Thursday, March 21, 2013

Smooth Water Vine

Cayratia saponaria
There are five different local species of Cayratia, all known as water vines, or sometimes “native grapes”. They are in the grape family, which is obvious if you look at their recognisably “grapey”seeds. Fruits of smooth water vine have just two very large seeds per fruit. These fruits are edible, but said to be not particularly tasty. They can irritate the lining of the throat if eaten in quantity. I’m kicking myself, though, that I wasted this opportunity to try some. It is always risky to put an unknown fruit in your mouth, but I had already checked it for the typical grape seeds, so knew it would be safe.

Smooth water vine is rarely seen here nowadays, but probably once grew in the long-gone rainforests of the Toowoomba City precinct. It can still be found in the rainforest on the southern slope of Mount Tabletop.
It can grow into a large vine, with a stem diameter eventually reaching 10cm. It would make an attractive pergola plant, needing a sheltered site when young, and probably always growing best if it has a cool, well-mulched root-run.
The stems are high in saponins. It is said to be possible to make a good soapy lather in water, suitable for washing clothes and hair, by cutting them into foot-long lengths and heating them till they’re soft .

Smooth water vine has its name from its shiny green leaves. These distinguish it from the very similar “hairy water vine” Cayratia saponaria, which often shares the habitat with its cousin and has softly velvety leaves.
Cayratias grow well in full shade, and make lovely foliage plants for indoor use.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Some of the Best Bush Tucker

Capparis sarmentosa
All our native caper species have edible fruit, but these take out the prize for flavour.

They are full of black seeds embedded in sweet flesh. The seeds can be swallowed, as with passionfruit, or spat out according to your personal preference.

The plant they grow on is called scrambling caper, and is a prickly little vine which clings to tree trunks in its native dry rainforest habitat. It is rather slow-growing at first In a garden it would be best planted close to the trunk of a tree, where the interesting geometry of its network of tiny, fine-leafed stems can be best appreciated. It could also be led up a wooden fence or shaded masonry wall, where it would certainly help keep a property secure from intruders!

You would probably choose to train it away from garden pathways, though, as it does tend to snatch and grab at passers-by, with its tiny pairs of kitten-claws.

The  capers used in cooking are not fruits at all. They are pickled flower-buds, from Capparis spinosa, a shrub native to the Mediterranean region. No doubt buds of this species could be used in the same way - but it seems a pity not to leave the plants for their pretty spring flowers and the fruits that follow.
As with most Capparis, the young plants have smaller leaves than the mature ones shown above.
They are very pretty, and cling securely to their supports.

 A correspondent has described these young plants as "green lace".

Like all our native capers, this species is guaranteed to attract native butterflies, whose caterpillars live on the leaves.

Capparis sarmentosa is a drought hardy plant, with a preference for growing in partial shade

Friday, March 8, 2013

Holly-leafed Bird’s Eye

Alectryon subdentatus
Family: SAPINDACEAEAutumn in Australia is marked, not by a conspicuous display of autumn leaf colour, but by fruits on the native trees.
It the case of dry rainforest trees, these can be showy things, as with these birds eye fruits I photographed in Peacehaven Botanic Park yesterday.

“Alectryon” means rooster, and you can see from the fruit, why the tree was given this name.
Most Alectryon species are neat little shade trees. As a botanic garden, Peacehaven is intended to show how suitable our local native plants can be for use in gardens, and this is a good example of a plant suitable for quite small gardens.
Red and black are bird-attracting colours, so you can see how appealing the generous crop of fruit on this tree would be. The red aril can also be eaten by humans, and I have read claims that it tastes quite acceptable. I find it dry, astringent and disgusting, and suspect that wishful thinking rather than experience is behind the claims.
Hard bird’s eye seems to be the Alectryon which fruits at the earliest age. This tree is about seven years old.
Its red new leaves can appear at any time of year, when the tree puts on a spurt of growth after rain. They are usually at their best in spring, though. They make the plant attractive from a very early age.

A walk around Peacehaven is rewarding at the moment, with many of the small trees flowering or fruiting. Notice that the fruits of the holly-leafed bird's eye tend to be double. In the photo below, they are being split open by the aril, which swells as it ripens.

Near this tree in Peacehaven is a specimen of grey bird’s eye, Alectryon connatus (with ashy-grey leaf-backs). Its seed capsules are triple or quadruple. A number of Alectryon species have some triple capsules, but this is the only one to have the quadruple ones. For this reason, it is sometimes called “quad Alectryon”.