Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Bells

Blandfordia grandiflora

Christmas Bells don’t really belong on this blog, but I can’t resist including these lovely flowers which I saw last week.

To find them in the wild, we have to get away from the local basalt soils which are my usual topic. Christmas bells need soil with very much better drainage.
It is well worth the four-hour drive from Toowoomba to the Gibraltar Range National Park (east of Glen Innes), to see them in the Christmas season.
They are there in their thousands this year.

They grow in open, swampy country, on peaty, granite-based sands. Their habitat is dominated by rushes and sedges of various species, and includes some low-growing shrubs.

The pH of their favoured habitat is said to get as low as 3.5, though growers seem to regard 5.0 as the optimum for healthy plants.

The plant also grows on sandy soils near the south-east Queensland coast. It was once more widespread, with its Queensland habitat extending from the NSW border to Fraser Island. Nowadays, the sandy swamps where they once grew in profusion have largely been replaced by suburban development, and Christmas bells are very rare indeed in the gardens that have been built on their native soil.
It is classed as an endangered species in Queensland.

I notice that internet sites claim that Christmas bells can have up to 20 bells per stem. this was certainly not the case with the plants we saw, which typically had two plants per stem, though some had three. They are large flowers, and didn't seem any less beautiful for that!

Note the long, conspicuous ovary, which will develop into a seed capsule.

As the capsules develop, the flowers turn their heads to the sky.

In cultivation, Christmas bells are commonly grown in pots, where their sun, soil and moisture requirements can be taken care of, and they are not overcome by more vigorously growing garden plants.
They are said to tolerate light frosts.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Scentless Rosewood

Synoum glandulosum

This delightful little ornamental tree is not grown as often as it deserves. It is a well-known understorey plant in the rainforests of Australia's Eastern coast, including the Darling Downs south of Cunningham's Gap where it grows in the rainforesty bits on red basalt soil.
I do wonder whether its dreary common name is part of the problem. If a rosewood is famous for its scented wood, what kind of a nonentity is a "scentless rosewood"? It's not a name to attract the buyers!
In fact this is a delightful large shrub or small tree, able to reach 7m in its native rainforest, but unlikely to grow higher than 4m in a garden.
The dark green leaves give it a shady canopy. And its little white flowers are sweetly scented! Butterflies love them.
Scentless rosewood fruits prolifically, and has rather curious seeds.

At first glance, the pink seed capsules seem to contain three of them. A closer look, however, reveals that the “seeds” are neat little bundles, each containing two seeds and two large orange-red arils, packed together in seed shape. To a bird, this would be a very tasty mouthful indeed.
For those who want to grow rainforest plants in suburban gardens, this plant is an ideal choice.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ripe Bumble Fruit

Capparis mitchellii 
For those who are curious to try the flavour of bumble fruits (also called native caper, or Mitchell’s caper), now is the time to look for the fruit.
It’s also the time to find ripe seed for planting.
I have read that the fruits change colour when ripe, becoming purplish or orange, but have found this not to be the case here.

The indicator of ripeness is simply a softening, and slight cracking of the skin to reveal the yellow insides.
These fruits were sweet and tasty, with no hint either of astringency or kerosene flavour, as mentioned by other writers. However, bumble fruit are full of seeds, and the flesh clings to them very stubbornly. If you don’t want to swallow the seeds (which I don’t) then there is not much you are actually able to swallow.
The seeds are said to have a peppery taste, but I found myself unwilling to chew them, to discover whether the mixture of sweet and peppery was agreeable. Perhaps other, braver readers have done this? If so, do write and let me know!
To quote “Australian Plants Online” ( “The seeds are peppery and should be removed from the flesh.” In practice, this is quite difficult to do.

The same site also says “ Fruit can be eaten raw or used in desserts (eg. ice cream, gelato, mousse, etc.) and cordials. Can also be added to savoury dishes like casseroles, curries, rice and couscous.”
However, to collect the amount of fruit needed for more than the smallest bit of culinary experimentation would be environmentally irresponsible. The environment needs its seeds, both for the regeneration of the plants (dry rainforest plants like this species are on the decline almost everywhere in our district) and for the fauna that eat them.
I hope that those who try the fruit will compensate for their actions by planting some of the seed.  Collecting “bush tucker” in our district was once an acceptable activity, but the conditions that made it so (5% of the current Australian population, and 1,000 % of the existing native plant numbers) have long since vanished.

Bumble trees can be found by the roadsides west of Toowoomba, wherever scrub grows.

You will notice that these mature plants have few if any prickles, in strong contrast to their younger selves, which are little prickly monsters.
This one is growing at Peacehaven Botanic Park.
Bumble trees are well worth growing, if you have the space for a small prickly tree. They are rather slow-growing, taking a very long time to reach their mature size of about 4m high and the same wide. The more likely garden plant, in your lifetime, is a slender plant 2m high and 1m wide.
This is one of our very best butterfly host plants, providing caterpillar food for at least four local species of butterfly.

