Sunday, May 30, 2010

Native Autumn Colour

Hairy Birds-eye Tree
Alectryon tomentosus
These bright red fruits are one of the natural delights of autumn and winter. A mature birds-eye tree can produce a great show, with its prolific crop.

My little birds-eye tree has been fast-growing. It was 10 years old last year, when it began to fruit. It is now 5 metres high. Its little trunk is about 13 cm diameter, and its shady canopy is approx 3m wide.
As you can see, it has the double seed-capsule which is typical of the Alectryon species. Despite their apparent potential to produce two seeds, it is normal for only one to develop, as seen here. When they are ripe, the red aril swells, splitting open the capsule, and advertising to the birds that here is some tasty tucker. (Birds do love red food!) A shiny and nutritious (to birds) black seed is concealed under the aril, and is appreciated at a time when other rainforest fruits are becoming rare.
Some people eat them too, but they’re not particularly tasty, and the seeds, like apple seeds, contain cyanide - not enough to poison you if you only eat small quantities, but not very good for you either. Leave them for the birds!
The leaves of this alectryon are hairy, as the name suggests, but the hairs are short and fine, and you don’t notice them unless you touch the leaves. They feel like fine, stiff, felt.
The arrangement of the leaflets is also a typical Alectryon feature - with those at the end being much bigger than the ones at the base. You see the same thing with any of the compound-leafed alectryons (such as A. subdentatus, and A. connatus)
This is a lovely little tree, very much at home on our red soil. It has achieved this fast growth without any watering since it was first planted, and despite the drought conditions we’ve had. It is also frost hardy.
It deserves be widely used, in our local gardens.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Round-leaf Vine

Legnephora moorei
I’ve been growing a few of these local rainforest vines at home, and this one is starting to look very pretty, at a little under two years old. It has the potential to be a large vine - Wisteria sized, I think, so I’ll be interested to see whether I can confine it to this trellis and keep it looking pretty.
I do love those big round leaves.

While we often see the trunks of the vines in rainforest, we don’t usually know what they are, as they tend to reach for the canopy before spreading out their leaves. (I think this quality would make them good for covering shady pergolas.) We know they’re up there somewhere, though, as the distinctive leaves are common on rainforest paths.
On the plant, these leaves have a 10cm stem, but the old leaves on the ground are almost invariably stemless.

As they die, they turn black, with an ashy-grey back, before fading completely.

The leaves are easy to distinguish from the other common large leaf seen on rainforest paths - that of the stinging tree, by the very different pattern of the veins.

Stinging tree leaves can be pointed or rounded, and roughly the same size as those of the round-leaf vine. This leaf is from Dendrocnide excelsa, the giant stinging tree. They are said to be able to sting long after they fall from the tree, so are best left alone.

Here’s a handful of fruit from a round-leaf vine, which I picked up in February. You can see why some people call the plant “native grape”, but it’s a foolish name. The fruits look very like those of the genuine, edible, native grapes (Cissus species), but are said to be poisonous.
If you do feel tempted to play at “bush tucker man” and snack on fruits which look like grapes in the rainforest, squeeze some seeds out and look at them, first.
Cissus species have seeds which are clearly related to those of the grapes you buy in shops - teardrop shaped things designed to slip easily down the throat. They are relatively safe to eat, though the flesh does contain very small crystals which, in quantity, will irritate the throat. (As with all “bush tucker” it’s not sensible to give it to children.)
The allegedly poisonous seeds of the round-leaf vine are roughly disc-shaped, uncomfortable-looking things with sharp edges, which seem to be saying “don’t put this in your mouth”.
The fruits are pretty, though, and attract birds to the garden. They occur on female vines only. I have planted four of them so hope there’ll be at least one female amongst them.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Lighting up the Shade

Pittosporum revolutum
The long lasting fruits of “Yellow Pittosporum” are attention-grabbers, gleam in the shadowswith their bright, bird-attracting colours. They are reliably and plentifully produced each year from the time this shrub is two or three years old, and are one of the glories of the garden at this time of year.

This plant from our local dry rainforest understorey grows happily in the shade cast by buildings and trees.

It is also known as “wild yellow jasmine” because of the delightful perfume of its November flowers.

See May 2009 for more on this plant.

Shrubby Deeringia

Deeringia amaranthoides 

A friend sent me this photo of some pretty Deeringia growing in Redwood Park (near Toowoomba) this week. She was full of enthusiasm about the pretty berries, which were filling the understorey with a show of bright pink.

