Friday, December 24, 2010

The Cherry with the Seed on the Outside

Exocarpos cupressiformis

When the English first settled in Australia, they made much of it as an “upside-down, back-to-front” place. Swans were black instead of white. The trees lost their bark in summer, instead of their leaves in winter. And the cherries had their seeds on the outside!
I saw a good crop of these “cherries” (more usually called Ballarts) at Girraween National Park last weekend. The bower birds were going crazy over them.
The pretty, leafless shrubs are partly parasitic on the roots of plants around them, and are not choosy. They are said to be able to use grasses, Eucalypts, wattles, Casuarinas, Banksias, Grevilleas, and plants in the pea family.
They are very tolerant of soil type, growing on Girraween’s granite soil, but also quite at home on basaltic soil. However, they are being slowly eliminated from our area by urban sprawl.
They are regarded as difficult plants to propagate. Some growers have had success with seed germination (finding it can take up to 12 months) and cuttings. Failure after being planted out is a problem, and could perhaps be helped by growing the small plant in a pot with a host plant, which is then also planted out - though there are others who have had success with the plants on their own roots.
The moral of the story is certainly that if you have any of them growing naturally, you should treasure them (and don't hesitate to boast)! And do remember that they are probably depending to at least some extent on the naturally occurring plants around them, so preserving the ballarts may also require you to preserve some of their nearby vegetation.
In the wild, even in places where they are not being cleared, they may tend to decline. They depend on fires to rejuvenate the plants and germinate the seeds, and most of us would much rather not have fires on our properties!
Ballarts tend to sucker. Damaging the roots, or simply chopping off the old plant, encourages this to happen, and is a good way to renew a straggly old plant.
The "fruit" is good to eat, but only when very ripe. When ready it will fall off in your hand as you go to pick it. I couldn’t find any at this stage of ripeness at Girraween, as the bower birds were beating the people to them. At even a little less ripe, they taste disgusting! The inconspicuous cream flowers, and these showy fruits can occur sporadically at any time of year, but are often at their best at Christmastime.

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