It also has the loveliest flowers of all the local native caper species.

The flowers begin to open in the late afternoon, and are at their best at night, an indication that they are pollinated by night-flying insects (and a good reason for planting one close to the house, where you can see them at their best). They may release a perfume at night as well, but this is something I have never investigated.
They begin to shed their lovely long stamens in the morning, and are past their best by early afternoon.
Mature plants produce many flowers over quite a long period. In the wild, they are usually defended by large ants, who are attracted by nectar – not the nectar in the flowers, but nectar from special glands called “extra-floral nectaries”. Caper trees have evolved a special relationship with these ants, developing these extra nectaries to attract them. In return, it is the ants’ job to defend the flowers from crawling insects which would lay their eggs in the developing fruits, and devour the seeds. You will probably notice that they are only partially successful, as insect infestation of the fruits is common. Whether this has always been the case, or is a modern phenomenon, resulting from disruption of the environment, I have no idea.
It does illustrate, however, the interdependence of plants and animals in the ecology. Not only do animals (in this case the butterflies and the seed-eating insects) need plants for their survival, but the plants need Animals. These capers use both pollinating insects and the defending ants. They possibly also use animals of some kind to distribute their seeds. Birds, perhaps? Overripe fruits, if they have not succumbed to insect infestation, turn orange, which may attract birds to feed.

(See article December 4, 2008, for more on this plant)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lovely Lacebarks

Brachychiton discolor

I photographed this lovely tree in the grounds of the Goombungee town hall last weekend.
This local native species has been planted in a number of sites in our area, notably along the New England Highway at Highfields, and we are now able to appreciate the young trees as they reach flowering age.
Lacebarks (like their relatives the flame trees) tend to have a partial loss of their leaves at flowering time. Trees planted against a background others with dark green canopies are shown off to their best advantage, but the flowers are also quite stunning on a mature tree with fairly complete leaf-drop, against a background of a blue November sky.

As with flame trees, part of their beauty is the scatter of flowers below them.

The colours of the dropped flowers are a stronger shade of pink than the flowers on the tree.

 You'll also notice the rather lovely rusty-hairy buds, and the felty texture of the flowers.

Lacebarks are beautiful in the garden from an early age, because of the attractive shape of their juvenile leaves.  Small trees are sometimes used as potted indoor plants for the beauty of their leaves alone.

As they mature, they develop a trunk which shows their relationship with bottle trees.

This lovely old tree (the one with the white bark)  is a naturally occurring plant, a remnant of long-gone rainforest on Mt. Kynoch.

Lacebarks  get their common name from the attractive bark of the mature trees. In their native rainforest environment (and in gardens on the damp side of town) they attract a garden of beautiful lichens.

See my article, “Beautiful Brachychitons” of December 30, 2008, for more on this outstanding local plant.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Smooth Lolly Bush

Clerodendrum floribundum
I found these plants beside the Acland Silverleigh Road yesterday.
To me, this is a less familiar plant than its hairy cousin Clerodendrum tomentosum, which we see closer to the great Dividing Range. The hairy lolly bush (See article Feb 2009) is not noticeably hairy, but on feeling the leaves you notice the soft, puppy’s ears texture.
The smooth lolly bush, however, has stiff leaves without a hint of hairiness.

The plant has white flowers, followed by these brilliant, showy red calyces. The fruits in them mature from green to red.
Obviously their appearance has reminded someone of lollies, but please don’t eat them.
These fruits are not edible. I can find no record that they are toxic, but given the use of many other Clerodendrum species for medicinal purposes, they are very likely to be. There is a very fine line between drugs which cure and poisons which kill.

The name "Clerodendrum" can be translated as "lottery tree" and they are sometimes called chance trees. They were used as cures for some particularly deadly diseases, so the name is a reference to the chance that they might save a life. (It may also have referred to a chance that the cure was even worse than the disease.)

The fruits ripen from green to black, and were just beginning to turn on these plants.

This would be a very hardy garden plant, tolerating extreme drought and some frost. We can expect them to respond well to pruning, like C. tomentosum.
If you want to grow them, and have young children, you may feel it is better to refer to the plant by the name “chance bush” to discourage unsupervised trialling of the “lollies”.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Acacia irrorata
Just when we think the local wattle season is over, yet another of our many showy local species bursts into bloom. Than we notice that there are hundreds of them on our roadsides and waste bits of land, in the red soil areas around Toowoomba. They're looking lovely at present, and are part of the distinctive summer character of our own patch of the world.
Greenwattle Street, on the western side of town, was named after them.

