Friday, November 9, 2012

What do You Call This Plant?

Psydrax oleifolia (Canthium oleifolium)

   We are often handicapped, when talking about Australian plants, by the absence of a consistent, long-lasting name for each plant.
   This very attractive little tree is common on the blacksoil hills of the Darling Downs, but is hardly known. I suspect it’s because it hides behind its silly common names, “wild lemon” and “scrub myrtle”. It’s not actually a citrus of any kind, and doesn’t even have lemon-scented leaves, which would be some excuse for calling it a “lemon”. It is not a myrtle, either. It is not even in the Myrtaceae, that well-known family which contains 10% of all Australian trees.
   Given that botanists are busy doing taxonomy, which means that we cannot rely them to give us a permanent name for any plant, this poor thing might as well be nameless!
   The problem of a lack of any satisfactory common name is not limited to this plant.
   I do dislike the attitude to Australian plants which seems to say “we can’t be bothered giving it a real name. It’s only an Australian plant. Let’s call it the same name as something we already know”.  It has saddled us with a plethora of “ashes”, “oaks”, “cedars” “mahoganies”, “hickories”, “cherries”,  “oranges”, “plums” guavas” “mulberries”, “pomegranates” “tamarinds”, “hops”, “apples”, “sassafras”, “witch hazels”, “poppies”, “fuschias”, “sarsaparilla”, “daphnes”  - and of course “myrtle” and “lemon” - none of which are anything of the sort!
   A quick internet search for the use of the common name “native holly” turns up many pages of Australian entries, featuring 11 different species, none of them real hollies. The competition makes the name “native holly” all but useless. Who knows what plant that person might be talking about? Meanwhile, Australia’s only true native holly (Ilex arnhemensis) hardly gets a look-in! (It doesn’t have prickly leaves.)
  I also have a problem with people who say of some little-known plant that is only known by a botanical name,  "but it doesn't have a common name", as if there is nothing that can be done about this sad situation. Our native plants will only be popular if people have something to call them, so let's see a bit of initiative here! If a plant doesn't have a common name, we should give it one!
Any suggestions for a suitable name for this plant?
  Meanwhile, like the other Psydrax species, is a beautifully formed small tree, usually about three metres high. It has a very straight trunk and symmetrical, angled branches.

   It does not flower every year, but when it does, it is smothered in beautifully fragrant, creamy-white blooms.
   I photographed this specimen last weekend on the road between Peranga and Quinalow. The flowers will be followed by a feast for birds, in the little black fruits which shrivel up and look like currants.

   Frost and drought hardy, it is suitable for small gardens.


Kate Foy said...

I couldn't agree more about the issue of identifying our native plants by using their indigenous names. It's probably time some foresighted botanist took the lead on this.

Patricia Gardner said...

Nice to hear from you, Kate.
The problem with waiting for botanists to do this kind of thing, is that there are too few of them, and that, more and more, even those who are employed by the government are being pressured to do work of overt economic worth.
If a coherent approach to Australian plant common names is ever achieved, I think it will be done by well-organised amateurs - as happened with our birds.
There are many more plants than birds, though, so it would be a huge job.

Anonymous said...

The comments about Psydrax oleifolia aka Canthium oleifolium are interesting. The anonymity of this plant appear to be reflected in its availability. I want to grow this species on my block. However, getting hold of it is another matter. An extensive internet search turned up NO source for either the plant or its seeds. Any ideas?
Ian Simons

Patricia Gardner said...

Hi Ian
I haven't been in the right place at the right time to collect seeds, so haven't grown it, though I would like to, too.
It's the sort of thing that Crows Nest Nursery would love to be able to have for sale.