The “fruits” on these plants are just beginning to ripen in the Toowoomba area. They are odd little things, not true fruits, but swollen seed-stems (pedicels). However, for the plant’s purposes they serve the same function as fruits. They attract birds which eat the whole thing. The seeds go unharmed through the birds’ digestive tract and are deposited far from the parent tree, each with its little dollop of fertiliser.
Claims are made that the fruits are both edible and palatable. I found this one to be sweet, but so astringent as to be unpleasant. However, I notice that the “Noosa’s Native Plants” website informs us that the fruits must be very ripe and beginning to “wrinkle like a sultana” before they are nice to eat.
The plants are shrubs and small trees, usually to about 3 metres (although they can grow taller). Their broad leaves make them look quite unlike their close relative, the common ballart Exocarpos cupressiformis, with its cypress-like leaves.
Broad leafed ballarts are partially parasitic on the roots of other plants. Although sometimes described as “attacking the roots” of host trees, they are unlikely to be particularly harmful to their hosts. Their dependancy has not been thoroughly studied, but it seems to be the case that they are parasitic only when quite young and have not grown enough leaves to make their own food.
This attractive plant is not known in cultivation, probably because its needs as a young plant, with regard to a host, are poorly understood. It doesn't seem even to be known just which plants it can use, but they may be other shrub and tree species from its semi-evergreen vine thicket habitat. Plants found growing close to the ballarts, in the area where these photos were taken, include Croton insularis, Notelaea microcarpa, Alectryon diversifolius, and Arytera foveolata. It is possible that planting the seeds in a pot with seedlings of those species might succeed.
Ballart seedlings probably also require the correct mycorrhizal fungus to link them with their host plants, so seeds should be planted with a good handful of “mother soil”, gathered from around the roots of the parent ballart. Please let me know, if you have any success!
Near Toowoomba, we most often see this tree on the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range, on sandstone soils. However, I have also seen it on the basalt hills in the Kingsthorpe / Gowrie Junction area. Good drainage is probably necessary for its successful cultivation.
Its bark and seeds were traditionally used as contraceptives, and it is one of the many local plants which may prove to be a useful source of drugs - in this case as a possible cure for tuberculosis.
For more on Exocarpos cupressiformis, see Dec 2010