Where a fast-growing, pretty, small tree is needed to fill a temporary space, this is one of the best. It has almost reached its full size by the age of about five years, and looks wonderful for the next five.
From there, it’s all downhill, however. The canopy thins out and the plant starts to look shabby. It can go on looking increasing scruffy for another ten or more years, but it might be less painful to get rid of it and fill the space with something else. Like all wattles, it has nitrogen-fixing root nodules, so killing it results in a burst of soil nitrogen becoming available to other plants put in immediately afterwards.
It its glory years, however, it is most attractive, with its dark green, shady canopy and its summer flowers.
It is a particularly good plant for wildlife. Birds like the dense foliage for nesting, and find plenty to eat in the unusually large variety of insects (including some lovely butterflies) that live on this tree.
It’s also a very good windbreak for its first ten years, while the foliage is still dense.
Don’t, however, be deceived into thinking that these wattles could be used as “nurse plants”,  sheltering slower-growing plants until they are established. Part of the secret of the cinnamon greenwattle's fast growth is its mat of shallow, greedy roots. Far from being a nurturing neighbour, it retards the growth of any small-rooted plant close by. Use it on its own, or as a very decorative infill between older plants, such as Eucalypts.

 For more on local wattles, search for Mimosaceae or Acacia using the white search box at top left.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Ghost Gate Hop Bush

Dodonaea tenuifolia 
Nature has many surprises for those of us who stop and look. A recent surprise, for me, came from a closer look at these two hopbushes.

They were on the roadside by Ghost Gate Road, between Allora and Goomburra (the road with the interesting local legend and owl sculpture). We had stopped on a low ridge to look at the rather lovely view to the west, when the hopbushes attracted our attention with their showy display of bright red hops.
Who would have thought that they would be two different species?
The one on the left is Dodonaea viscosa subsp. angustifolia. (See article below)
The other is Dodonaea tenuifolia. (Well, that's what I think it is. I had some trouble identifying it because the available descriptions don't all agree with each other. I'm open to further suggestions, if any reader would like to comment.)

Note that the leaf in the photo has six pairs of leaflets. This tended to vary considerably from leaf to leaf with some having as few as one leaflet, but six was fairly typical. The leaves were shiny, as shown, and close examination with a magnifying glass revealed that they were covered quite densely with white hairs.
The leaves were mostly 5-6cm long (including the petiole). They all have that rather large terminal leaflet, which seems to rather unusual for a Dodonaea.
The long-lasting, pretty, rose-pink, seed capsules of this plant have four wings, in contrast to the nearby D. viscosa subsp. angustifolia, plant whose capsules have three wings.

The plant has a neat growth habit, about 3m high, and with a trunk 60cm in diameter. It is a female plant (of course, as the male plants don't have seeds). We couldn't find any nearby plants, but there must be some, as the capsules, which are ripening this week (23 October) have seed in them. I collected some to be grown in the Crows Nest Community Nursery.
They were planted today, so you can look for them there in a few months' time.

Narrow-leaf Hop Bush

Dodonaea viscosa subsp. angustifolia

This sturdy plant is looking pretty in the wild, at present, with its coloured hop-like seed capsules. We find it in on ridges and hillsides in our local black soil areas.
Dodonaea viscosa is a large and very variable genus with seven subspecies, at least three of which grow on the Darling Downs. The various subspecies occur naturally from Africa (where it is known as “sand olive”) through India, Australia and many Pacific islands, to tropical America. The one most often sold in nurseries (often incorrectly labelled “native”) is a purple leaved variety of Dodonaea viscosa subsp. viscosa from New Zealand.
We have three subspecies on the Darling Downs, and they all have the typical “viscose” (shiny-sticky) leaves of the species.

This narrow-leafed subspecies is one of the hardiest to drought, and makes a good garden plant. The showy hops  grow only on the female plants, and many growers prefer to produce their plants from cuttings so as to be sure of having females. They are wind pollinated, and female plants have been known to receive pollen from male plants as much as two kilometres away. They do produce capsules even if not pollinated, but of course in that case they are empty of seeds.
If grown as seedlings, these rather slender plants might be best planted in close groups, which can be thinned down as they mature to flowering age and reveal their sex.
Some growers consider that putting a little mother soil from around a parent plant produces healthier plants. This practice inoculates the soil with soil fungus, and it may be that hop bushes, like many other Australian plants, grow better in association with their favourite fungus. This is something to consider if you are collecting seed, which can be done over the next month or so.

(For more on Dodonaea species, use the white search box at top left of page.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Getting Bugs

Insect Study at Franke Scrub, Highfields
Saturday 12 October, 9.30am to 5.30pm.

Members of the public are invited to participate in this event, whose aim is to survey the insect population in this remnant of local dry rainforest.

