Friday, February 26, 2010

Small-leaved Tylophora

Tylophora grandiflora

I was delighted when a friend emailed me photos of these little flowers, which she had found in Franke Scrub at Highfields.
I hadn’t noticed before that this plant was there. It’s a dainty understorey climber, which normally only grows about to 2 metres high, and is easy to overlook when not in flower.

The long, slender seed follicles which will develop from these flowers are a curious and rather elegant shape – inflated near the base and tapering to a point at the end– very similar to those of the closely related species Secamone and Cynanchum. In the same way, they burst open to release seeds which float in the wind on their parachutes of silky hairs.
We sometimes see this drought hardy plant for sale in nurseries which specialise in native plants, and it would be suitable for small gardens, where it would decorate, rather than cover, a trellis that might be 1.5 or 2 metres high, and a metre or less wide. It needs a sheltered situation where it would get minimal exposure to direct sunlight. It does prefer well-drained soil, and is happy on our local red soil.
Asian species of Tylophora are regarded as important medicinal plants. Like many of our yet unstudied Australian plants, our local may prove of value to medical science.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Zig-Zag Vine

Melodorum leichhardtii
I have no photo of this plant for you.
Instead, here is a picture of a lovely butterfly which blew into our garden today and hung itself up for the night in a sheltered spot. It left its wings outspread, and allowed us to approach for this photo, taken from just a foot away. (After dark, it folded its wings -perhaps to keep itself warm?)
It’s a four-bar swordtail (Protographium leosthenes).
We were delighted to see it, as these butterflies are uncommon hereabouts. The original population may have been quite substantial, but fourbars have a problem here, nowadays, finding a host plant that their caterpillars can eat. They need something from the Annonaceae family, and the only local native plant in that family is the zig-zag vine, a plant of rainforests and dry vine scrubs - environments that are being depleted by clearing.
Zig-zag vine is a good-looking plant, and could appropriately be grown in gardens more than it is. It begins life as a bushy scrambler, and only begins to climb when it is a few years old. In the rainforest it becomes a large vine, reaching up to the canopy.
If it can find nothing to climb on, it makes no complaint, simply settling down to make a fine specimen of a shrub. Potentially a large and bulky foliage plant, it can be used effectively as a screen on a substantial trellis, or for shade on a sturdy pergola.
“Melodorum” means “honey-scented”, because of the perfume that is released when the glossy dark green, wavy edged leaves are crushed. The fragrant, creamy-brown flowers come in pairs. See
The shiny little seed capsules are orange, and look rather like strange waxy peanuts, with a “waist” between the seeds. See :
These capsules are hard on the outside but contain soft, edible, tangy-flavoured pulp. The alternative common names “acid-drop” vine and fruit salad vine give us some idea of the flavour and tell us why this plant is sold by nurseries which specialise in bushfoods. The pulp can be eaten fresh, and is also used to make liqueur.
Zig-zag vines grow slowly at first, so there’s no need to rush to get that pergola finished. Alternatively, gardeners might like to plant short-lived climbers such as native passionfruits on the structure, to keep them entertained while the zig-zag vine gets started.
As it starts to climb, the young zig-zag vine has a curious growth habit. Its young branches wrap themselves in a knot-like way around their supports, earning the plant an alternative common name - “knot vine”.
This is a drought-hardy plant, suitable for a waterwise garden.
Four-bar swordtails can also breed on custard apple plants (Annona reticulata), an introduced species from the Annonaceae family - but these frost tender trees are rarely grown up here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hedge Saltbush

Rhagodia spinescens
Here’s yet another saltbush which is fruiting in Irongate Reserve at present.
It’s a species which is widespread in Australia, and often used in landscape gardening.
It’s a very dense little shrub with tiny blue-grey leaves and red bird-attracting fruits. It grows somewhat less than waist high, and as its lower branches tend to lie down and develop roots wherever they touch the ground, it can spread some distance, and is easy to reproduce. It grows so densely (if planted in full sun) that it can even smother out Kikuyu grass!

It makes a particularly good, frost and drought hardy hedge, and as also strongly fire-resistant, it is a plant that we Australians should use more often in our gardens where bushfire is a risk.
Despite its botanical name, it’s not spiny. “Spinescens” refers to its habit of shutting down the ends of the twiggy branches in a drought, losing the leaves and giving the bush a spiny appearance. If they do this in a garden, it’s easy enough to give them a trim and some water.

Eastern Cottonbush

Maireana microphylla (Kochia microphylla)
Here’s a surprising little plant. It grows on our stony blacksoil slopes, and is a saltbush. Like most saltbushes it’s a frost and drought hardy thing, and a nutritious fodder plant for cattle and sheep.
The surprise is that the things which look like little pink flowers are actually the seeds! The bit that looks like petals is the “wing” of the seed.
The flowers themselves are tiny, green, and so boring that they come and go unnoticed.
Also like most saltbushes this cottonbush has been overlooked as a potential garden plant. This may be because it is usually found out in paddocks, where old, half-dead plants mix with the young and fresh, and all suffer a bit from being trampled by stock.
However, plants in a sunny paddock can achieve a neat rounded shape about 50cm high and wide. Quite formal-looking, really. Well-cared-for plants in the gardens are very good looking, and suitable for low hedges.
In these climate-challenged times, other saltbush species are finding new favour in the garden, this one is one which could join them there.
This plant, like other saltbushes, is being reported as one of the least flammable plants in bushfires. Some allegedly fire-retardant plants do need to be well-watered to do the trick, so saltbushes do have an advantage when it comes to practical planting in bushfire-prone areas. They really do never need watering even in the driest climates!
Saltbush fruits are usually great bird-attracters, and cottonbushes are no exception - and in this case the fine foliage also makes good bird-nesting sites.

