Thursday, February 23, 2012

Erebus Moth

Erebus terminitincta
Here’s a fascinating moth which I saw with friends last week, in vine scrub at Rockmount near Toowoomba.

It was only a matter of luck that we saw it at all, as despite its huge size. That’s a 10cm wingspan!
Its camouflage is amazingly good against the leaf letter.
In the shadows, everything seems to disappear except the semi-circular white marking.

This is a night-flying moth, which hides in the daytime. It attracted the attention of my friends because we disturbed it into flight, but by the time they showed it to me it had settled again. It was some time before I managed to see it, even though they were pointing directly at it from several feet away.
“Erebus” is Latinised from an ancient Greek word (erebos) which meant “shadow”, and was the name of a primordial god of darkness. It’s a lovely name for this huge, secretive moth.
The host for its large, hungry caterpillars is the barbed wire vine. On discovering this my friend remarked - “at long last, a good reason for Smilax australis”!
It’s not the best-loved of native vines, but see below for more about it.

Barbed Wire Vine

Smilax australis
Considering that they use three climbing techniques, we would expect barbed wire vines to make a better job of it!
They have tendrils, they can twine, and they use their prickles to scramble through nearby vegetation. So why are they most often found in a tangled mess near the ground?
Despite its common name, this plant doesn’t have large barbs. What is does have is lots of scratchy little prickles on its strong, pencil-thick stems. Bushwalkers know it as the plant most likely to trip them as they walk.
The tendrils are botanically interesting. This is our only local native climber with paired ones. They have evolved from stipules, whereas most plants’ tendrils are modified leaves, stems, or flower-heads.
The leaves are large and leathery, and new ones can be showy bright red.

Once a year the plants have a flush of fluffy flower clusters, followed (on female plants) by bunches of berries which ripen to black and are popular food for birds.

This light vine is sometimes recommended for gardens, despite its scratchiness. It would certainly be easy to grow, and can be encouraged to reach a height of 8m. The prickles are small and are irritating rather than injurious, but I can’t see it ever becoming a popular garden plant. It should be nurtured in native scrub remnants, however, because of its value as a wildlife plant.
It is a valuable host for a number of showy little jewel butterflies, as well as for the erebus moth (above).
An alternative common name is “ant vine”, because of a sweet secretion from the leaf tips which attracts those insects. The same ants protect and care for the butterfly larvae.
Yet another “common” name is the misleading “native sarsaparilla”. Commercial sarsaparilla is made from several central American species of Smilax. It was a traditional medicine for rheumatism, whose strange but agreeable taste led to its use as an ingredient in the popular drink. Our local plant has neither the flavour nor any known medicinal qualities.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wattle Matrush

Lomandra filiformis

This little perennial matrush grows naturally on the redsoil along the Great Dividing Range, and can be found among grasses in woodland at Mt Kynoch (among other places). The ones in my garden are flowering at present.

Perhaps the neatest of a rather neat-looking plant group, this is a very good plant for formal-looking gardens. It has narrow, shiny, yellow-green leaves, and its flowers look rather miniature wattle blossoms which have lost their way - though close examination shows that the little “balls” are really flowers with petals.

Plants are either male or female, and these flowers show that this is a male plant (female flowers are more tubular in shape).

It’s a very hardy plant, tolerating drought, frost, and even bushfires. It gets burnt but the plants regrow, and may be stimulated by their harrowing experience into better flowering.
It has no known pests or diseases, and can be grown in full or part sun.
The leaves are very strong indeed, and very suitable for basketry.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Scrub Fig

Ficus rubiginosa (Ficus obliqua var. petiolaris)

Isn’t this a wonderful tree?
This species is known locally as "scrub fig", and this specimen is growing beside Prince Henry Drive, in Toowoomba, just where the northern end of the road narrows to go through the gate.
I looks as though it must once have been once two trees which have joined themselves together after one fell towards the other. It's difficult to tell whether they are truly grafted, or just hugging each other closely.
The result is an enormous shady canopy, reminding us that the technique of planting several trees close together, to produce the garden shade we want, is something that could be used more often than it is, (with whatever tree species we choose),  in gardens.

This plant is is (or they are) fruiting splendidly just now, so would be giving the birds a feast. Like most local native figs (F. fraseri is an exception) this species has a variable fruiting time. Not all the trees of the species would be fruiting now, and this is fortunate for the fruit-eating birds, which can find food somewhere for much longer periods than would be possible if all the trees fruited at once.
For more on this species, see July 2009.

Moreton Bay Fig

Ficus macrophylla

In Ravensbourne National Park last weekend, these trees were in fruit, and were attracting every imaginable fruit-eating bird.

Figbirds, orioles, catbirds, wompoo fruit-doves and plenty of others could be seen from a comfortable spot in the picnic ground at Beutel’s Lookout.

This is a very recognisable species. As it matures, the large leaves become rusty brown on the underside, so it cannot be mistaken for any other fig.
Moreton Bay figs are native to the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing range, and have been planted to some extent on the western side. They were very popular as garden plants in the late 19th century, when lovers of art nouveau saw how well its shoots followed the sinuous curves of that fashionable style.

There seems to have been a fashion, here, for planting them in positions with a view. Old trees can still be found in such places around Toowoomba.

Here’s one in Murphy’s Creek Road at Mt Kynoch. The site was originally a pub at the end of the road, then a farmhouse, and it’s lovely to see this old tree retained in the suburbs.

This one is on Brady’s Sawmill Road, also looking east...

...and this one at the end of Hiwinds road has a magnificent view to the west, over the Bedford St. dump and Gowrie Mountain.

Moreton Bay figs' popularity as garden plant has waned with closer settlement and smaller housing blocks, because of their enormous, invasive, root systems. They are unsuitable for growing anywhere near buildings or underground services.
For large properties and parks, however, it would be difficult to find a more suitable large shade tree. Because of its heavy fruit crops, every plant makes a very large contribution to the local biota.
As with most trees, the shape depends on the plant's situation. In rainforests, where it reaches for light, it can be very tall and narrow. Planted in the open it spreads widely, making a lovely big shade tree. For fastest growth, it is best planted above ground (and frost) level, in an old tree stump or a suitable untreated wooden post.
Once past infancy, it survives our district's toughest frosts and droughts, needing no extra care.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Everistia vacciniifolia var. nervosa
This local shrub must be Peacehaven Botanic Park’s weirdest-looking specimen. Its intricate zig-zag branchlets curve back from the main stem to form an almost complete tube, down which you can put your hand.

It looks very prickly, and is indeed spiky, but the spikes aren’t very sharp so you won’t suffer if you try it.
It is related to the Canthiums, and has the same rather symmetrical branches. In a garden, it could be used very impressively for a sculptural effect, particularly against a light coloured background wall which would show off the fascinating branching pattern.

There are two varieties. This is the one with the "big" leaves.

In a garden it would grow to be a fairly large shrub, but older plants, such as this one in deep shade of dry rainforest at the Bunya mountains, can become little trees with trunks up to 15cm.

The plant gets very tiny, perfumed, yellow flowers, followed by 5mm fruits. They ripen from orange-red to black, and attract birds.
The plant can still be found close to Toowoomba and Highfields, growing on red soil in places such as Franke Scrub. Its habitat is the dry rainforests and vine thickets, so it has disappeared from much of its original range.