Thursday, September 24, 2009

Donkey Orchids

Diuris sulphurea

Wouldn’t you love to have a crop of these little fellows coming up in your orchard every spring? My neighbour found them last year while she was mowing, and only just missed chopping their heads off! They are there again, in the same spot, this year.

They are such a good reason for keeping a rough lawn of native grasses. Alas, that pesky weed, kikuyu, would have destroyed many such colonies, which grow naturally in the snuffy red soil along the range.

(Click on photos for a closer look)
North of Toowoomba, this habitat is being rapidly overtaken by acreage gardens such as this one. I do hope the householders are noticing the terrestrial orchids where they occur. Too much mowing would have destroyed this patch’s flowers before they had time to open.

Colony-forming ground orchids like these grow from little tubers, and multiply each year. The tubers were once eaten by aborigines, whose diet was rather low in starch, so they valued even such a small contribution as these donkey orchids could provide. Early white settlers ate them too - but fortunately, nowadays, we have more reliable sources of calories, and don’t need to eat our beautiful native flowers!

There are many species of donkey orchids (also known as “doubletails”), but this species is one of the most common, and can be distinguished by the two brown spots on the upper “petal”.

While ground orchids are considered more difficult to grow than the epiphytes, the donkey orchids are among the easiest of them. Growing them does, however, involve looking after a pot - or a patch of ground - which has nothing to show for most of the year. (Growers rarely do grow terrestrial orchids in the ground, but it should be possible to reintroduce this species to our gardens where they once grew naturally.)
In spring, however, each tuber puts up a few small leaves, followed by a single spike of flowers. It is usual for growers to put a number of tubers in each pot, to make an attractive display.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bonsai Display

Rose Cottage, State Rose Garden, Newtown Park, Tor street (Entry $2.00)
I love those tiny trees - especially the ones that actually do sometimes grow like this in the real world.
These are usually plants of rocky creeks, naturally “bonsaied’ as a result of their seed having germinated in a tiny pocket of humus between rocks, and then being damaged and battered by floods, in between surviving the severe dry periods that our climate throws at them. Only the toughest persist, and nature turns them into pretty miniatures.
I have a friend who hates bonsai. She says it reminds her of Chinese women’s feet in the bad old days - images of pain.
I love them. They remind me of the sheer tenacity of nature (including the human race) in times of trouble - and of the existence of beauty despite adversity. You can’t keep a good Creation down!
(I was also, once, a little girl who loved dolls’ houses. Miniatures are appealing, regardless of all that metaphorical baggage!)
Of course I always look for the natives, and at today’s show I was attracted by this Callistemon. I think our own local native Callistemon viminalis, with its weeping branches, might make an even better bonsai then this one. I must get hold of a seedling and give it a try!

I also liked this fig, which I think is a Ficus obliqua. (It was labelled “small-leafed fig”.)
To me, the best bonsai plants are those where the artist has succeeded in allowing the plant to express the nature of its species, and I feel that the trunk, on this one, gets it. It’s going to be a great bonsai when it’s really old.
We do see more natives being used in bonsai these days, but I think that they’ve hardly been explored yet by bonsai growers - particularly the dry rainforest species, which seem to me to be a particularly suitable plant type for the purpose.
Perhaps next year....

Blunt Greenhood

Pterostylis curta
Erythrorchis cassythoides
Native Orchid Society Display, Milne Bay Military Museum, Anzac Avenue. (Entry $3.00)
There was just one ground orchid in the display this year. Be sure you don’t miss it! The grower, Don Hosking, told me it was from Victoria. He has some greenhoods of more local origin, but they have finished flowering now and just this one was late.
Isn’t it a delight? There’s nothing showy about it, but it’s blissfully perfect in its detail.
Locally, this plant grows in moist and sheltered areas in our Eucalypt forests, on rainforest edges.
Its underground tubers are edible, and were once one of the staple foods of the local people.
You can see that Don has three tubers in this pot. They multiply, and can be separated out - or left to make a bigger show with more flowers per pot.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Slackest Bush Regeneration Group in Town