She is quite right that these perennial sub-shrubs would be useful in gardens, as fillers under shrubs. They are fairly uninteresting for half of the year, but produce copious quantities of these decorative, finger-staining berries for two to three months in autumn and early winter. Their bright colour, and little black seeds (double click on photo for a closer look) suggest that they would be attractive to birds, but I haven’t actually noticed any making use of them as food. Perhaps other readers have?
Rarely found in horticulture, Deeringia is probably the victim of unreasonable prejudice. Its leaves look rather like those of the weedy amaranth which is familiar to gardeners in this area. We are in the habit of pulling the amaranth out as soon as we notice its leaves because it goes to seed so quickly and produces such huge numbers of seedlings. This rather puts us off the look of the leaves of the Deeringia, a related but non-weedy plant. Yet they are really quite attractive in themselves, and are interesting once the frosty weather begins, as they turn bright red.
Deeringia is native to Eastern Australia and South-east Asia. It is a variable plant, growing in some places as a scrambling climber - but here it restricts itself to a shrubby habit.
It is found on the edges of moist and dry rainforests, usually on hillside sites. It is happiest in at least half shade, but has proved hardy in my garden where it grows in an exposed sunny position. It is hardy to droughts and to mild frosts.
It is quite easy to grow from seed, but appreciates a little watering to get established

Friday, May 7, 2010


Alocasia brisbanensis (Alocasia macrorrhiza var. brisbanensis)
Cunjevoi are not something that people grow for their flowers. (They do it rarely and erratically.) The giant, bright green “elephant ear” leaves are the reason it is popular in gardens.
Technically speaking, this is a multiple flower-head, with tiny flowers on the central spike (attracting the attention of an insect in this photo). The spike (or “spadix”) is surrounded by a protective spathe, which unwraps as the flower-head matures.

Then, as the flowers die, the spathe splits and droops, and for a brief time turns this lovely apricot colour. (These photos were taken by one of the popular trails in the Bunya Mountains National Park, two weeks ago).

Meanwhile, the fruits are developing on the spike, and by June they will be bright red.

Cunjevoi are common plants in our local rainforests and shady creeks. Their juice is said to be an antidote to the sting of our native rainforest stinging trees. Those who’ve used it have conflicting opinions on its effectiveness.

These plants are so characteristic of our local rainforests that their inclusion is almost essential in any Australian rainforest-style garden.
They are frost tender, and grow best when well watered - even in shallow water (pH 6.4 is ideal). However, like so many of our local native rainforest plants, they can cope with periods of dry, especially if well mulched. Gardeners in the inland may prefer to grow them in tubs, on shaded patios or indoors, where they can get a bit of mollycoddling. They grow well in areas of very low light.

Cunjevoi are “Aroids” - members of the Araceae family, all of whose members are poisonous.
Despite this, a great many of them are popular garden plants (anthuriums: arum, calla and madonna lilies; philodendrons; Dieffenbachia; Caladium; Chinese lucky plants... etc, etc) and others are used as food. Taro is a staple for many Polynesians and Africans. Both the leaves and the roots can be eaten, but must be very thoroughly cooked first. The same goes for cunjevoi’s close relative, “giant elephant ears” Alocasia macrorrhiza, whose stem is widely eaten in South-east Asia. Cunjevoi shoots are eaten by aborigines, but once again, only after prolonged cooking to remove the toxins.
Poisonings from Aroids do occur. They are usually of children under two years old (and pets) who have taken a bite of the leaves - but in practice, these poisonings are rare. Bright berries might present a greater risk, tempting the littlies to take a munch. I think there is currently an increased risk of children being poisoned this way, with the popularity of “bush tucker” gardening, which does suggest to children that sampling strange-looking foods is OK.
Those whose gardens are used by small children need to consider whether this plant is a safe one to grow - or at the very least might take the precaution of removing the seedheads, which is easy enough to do.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Rose-leafed Raspberry at Goomburra

Rubus rosifolius
I was glad I snapped this lovely fruit when I did.

It was beside the path at Goomburra National Park early on Saturday morning - but had gone an hour later. It was the only fruit in the place, and obviously too tempting for someone.

Rose-leafed raspberry is an international plant, often known overseas as “Japanese Raspberry”. It’s one of our three local raspberry species, and is the one with the best fruit. It’s unlikely to be often grown by bush tucker enthusiasts, though. The plants are very prickly, and are very variable within the species, with regard to fruit size, flavour, and quantity. As well, the very similar-looking Rubus probus is considered to have reliably better fruits so it has come to be the native raspberry of choice in Australian bushfood gardens.
(Native from the Helidon Hills to Cooktown, and occurring in New Guinea as well, R. probus is easily mistaken for R. rosifolius, but can be distinguished by the fruit shape - its fruits are fatter than they are long.)
Cutting-grown plants of R. rosifolius could be useful bush tucker plants as well, provided they are taken from plants known to have large and plentiful fruits.
Rose-leafed raspberries are usually seen on rainforest margins, where they fill the understory with dense, bushy bramble that attracts and shelters birds and their nests.
The delicate flowers are particularly beautiful.