Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nodding saltbush

Einadia nutans subsp nutans (Rhagodia nutans)

Now is a good time to go and look at these saltbushes, in Irongate Conservation Park.
This knee-high plant is fruiting profusely, with both red and yellow-fruited plants – notice their brilliantly coloured matching calyces – growing side by side.

These are such wildlife-friendly plants that it is a pity we don’t see them more often in gardens. Birds, particularly silvereyes and little honeyeaters, love the berries, and many animals including lizards eat the leaves.
The plant is known as "climbing saltbush" or "nodding saltbush", but both are rather unsatisfactory common names. It doesn't really climb, though sometimes it will lean a bit.If it is planted in the shade it will use the support of other plants to grow a bit higher than it would if growing in full sun.
It's a bit of a stretch to say it nods, too, though a larger-than-average raceme of heavy fruits will do it.
If grown in full sun, the plants grow in neatly rounded shapes, and as is demonstrated in the wild at irongate, in large numbers they make an effective, frost and drought hardy groundcover.
Ruby saltbush Enchylaena tomentosa, and fragrant saltbush Rhagodia parabolica are also fruiting in the reserve at present. 
The abundance of saltbushes at irongate is appreciated by the little saltbush butterfly (Theclinestes serpentata), a creature that can only breed on saltbushes. It is shown here in its favourite head-down pose.
There are plenty of them in the reserve, and if you watch them very closely you may notice their tendency to rub their back wings together in a circular motion. It is thought that this attracts the attention of predatory birds away from their heads, towards the rear margins of their wings, where with a little imagination you can think of the little tails as antennae, and the darker spot as an eye. It seems to work, as you often notice this butterfly and its relatives with damage on their rear wings, the part of their bodies they can best afford to lose.
As they fly, you may get a glimpse of the little patches of iridescent blue on the upper surfaces on their wings.
Their caterpillars are carefully guarded by various species of ants, including the meat ants (Iridomyrmex sp.) which are so conspicuous on Irongate’s paths. In exchange for their care, the ants “milk” the caterpillars for a sweet exudate.
Saltbushes are somewhat resistant to burning, so are desirable plants to replace woodchip mulch, where there is a concern that the mulch might lead a fire into a garden.
Obtaining saltbushes for garden use can be difficult, as they are rarely offered for sale. Growing them from seed or cuttings may be the best option.
Saloop also goes by the common name of “berry saltbush”, but this is not a very useful name, as it is applied to a number of other saltbushes as well.
Irongate Conservation Park is between Mt Tyson and Pittsworth. 
To get there from Mt Tyson, head west out the main street. Near the property called Adora Downs the road makes a right-angled turn to the left (south). Follow this until it hits a T-intersection. Turn left, and in about 200 metres you see the Irongate Hall on the left. Turn right (south) almost immediately (into Wallingford Road)after that, and follow the road (which makes a bend to the left) for something like 3.5k until you come across the reserve on your right. Keep your eye out for the iron gate that marks the place.

The Family Chenopodiaceae     (The Saltbush Family)   
The saltbushes which are such a characteristic part of inland australian scene, are part of a  world-wide plant family. It includes beets and spinach. Many of its members are adapted to growing in soils with high salt levels, so can be found at the seaside.

Leaves of the Australian saltbushes are edible, fleshy and often salty, though their saltiness depends on soil salt levels. The inconspicuous flowers are five-lobed, and many species have showy fruits which are edible and sweet.   
It’s an increasingly popular family, and not just because its members are happy growing in the salt-ruined soils that result from our nation’s irrigation practices. They are becoming better appreciated as good-looking easy-care garden shrubs as well.   Saltbushes are all fire-retardant. Most are outstandingly drought hardy, never needing watering once established - though just a bit in the hard times does keep them looking good.    There are 200 Australian species, of Chenopodiaceae, including some horrible weedy-looking things, and some that are unbelievably prickly.     However there are many good ornamental ones too. Most have silvery leaves which make them useful in designed landscapes, and many have bright berries. 
To find other blogs on members of this family, search for Chenopodiaceae in the white search box at the top left of the page.