No specialist qualifications or knowledge are needed - just an interest in insects and how they interact with the environment.

Scientists from the Queensland Museum will guide the participants in using various scientific methods of collection, and then (once again with plenty of expert help), we will spend the afternoon in a local hall, sorting the catch into orders.

(This is an activity for adults, though older school students with a particular interest in biology will be considered.)

To register, please email me (address at right). Only a few places remain, so register soon to be sure of a place.

For more information, see the Franke Scrub Blog at

Friday, September 13, 2013


Jacksonia scoparia
I wrote about this plant four years ago, so we don’t really need another blog about it. However, it’s looking so lovely that I couldn’t resist it, and perhaps it’s interesting to compare the present plant with its own self in the older photo.
I love these elegant plants, which light up the bush so reliably at this time every year with their little pea flowers.
Note the very obvious red "nectar guides". It is rather curious that they are red, as the most obvious insects using the plant are bees, both native and European. Bees can't see red, but love bright yellow flowers.  Perhaps they see something else in those red streaks, that human eyes miss.
I had some difficulty cultivating my row of them, in a narrow strip between the drive and the property boundary. Young dogwoods are rather whippy and blow about in the wind, so it took a long time for the trunks to become sturdy enough to stop injuring themselves on the fence.
I had to tie and pad them. I don’t like staking plants, as it allows them to grow too tall for the structural strength of their roots. If you look back at the older photo (use the white search box at the top left of this page) you will notice I have lost one of my row of dogwoods since then. It was always weaker than the others, but last year it had reached a level of sturdiness which I thought would let me remove its tie. It might have survived, but the site is at the top of a very windy hill and a storm took it out. This would probably not have happened if the weather had allowed it to sway gently on those roots for another few months, encouraging them develop the strength they needed.
A row of identical plants can be a garden design mistake. There is always the “Alas poor Yorick” element when the row develops a gap.
However, I do enjoy the remaining dogwoods, and look forward to the time when the gaps will be filled with the  a suitable climber.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hairy Anchor Plant

Discaria pubescens

I was delighted to find a group of these plants, flowering their little hearts out, in the Allora Mountain Flora and Fauna Reserve today.

I had not seen the plant in the wild before, so it was a treat to have found it looking its annual best, smothered in exquisite little flowers.

The name “anchor plant” comes from its neatly paired anchor-like thorns, which make the species a rather unfriendly one! A specimen growing in Peacehaven Botanic Park at Highfields demonstrates that it can be an attractive, well-shaped plant, nonetheless.

Though somewhat more common down south, this is a rare plant in Queensland and has been classified as “near threatened”, a listing which means it has declined in the wild to the point where it relies on conservation measures to ensure its survival here.

This group of plants, which I believe to be the only plants in this flora and fauna reserve, seemed to consist only of old specimens, most containing a significant proportion of dead wood. The reserve showed signs of being heavily grazed by cattle, and the conclusion that they might be preventing regeneration of new anchor plant seedlings was unavoidable. Conservation can only be effective if the targeted plants are able to produce a new generation. That the reserve might be failing to achieve one of the purposes for which it was declared certainly seemed to be a possibility there.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lance-leafed Hovea

Hovea lanceolata
August is purple and gold time, for our local wildflowers. Wattles are everywhere, and the hovea are painting the countryside with patches of purple. I found these growing on a hillside at Gowrie Junction.

The flowers are tiny, but so many are produced that they make a great show.

Despite its name,  this plant’s leaves are often strap-shaped (lorate) rather than lanceolate (a word which means shaped like a lance – wider near the base of the leaf and coming to a point at the tip).
They have the rusty-furry backs which are found in so many species of hovea.

Like most hoveas, they are rather wispy plants, looking their best if grouped in multiples. For gardeners, more plants are easy to create from seed collected in early summer. It needs pre-sowing treatment to break the hard seedcoats. Putting the seeds in a coffee cup and pouring boiling water over them, then leaving them to soak overnight usually does the trick.

Early Nancy

Wurmbea biglandulosa
I found a large patch of these delightful little lilies in grassy woodland, in the well-watered soil of a creek bed at Gowrie Junction last week.

The purple markings were stronger on some flowers than on others.

A patch can be expected to flower for a period of about three weeks. The plants will produce seed capsules which ripen in November or December, after which they will die back to their underground corms until next winter.
There's not much to the plants - just a few wispy leaves and the flower stem. When not flowering they are very easy to overlook.
 They are frost hardy, but like to be fairly well-watered. This means they are not often seen in our district, with its degraded stream beds.
They can be grown from seed, but it is rarely done, as it takes three years for new little plants to flower for the first time. Before white settlement, the bulbs were an important food plant for the people of the Downs.