Friday, January 30, 2009

Soap trees

Alphitonia excelsa
While I clearly have a lot to learn about photographing butterflies, I still thought I would share this one with you, as it’s the first I have seen in my garden of a “ green-banded blue” butterfly, (Danis hymetus), and I am delighted with it (the butterfly, not the photo). You can see that the lower wing surfaces are beautifully ornamented with iridescent green and black. The upper surfaces are quite different, marked in pure white and blue, a bright caerulian colour just like that of the wandering sailor flowers (Commelina cyanea) which are flowering all about the place at the moment. (See December article)
The reason I am delighted with the butterfly is that I can probably take the credit for its existence. The only plant it breeds on is the soap tree, Alphitonia excelsa, and I have several which have now reached a respectable size in my garden.
Soap trees are fast-growing pioneers, capable of growing as much as 3m in a year. They become well-shaped medium sized specimens in quite a short time, eventually developing trunks up to 60cm in diameter - something that could easily be accommodated in all but the smallest suburban gardens.

They have attractive shiny green leaves, whose white backs add to the tree’s appeal when it is stirred by a breeze. They are flowering just now, and beginning to develop the black fruits, which have the odd habit of losing their skins while still hanging on the tree, so that the bare red seeds are exposed - a very pretty effect. Birds love them, and this is a good chookyard tree.

The trunks must have just the right pH to appeal to a variety of our local lichens, as they develop these lovely dapples from an early age.
The trees get their name from the lather which can be produced by rubbing them in water, and which can be used as soap or shampoo. It smells of sarsaparilla.
The timber was so much used by coopers in the old days for making wooden barrels and buckets that the tree used to be known as “coopers wood”. It has also been used for boat-building.
Soap trees are native over a wide area of Australia, but are rather scruffy in some places, which is why they are often overlooked when ornamental trees are being chosen for gardens. However, they grow particularly well on our red soil.
They are very drought resistant, coping, as do so many of our local dry rainforest trees, by being semi-deciduous in dry winters. In summer after the rains they thicken up and provide good shade. They also tolerate moderate frost, and will grow in full sun or in shade. This hardiness and reliability has led to them being used as street trees in some places.

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