Working in Franke Scrub

Are we slack, really?
Well, not precisely - but we don’t work very hard. This is because our precious little piece of scrub has relatively low weed infestation. Keeping it in good condition doesn’t require a huge commitment of anyone’s time, nor any really heavy work.
Our enthusiastic group has four to eight working bees a year, with the assistance of Steve Plant and his staff. (Steve is the Natural Resource Management Field officer, Northern Region, Toowoomba Regional Council.)
Jobs range from the really tiny (a blunt knife and something to put the weeds in is all you need, to do valuable work removing tiny asparagus fern seedlings) - to the quite large - which means working with a little spade or mini-mattock.
Secateurs are essential equipment for everyone, as is your own safety equipment - sun protection gear, insect repellant, sensible shoes or boots, and gloves.
Morning tea and a chair are also good things to bring, as we stop work for a morning tea break and a chat at 10.30am, before deciding, individually, whether or not to work on till lunchtime.
Next Working Bee: Next week
Wednesday 23rd September, 9.00am

To Get There:
Turn west at the southernmost set of traffic lights on the New England Highway, into Cawdor Road.
After approx. 1.6k, turn left into Cawdor Drive.
After approx. 2.2k, Turn right into Franke’s Road.
Continue off the end of the bitumen for several hundred metres. (Dirt road suitable for ordinary 2-wheel drive vehicles).

Do join us!

About Franke Scrub
Highfields / Cawdor
This tiny piece of semi-evergreen vine thicket on red basaltic soil is one of the few remaining remnants of this kind of endangered ecosystem in South-east Queensland, and one of the very few indeed on public land.
It is of both environmental and heritage value, in providing a rare opportunity for Toowoomba people to see what much of the original Toowoomba environment once looked like.
It is on a road reserve, and was thoughtfully preserved by the Crows Nest Shire Council, a council which enjoyed a good reputation for its environmental initiatives. Their staff ensured its survival by replanning the future extension of Franke Road to go around, rather than through the scrub, and has supported is since, with revegetation and substantial assistance given to a group of citizens which meets regularly to remove weeds.
A boundary of natural rocks has recently been positioned to prevent entry to the site by vehicles, and our new council plans to upgrade the signage.
Despite its small size, the scrub is notable for its preservation of 37 dry rainforest tree species,18 types of shrub, 14 climbers, and a range of understory plants, all preserved in a complete ecosystem with a high biodiversity level.
Unusually for such a small area, weed infestation is relatively low, with the main problems plants being climbing asparagus fern, green panic grass. There is a small area of cats claw which is being controlled but has not yet been eliminated.
For more on Franke Scrub, see

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Black Bootlace Orchid

Erythrorchis cassythoides (Galeola cassythoides)

These dead flowers, tumbled into some disturbed earth, were all that was left when I went looking for the climbing orchid which once grew by the roadside at Hampton.

Stealing orchids from the wild is something normally done only by people with an underdeveloped sense of ethics. In the case of this orchid species, it is an act of murder, rather than mere theft, as the plants don’t survive being moved.
However, this one used to climb on a dead tree which is marked for destruction by the “Cathedral Drive” roadworks. Perhaps in this case the plant was taken by someone who felt that a forlorn hope of saving the plant was better than no hope at all.
Unfortunately, there is probably Buckley’s chance of re-establishing it elsewhere. Climbing orchids, like so many ground orchids, depend for their survival on having their roots attached to a complex web of fungi, which themselves live on decaying wood as well as being somewhat parasitic on the roots of living trees. The orchids can’t survive on their own roots, so “transplanting” kills them.
These leafless orchids creep up the stems of trees, clinging with roots growing from the nodes of their black main stems. They can get as high as 6 metres, but are most commonly seen growing only a few metres high. (Not that they are common at all - in fact they’re rare in our district).
They are usually on Eucalypts, living or dead, but have been known to establish themselves on orange trees.
In spring they put out generous panicles of these banana-coloured flowers, each with a white labellum that turns red as the flower ages. They have a strong, sweet fragrance, which attract their native bee pollinators.
Some good photos can be found at
The sadness of destroying old trees is that so many smaller species are destroyed with them. The trees can be re-planted, and will eventually replace those lost (though not in our lifetime), but the flora and fauna which depended on them can be pushed to extinction, as they are unable to wait for their life-supporting environment to be re-established.

