Saturday, April 16, 2011

Native Germander

Teucrium argutum
This little member of the mint family is a perfect Australian native cottage garden plant.
Traditional English cottage gardens contained a mixture of vegetables, herbs, flowering annuals and “herbaceous perennials”.
“Herbaceous” means that they appear to die at the end of summer, but the roots remain alive and well, ready to put up new growth in spring. As time went by, the perennials have become the mainstay of this ornamental gardening style, and maintenance of a typical cottage garden involves a tidy-up in autumn, where dead material is cut away, and roots divided and excess bits discarded (or given to friends).

Despite its family connections, which are apparent in the leaf and flower shapes, and in the square stems, our native germander does not have aromatic leaves. Its flowers are somewhat showier than those of the garlic-scented European germander Teucrium chamaedrys, a cottage garden favourite in northern hemisphere countries.

Like that plant, it could be used for edging, or decorative effects such as knot gardens.
It also looks good in bush-style gardens, creeping around among shrubs, between rushes and grasses. Its roots help with slope maintenance.
As with all our local natives, it is somewhat drought hardy, though it does appreciate
some moisture in its root zone, especially if grown in full sun. For this reason, it thrives best if mulched.
The little flowers attract butterflies and other insects.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Different Kettle of Snails

Did you know that there are some 2500 native snail species in Australia? And that none of them eat plants?
I spent a bit of time last weekend with the Toowoomba Field naturalists and Dr John Stanisic of the Queensland Museum, (who is Australia’s foremost expert on native snails), learning that everything I thought I knew about snails was very little and rather boring, compared to what there is to know.
The nub of it, though, was how important the natives are to the health of plants in our rainforests and brigalow scrubs.
They live on leaves, but don’t eat them. Instead, they eat the algae and fungi which grow in an almost invisible layer on the leaves, making a nuisance of themselves by blocking the plant’s pores.

The one in the photo above is a kind of snail called a semi-slug, which, as you can see, has just a rather miserable excuse for a shell. Semi-slugs live in rainforests, where the soil is low in calcium. Calcium is an essential ingredient in shells, so ditching the shell seems to be an obvious evolutionary response to scarcity of this basic ingredient.
Other native snails live in leaf litter and decomposing logs, where they are part of the all-important decomposition process that keeps the rainforests healthy.
We sometimes find these “snails” in our garden.
(Slugs, I learned , are regarded by snail specialists as just another kind of snail.)

Red triangle slugs live on the algae on trunks of trees and rocks - though I once heard of an enterprising person who introduced them to his bathroom, where they apparently kept the shower alcove clean. The red triangle on their backs marks the place which once, in evolutionary terms, a shell was attached. Note the “pneumostome” - the little breathing hole.
We also find these fellows in our garden. They are not natives, and are just one of the 60 or so species that have been introduced to Australia since white settlement.
I learned last weekend that they are edible, and known in the restaurant trade as “petit gris”. Now if we could all eat our pest snails (recipes tend to allow 12-20 per person for a meal), a major garden problem would be solved. What a pity I lack the courage. Have any of my readers tried them?
Native snails are rare in gardens, as they really need a healthy native ecosystem, full of microscopic algae, fungi, leaf litter, and so on, to survive.
It would be a gardening triumph to establish a garden which was able to support them, as does a carefully nurtured corner of the Boyce garden (corner Mackenzie and Range Streets Toowoomba). In the early part of last century, Dr and Mrs Boyce bought a block of land which contained a very heavily damaged rainforest remnant - the last existing remnant in suburban Toowoomba. They cared for the existing plants, carefully tended any natives which grew from existing seed in the soil, and did a little supplementary planting. Apparently the snails are an “indicator” of the health of an ecosystem, and the number and variety of snails now present in the Boyce garden tells us that it’s ecology is in good shape.

(These native snails were put on a leaf in the sun for the photo, and carefully returned to their damp and shady homes afterwards.)

Many modern gardeners are working hard on little patches of remnant land, clearing weeds, carefully protecting natural regrowth, and replanting local native species to restore the original environment. When they start finding native snails, they will know they have succeeded.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Butterfly Battle

To us, life, for butterflies, seems rather stress-free and idyllic, especially for those species which are bird-proof by virtue of their nasty taste. In reality it’s nothing of the sort.
Yesterday I watched these two having a territorial dispute, at Lake Broadwater (near Dalby).
The upper one, a native wanderer (Danaus chrysippus) had a good piece of territory, on a gargaloo Parsonsia eucalyptophylla high in the treetops. Gargaloos are host plants of very high value to a number of species of butterfly in the danaid group, so the possession of one puts a male butterfly in a prestigious position. It’s a good move, when it comes to meeting girls, to be able to offer them a creche of such high status.
Then along came the crow butterfly (Euploea core) and tried his level best to take over and drive the wanderer out.
He wasn’t having any success at all. The wanderer refused to budge, despite prolonged and determined campaign harassment by the interloper.
It does remind us that butterflies, like every other animal in the wild, have to cope with competition and aggression from members of their own and other species.

Piccabeen Flowers

Archontophoenix cunninghamiana
I am delighted that my Piccabeen is flowering at last.
I planted in it 1988, so it’s taken 23 years to reach this level of maturity. It’s had a hard life, in rather unforgiving dry soil. I imagine that a plant which had been better cared-for, with rich soil, water, and mulch, would have got to this point considerably sooner.
Each of the two spikes unwrapped itself, like a birthday present, from a spathe which was only revealed when an old leaf fell off the plant. Prior to that, it had been just a little pregnant bulge under the leaf’s petiole.

The flower spikes are pearly white (and gleam in the moonlight), and you can see how lovely the little purple buds and flowers look against the stem colour.

The buds open a few at a time, so the first spike, which appeared about six weeks ago, still has a lot of buds on it.

I am now hoping the flowers will be followed by a showy display of orange fruits.