
These Santalum galls are worth a closer look, if you find some, They are quite soft and easy to cut, and may contain quite a few little grubs.