Friday, January 30, 2009

Soap trees

Alphitonia excelsa
While I clearly have a lot to learn about photographing butterflies, I still thought I would share this one with you, as it’s the first I have seen in my garden of a “ green-banded blue” butterfly, (Danis hymetus), and I am delighted with it (the butterfly, not the photo). You can see that the lower wing surfaces are beautifully ornamented with iridescent green and black. The upper surfaces are quite different, marked in pure white and blue, a bright caerulian colour just like that of the wandering sailor flowers (Commelina cyanea) which are flowering all about the place at the moment. (See December article)
The reason I am delighted with the butterfly is that I can probably take the credit for its existence. The only plant it breeds on is the soap tree, Alphitonia excelsa, and I have several which have now reached a respectable size in my garden.
Soap trees are fast-growing pioneers, capable of growing as much as 3m in a year. They become well-shaped medium sized specimens in quite a short time, eventually developing trunks up to 60cm in diameter - something that could easily be accommodated in all but the smallest suburban gardens.

They have attractive shiny green leaves, whose white backs add to the tree’s appeal when it is stirred by a breeze. They are flowering just now, and beginning to develop the black fruits, which have the odd habit of losing their skins while still hanging on the tree, so that the bare red seeds are exposed - a very pretty effect. Birds love them, and this is a good chookyard tree.

The trunks must have just the right pH to appeal to a variety of our local lichens, as they develop these lovely dapples from an early age.
The trees get their name from the lather which can be produced by rubbing them in water, and which can be used as soap or shampoo. It smells of sarsaparilla.
The timber was so much used by coopers in the old days for making wooden barrels and buckets that the tree used to be known as “coopers wood”. It has also been used for boat-building.
Soap trees are native over a wide area of Australia, but are rather scruffy in some places, which is why they are often overlooked when ornamental trees are being chosen for gardens. However, they grow particularly well on our red soil.
They are very drought resistant, coping, as do so many of our local dry rainforest trees, by being semi-deciduous in dry winters. In summer after the rains they thicken up and provide good shade. They also tolerate moderate frost, and will grow in full sun or in shade. This hardiness and reliability has led to them being used as street trees in some places.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Franke Scrub Working Bee

and meeting with the TRCs Director of Engineering Services
Will you join us at Franke Scrub, (Highfields), this Wednesday?
The working bee is to start early (8.00am) because of the hot weather, and we are going to tackle the asparagus fern.
The heaviest jobs involve digging out the roots of large, established vines. The lightest need only a finger and thumb and a very small tool such as a kitchen knife, and involve weeding out tiny seedlings. A container to put the roots in as you work is helpful, as they cannot be left on the ground to regrow.
Secateurs are very helpful, and we hope you’ll bring morning tea and a chair, for our break at 9.30.
Meeting with Jed Brennan.
Jed is the Director of Engineering Services on the Toowoomba Regional Council, and is coming out to the scrub to talk to us about its future. We had reason to be concerned, recently that it would be destroyed by roadbuilding. Jed tells us that this is not so, and will bring maps and answer questions.
Meanwhile it’s a good opportunity to see what is happening in the scrub this season. Is our favourite leopard ash in fruit? Come along and see.
For further details, including instructions on how to get there, see

Leopard Ash

Flindersia collina
The leopard ash trees in Charmaine Court at Highfields were putting out this lovely display of seed capsules last week. They are the smallest of the "woody starfish" capsules, typical of the various Flindersia species, and as you can see, they are more delicate-looking than the capsules from this tree’s well-known cousin the crow’s ash, Flindersia australis. Unlike the latter, they will fall apart into their five separate valves when they dry out.

Leopard ash trees have a reputation for being slow growing, which is not altogether justified. My experience (with un-watered trees on red soil) is that they were indeed very slow for their first four years, after which they have taken off. I suppose they needed to get their roots down to a certain level before they were ready to get on with it.

They were ornamental even when small, with their interesting juvenile leaves (below), and are just the thing to plant among fast-growing, short-lived plants in a new garden (or an old one).

These are small to medium trees, of a size suitable for suburban gardens. Though drought and frost hardy, have shady, “rainforesty” canopies, masses of perfumed white flowers in October, and wonderfully beautiful mottled trunks. (Note that the leaves in the photo taken from a mature, seeding tree in Charmaine Court, above, are of the mature leaf-shape.)

Local native plant enthusiasts who have not yet had a look at the dry rainforest at Charmaine Court might like to take a drive out there with their walking shoes on. The Crows Nest Shire Council is to be congratulated for seeing that the road was designed with a pronounced kink, to go around this lovely bit of scrub with its old trees.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Banana Mistletoe

Lysiana subfalcata
Well, the more usual common names for this plant are “sandalwood mistletoe” (but it grows on a lot of other kinds of plant as well), or the rather boring “northern mistletoe”. A better common name is clearly needed.

This lovely set of buds was on a scrub boonaree Alectryon diversifolium. Over the road, it was blooming away on a warrior bush Apophyllum anomalum.
I made an error in my book “Toowoomba Plants” with this one. (Pause here and imagine me blushing). I was not familiar with the plant at the time, so repeated what I had read, that the flowers were red. Apparently this is the “default”colour for this species, but locally, as you can see, they are a bright banana yellow with green petals.
Like so many of our locals they are well-adapted to the climate, taking advantage of the variable weather and microclimates to flower when it suits them best. This is usually between spring and autumn, but I have seen them in June.
If you find some yellow-flowering mistletoes, check to see whether the flowers are in pairs. If so then what you have is Lysiana subfalcata.
You’ll find it on all kinds of hosts in our local scrubs. It will also grow on Oleanders, so it obviously very broad-minded about its hosts. If you want to grow it, give it a try on a small, healthy branchlet on any suitable smooth-barked tree or shrub.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Caustic Vine

Sarcostemma viminale subsp. brunonianum
It doesn’t sound like a desirable plant, does it? The early white settlers’ dislike of the environment they found themselves in is often reflected in the names they gave to the plants around them.
Kingsthorpe Hill was live with the sound of bees, last weekend, as they jostled with a multitude of other insects which wanted to feed on the nectar of these sweet-smelling flowers. There were butterflies aplenty, the males pursuing females, and duelling with other males for the best hilltop positions.
Caustic vines are peculiar leafless things. They have white sap which is said to irritate the skin and be a danger to the eyes, though it’s probably no more dangerous, really, than a frangipani plant.
Kingsthorpe Hill has a number of interesting dry rainforest plant species, and a very good view. The walk up to it is quite short, and you could take a picnic for all the family. You can get there by finding Graman Street and Emmanulla Drive, and looking out for the “lookout” signs.

Devil’s Whiskers

Solanum mitchellianum
These plants were looking their gloriously prickly best for us last weekend on Kingsthorpe Hill. I do love them!
(For further comments see last April’s article.)