Friday, July 26, 2013


Acmena smithii (Syzygium smithii)
This is one of our showiest local native trees. Found in the dry rainforests along the range, it looks spectacular at this time of year when it is laden with purplish pink fruits.

In garden situations, it becomes a medium sized tree (8-10 metres) though it can grow much larger in its native rainforest.  It has dense foliage which (unless trimmed) extends to the ground, making it a good screen plant.
For this purpose it  can be left to grow naturally, or trimmed to make a  large, quick-growing hedge, with flushes of new red leaves stimulated by trimming. In either case, it is a very attractive garden plant.
It has been claimed that it resists frosts to to -7°C (or more). I have some doubts about the frost hardiness of small specimens, and would want to be protecting them in winter if harsh frosts are expected, until they were at least a metre high. This only takes only a year or two.

Acmena smithii is the drought hardiest of Australia's lillypillies.

Acmena or Syzygium?
Botanists have not come to an agreement about the name of this plant. All our lillypillies, of both Acmena and Syzygium species, were once grouped together under the name "Eugenia". Then in the 1930s they were split off from that genus and given their new names. This left only one Australian Eugenia species (and some 1000 overseas ones) behind.
Recently, there has been a move to put Acmena back together with Syzygium, which would give this plant the name "Syzygium smithii". Not everyone agrees, however. Botanists often disagree about whether similar plants are different enough to warrant being split up under two or more names, or whether their similarities justify lumping them together. In this case, we have lumpers in some states (and federally), who now use Syzygium smithii, and splitters sticking to their guns and "Acmena smithii" in Queensland and New South Wales.

We amateurs can certainly see clear differences between the two genera, so find the split convenient.
The fruit of Acmena has a neat circular cup at the apex of the fruit (the end opposite the stalk).

Here it is (above) on Acmena smithii...

...and on Acmena ingens, our two local Acmena species.

Syzygium fruit has this cup obscured by little fleshy claws - actually the remnants of the flower calyx.

Here they are (above) on Syzygium paniculatum, a species from the Sydney area growing in my garden...

... on Syzygium australe, photographed in the Bunya Mountains,

and somewhat less obviously on these Syzygium crebrinerve, from Goomburra.

The seeds are different, too.
 The flesh clings very firmly to the seeds of Acmena species (above), and is hard to get off without damaging the rather soft seed. (Fortunately, for those who like to "flesh" seeds before planting them, Acmena smithii doesn't need this treatment, and grows well when planted which the fruit whole.)

Syzygium seeds  sit quite loosely in the crisp white flesh, and are easy to pick out. Above is Syzygium australe...

 ...and this is Syzygium paniculatum.

A third rather similar fruit is that of the satinwood (above), Vitex lignum-vitae. It is sometimes mistaken for a lillypilly, but is easy to distinguish because there's nothing special about the apex of the fruit. Notice also that the white flesh discolours very quickly, like that of an apple.

Acmena and Syzygium can be distinguished from each other by their flowers, too.

Syzygium species (above) have large, fluffy flowers. May Gibbs used them as the inspiration for the delightful Miss Lilly Pilly, the famous movie star who meets Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

Acmena flowers are rather boring by comparison.


Anonymous said...


This post is so interesting, I have wondered about the difference between Syzygium and Acmena. Now I have so many clues to help with identifying plants I find.

Thank you!


Patricia Gardner said...

Nice to hear from you, Alison.
Yes, it is satisfying to be able to identify those really obvious red and pink fruits on the forest floor, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Great article thank you - I could find nowhere else such a complete comparison (with clear pictures) of the differences between the 2 types.
A question for you - I could not always tell if your description was referring to the photo above or below the photo. I'm looking to identify a tree in my backyard, which I've been told is the Acmena Smithii but which I think may actually be the Sydney Syzygium paniculatem. Or perhaps it's the S australe...

Just to confirm - is the photo of the S paniculatem, the photo of a single berry being held in the hand, with leaves? Or is that the australe?

thank you -great site - cheers

Patricia Gardner said...

The description is always written below the photos. I'll add a little bit to the text to make that clearer. (thanks for the tip).

Anonymous said...

Hi Patricia. That's very helpful information. I am in Kingaroy now and joined the local SGAP. Harry Franz told me today that there is a local variation of Acmena smithii found at the Bunyas. Have you seen it and/ or do you have photos?
Frank S.

Patricia Gardner said...

Hello Frank.
It's great to hear from you! I'm sorry I was slow to publish your comment. Family commitments have kept me away from my computer in the school holidays.
The only variety of Acmena smithii that I am aware of at the Bunya Mountains is the plant that was described by A.G. Floyd in his book (Rainforest trees of mainland South Eastern Australia) as A. smithii var. minor. It's a narrow-leafed form of A. smithii, which takes a number of different forms in different regions. The variety name doesn't seem to have gained official recognition. The herbariums seem to be just calling all the different forms “A. smithii”.
Floyd’s book is ambiguous about where “var minor” occurs, with one page stating that it occurs "from Colo Heights NSW to the Bunya Mountains Queensland", and the next telling us that it occurs at sites from Sydney to North Queensland.
I think it is the common form of A. smithii hereabouts, but am open to correction!
Var. minor is apparently a smaller plant than the southern form of A. smithii, and seems to be offered for sale by a lot of people advertising on the internet.
So in answer to your question, no, I am not familiar with a local variation - but would like to hear more about it. I just mention the “var. minor” issue, in case you think this could be the plant that Harry means.

Nadejda Letat said...

Hello Patricia.
I have spotted what i think is a very mature tall & beautiful Acemena/Syzygium smithii located at base of Mount Pleasant (Mt. Brisbane Road) - at present covered with multitude of smallish purple berries.
I frequently go to this locality & next time I shall take photos. Tree located within North Pine River State Forest (at source of North Pine River - junction of Mt. Brisbane Road & road leading up to Mt. Pleasant).
i'm guessing that this locality has many such native plant species.

Nadejda Kuznetzova Letat

Patricia Gardner said...

Hi Nadejda.
If it is a mature Acmena smithii it would have a distinctive reddish trunk. (New South Wales botanists have decided to lump Acmena species in with the Syzygiums. Queensland botanists think there are good reasons for keeping the genera separate. I do wish these botanists would get together and agree!)