Bush Pepper

Tasmannia insipida
The fruits of our rainforest pepper bushes are starting to ripen. This bush, fruiting beautifully at Goomburra last weekend, shows their pretty purple fruits - edible, but a little insipid in flavour.

If you try eating one without chewing the seeds, you might be excused for thinking that it’s not really a pepper at all.

Bite a seed, however, and it’s a different story! These little seeds pack a lot of punch for their size.

Bush peppers are plants of the rainforest understorey. They make good garden shrubs, but are not very drought hardy, so need good mulch, quite a lot of shade, and some watering.
The plants used commercially by the bushfoods industry are usually those of a southern relative, Tasmannia lanceolata, but could just as well be these - so if you want to plant "bush tucker", do grow the local!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Red Kamala

Mallotus philippensis
These trees are fruiting beautifully around Prince Henry Drive at present. Only the female trees produce fruit, but the less decorative males are essential to the process!
This tree is native here in Australia, and in Asia. It is regarded as one of the world’s more important natural dyes. The colour is extracted from the red powdery covering of the seed capsules, and can be red, orange, or yellow depending on how it is treated. It has been in use for at least 3000 years in Asia for a variety of purposes including the “saffron” robes of monks, the red paste for the forehead dot worn by married Hindu women, a yellow dye for Indonesian batik, and paints used in wall hangings and decorated wood.
Ths internet informs me that the best reds are obtained by extracting the dye in lukewarm alkali-water (add bicarb of soda) - although some dyers seem to prefer to extract it in alcohol. Cold water seems to be better for yellows and oranges. The addition of a little sesame oil to the dye bath may help produce a brighter red, and the colour is also said to be brighter on wool and silk than on cotton. An alum mordant may help the colour to be wash-fast (but may also make it yellow, rather than red - I leave dyers to do their own experimentation).
Red kamala can be a very useful ornamental tree in smaller gardens. Its trunk is unlikely to exceed 30cm in diameter, and it is fast-growing and densely shady.
It is quite drought resistant (note its position on Prince Henry Drive) but tolerates only light frosts. Like many trees which occur naturally in dry rainforest and on rainforest margins, it probably grows best if sheltered when young, but allowed to raise its head into full sun as it matures.
The red seed capsule splits open to reveal three small round black seeds - the classic bird-attracting colours.
For good germination, it is essential to sow fresh seed within 4 weeks of collection.

Macleay’s Swallowtail Butterfly

Graphium macleayanum
What a difficult butterfly this is to photograph! We found it at Goomburra last weekend, but it didn't want to sit still long enough for a portrait to be taken.
These pretty swallowtails are quite common at Goomburra, but despite their showy beauty they are easy to overlook as they spend a lot of time on the wing. What catches the eye is not this pretty underwing, but the rather uninteresting upper wing - mostly white, with a black edge. Butterfly observers need to be patient and wait for one to settle.
I have found a lovely site on the internet, which I hadn’t known about before. It’s full of great photos taken by Martin Purvis, who seems to come from Sydney. He has some much better photos of the swallowtail, for those who’d like to take a look.
The address is :
This butterfly usually breeds on plants of the Laurel family Lauraceae)- and there are plenty of those in Goomburra. Local laurels include: Beilschmiedia obtusifolia, Cinnamomum oliveri, C.virens, Cryptocarya bidwillii, C.erythroxylon, C.floydii, C.microneura, C.obovata, C.triplinervis, Endiandra compressa, E.muelleri, Neolitsea dealbata, N. australiensis, and Litsea reticulata. These are all trees which could do with a bit of help. They are under threat, in the long term, from camphor laurels, which are spreading steadily into our local bushland, and exude a substance from their roots which suppresses the seedlings of other members of the laurel family.
It is also said to breed on camphor laurel trees - which should make it a common butterfly in Toowoomba. I’m not aware of having seen it here - but perhaps other readers have?
Those who would like to plant something native to provide a breeding place for this butterfly and its relatives the blue and green triangles, might find the Neolitseas a good choice, as they are fast-growing, shady small trees suitable for suburban gardens (see post April 2009).
(The other local laurels are all attractive trees with dense shady canopies, ranging in size from medium to large. They are suitable for parks, large gardens, and streets. Even the largest of them fits easily into any space which has room for a camphor laurel!).

Black-fruited Sedge

Cyperus tetraphyllus

This handsome, dark-leafed little sedge has organised itself to grow beside the path in the rainforest at Goomburra.
It’s a perennial which forms dense tufts, and has little black seedheads which are attractive enough to be worth a close look.

It looks like a good plant for those who want a shade-loving native to use in the garden niche that is so often filled by mondo grass these days.
I see it for sale on the internet, but it would be good to have a source of plants of local provenance.


Adriana urticoides var urticoides (Adriana tomentosa)
Here’s an odd-looking plant which we don’t see around here very often. This also seems to be the case in large areas of Australia, as it is described as “widespread, but uncommon”.
It’s a rather weak shrub, about 2 metres high, and these odd-looking flowers are the females, which occur on separate plants from the males. It is growing on the creek bank, in the Linthorpe Reserve just west of Toowoomba, in a spot where it is scrambling up through other shrubs in the dappled shade of trees, and is on black soil.
Some pastoralists believe the plant is poisonous to stock, so destroy it if they find it on their properties. There seems to be no evidence to support their belief, though the plant is in the Euphorbiaceae family, which does contain some poisonous plants. (It is likely to be avoided by stock if there is anything else to eat, because of its bitter taste.)
Bitterbush is sold as a butterfly host plant, as it hosts the caterpillars of the speckled lineblue butterfly (Catopyrops florinda halys), which has been found locally - and the bitterbush blue (Theclinesthes albocincta) which to my knowledge has not.