More on Cathedral Drive.

The latest news seems to be that clearing of trees from the Highway is to start on Monday, despite the best efforts of the SAVE group, which sought to have at least some of them retained.
This group is one which has to earn our respect. Far from being the somewhat imaginary idiot-type “greenies” that some of the froth-at-the-mouth anti-environment types have accused them of being, they have been trying to achieve a compromise which would give greatly increased road safety without losing quite such a shocking and unnecessary number of old-growth roadside trees.
REAL greenies, of course, like to be safe on the roads just like everyone else!
The SAVE group includes some intelligent and rational "greenies", as well as people who have been working very hard for the economy of their local district by developing its tourist potential.
Their suggestions, which have all been ignored by our minister for transport, included:

* seal the road shoulders
* remove the overhanging dead branches and commit to a rigorous ongoing maintenance program, undertaken by qualified arborists
* install wire rope barriers, or other forms of guard rail where necessary (something CONSPICUOUSLY lacking from some very dangerous sections of the new piece of highway between Hampton and Crows Nest. That appalling road has been subjected to recent road “improvements”, designed by the people who have also designed the Hampton “upgrade”)
* add audible line marking
* improve reflectors on each side of the road
* upgrade the Geham Dump turnoff (including a textural surface at dump entry to remove mud from vehicle tyres)
* upgrade the Merritts Creek Road / Aberdeen Rd intersection
* reduce the speed limit (to 70 km/hr through Hampton village and 80 km/hr for the remainder, which would add less than 90 seconds drive-time.)
* install wildlife signage
* totally re-design the Hampton village upgrade, especially the Esk-Hampton Rd intersection - the present scheme will turn Hampton into nothing more than a cross-road and eradicate its village character
* find an alternative location (i.e. where there are no existing trees) to locate the truck inspection zones

And I’m sure you’ll agree that the last point, where the government is insisting on clearing extra trees to create a truck inspection zone just there, when there are plenty of already-cleared sections on other portions of that particular highway where the facility could be built, does demonstrate that no serious attention was ever really given to the concerns of this particular group of voters.
It even looks rather as though our government is thumbing its nose at them, doesn't it?

Those who’d like to know more could look at SAVE’s website -

The Vets’ Grasstree

Xanthorrhoea glauca (Xanthorrhoea australis)

This lovely tree is one of the glories of Toowoomba, particularly in September when it attracts birds and a throbbing mob of insects with this incredible display of flowers.
You can see it on the corner of West and Herries Streets, opposite Laurel Bank Park.

I was delighted to have been able to hear the true story of the planting of this tree in 2011, from the man who planted it, Mr Ray Lamb.
The house, which is now a veterinary surgery,
was built in 1924 by Herbert William (Bert) Lamb. Bert was a prominent Toowoomba businessman, and he and his wife Muriel had a strong interest in natural history. His son Ray was born there in 1926.
Ray found the grasstree during a visit home to his parents' house, very soon after the second world war. It originally grew near the beginning of the walking track to Tabletop. In those days the track would have started near the top of the Range, at the end of South Street. The grasstree was then only quite small. (Mr Lamb estimates that it was about 18 inches high.)
He dug it up and transplanted it into an old asparagus bed near the back gate of the house. The soil was extremely well prepared. His father had dug a hole about 3 feet square and 3 feet deep, and filled it with soil enriched with a large quantity of manure.
The plant obviously thrived in its new home, giving the lie to all those tales of grasstrees being extremely slow-growing. These tales are apparently based on measurements of the growth of an Australian grasstree taken back to Britain, and planted in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden - hardly the optimum environment for this largely sub-tropical species!
The plants were once common on the blacksoil of the Darling Downs. Ludwig Leichhardt commented on them, in the Journal he wrote in 1844. He found them remarkable as they grew on rich, heavy, clay soil, whereas most of Australia’s grasstrees (including other X. glauca subspecies) will only grow very well-drained hillsides where the soil is rather infertile. The trees he saw were growing out on the plains, often near creeks. There are still a very few of these original trees left, but as the flat land where they grew is also some of our richest agricultural land, most of them have gone to clearing.
The tree does also grow on our red and black basalt soil slopes, but it is worth knowing that this species is a hardy, drought and frost tolerant species which will happily grow on in the heavy black soil of our plains, tolerating occasional severe flooding.
The story of the planting in a heavily manured pit reinforces the fact that this grasstree subspecies responds well to rich soil and will tolerate poor drainage. I suspect the treatment would be just the way to kill most kinds of Xanthorrhoea!
Grasstrees are more closely related to lilies than to “proper” trees, and share the lily tendency to have the leaves and flowers all coming from a central point. They can take up to ten years to begin to develop a trunk, sitting on the ground like a giant pom-pom meanwhile. Even at this stage, they are ornamental in gardens, their elegant leaves stirring gently with every breeze. This movement is a significant part of their beauty.
As the trees gets older they a dry “grass skirt”, and people have varying opinions as to whether this looks good or not. Some of us think that the blackened stem of burned trees is a more natural and authentic look. In their original environment they would always have been subject to burning every few years.
People who feel they can safely do so might like to burn their trees every so often. There is a rumour that this practice hastens the growth of the trunk, but local experiments haven’t supported the theory. It may, however, promote flowering once the tree is old enough.
It is a pity that nurseries have a tendency to sell grasstrees without stating what species they are.
Our local species can be bought, but you might have to do a bit of work to source the right thing.

Australian Dogwood

Jacksonia scoparia

This elegant little tree is so obviously suitable for suburban gardens that it’s surprising we don’t see more of it, here.
This is about as tall as it grows. As it gets older it fills out a little and gets a sturdier trunk, but always remains a rather slender plant.

It’s very hardy, and highly ornamental in spring when it gets smothered in these fragrant pea-flowers.
The common name is said to come from the highly unattractive smell of the timber, if used as firewood. It is a fire-retardant species, so presumably makes poor firewood anyway!
It is drought and frost hardy, and prefers to grow on hillsides or in well-drained soil. It likes to be pruned after flowering, but doesn’t really need it. You can plant this one, and leave it alone forever.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Australian Buttercup

Ranunculus lappaceus
“Ranunculus” means “tadpole”, and refers to the damp habitat preferred by buttercups generally - so we can be surprised to find our tough little native buttercup growing on a sunny, grassy hillside.
This is its native habitat, however, and the plants would have been much more common in this sort of site before Europeans arrived with their buttercup-munching stock.
Australia has 30 species of native buttercups, most of them restricting themselves, in typical buttercup fashion, to wet soil or very shallow water. They are all suitable for garden planting but the flower quality varies. The flowers of R. lappaceus have broad petals which form a full cup, making them perhaps the prettiest of Australian buttercup flowers.
They are very similar in size (15 - 40mm diameter) and appearance to the flowers of the introduced European buttercup, Ranunculus repens, which we sometimes see in Australian gardens and weed books. (The latter is a spreading, invasive plant in damp places, but is less seen here nowadays as it can’t cope with drought.)
The pretty flowers of our local, combined with its hardiness to drought and frost, and its long flowering season (spring to autumn), make it a very suitable plant for use in our local gardens. Where conditions are good it self-seeds readily, but as it lacks the spreading habit it is not invasive.
Once established, this little perennial is a tough plant which will even regrow from its roots after a fire.
Seeds of the species can be bought on the internet, but it would be better to get plants of local provenance, as these would be hardier to drought.
Buttercup flowers are very shiny, and a child’s game consists of holding a flower under someone’s chin to tell whether they like eating butter. If they do, their skin will show yellow when the flower comes near it. (The sheen of a healthy child’s skin will always ensure that the yellow reflection of the flower shows up, especially if the game is played in the sunshine.)