Thursday, January 27, 2011

Toothache Tree

Melicope micrococca
Here is another of those local dry rainforest tree species which would be suitable for use in the garden. It has a dense canopy of these shiny, dark green trifoliate leaves, and like so many of our dry rainforest trees, produces masses of small white insect-attracting flowers.
Old rainforest-grown specimens might have a trunk diameter of 60cm, but 30cm is a more usual size. The remnant of a large old tree can be seen on the road reserve in Hiwinds Road at Mt Kynoch. It is probably in indicator that the type of dry rainforest known as semi-evergreen vine thicket was once dense in that area, before it was cleared for farms in the 19th century. It has fallen over, but is getting a second lease of life, as new stems shoot from the old tree-stump. It is good to see the tree being valued by the householders adjacent to that part of the road.
I photographed these flowers in Peacehaven Botanic park (Highfields) last week. The little four-year-old tree was a mass of them, inside the canopy. They were covered with beetles, enjoying the feast. We can expect to see the panicles of little grey seed capsules any time between February and June. They are eaten by a variety of birds.
This tree's tough but soft white timber gives it the common name “white doughwood”, but I prefer the name our early settlers learned from aborigines, who recognised its medicinal value. I wouldn’t recommend it for home use, though. An aboriginal describing the method of use, said that a leaf should be folded up and placed on the problem tooth. The sufferer should bite on it, and would then “drop dead 20 minutes”, before waking up cured. The possibility that the user might not wake up at all sounds like a too-possible alternative outcome!
Like most of our “scrub” trees, this one is drought resistant, and tolerates some frost.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Guioa semiglauca

The fruits on the guioa tree (pronounce its name with a hard “G”, as “GEE-O-A”) at Peacehaven Botanic Park in Highfields are just beginning to ripen.

They have this odd little habit. As these orange aril-covered fruits reach the peak of perfection, they drop out of their capsules to dangle temptingly, on little threads. How could a fruit-loving bird resist?

Guoias are usually found in gullies in dry rainforests where hoop pines dominate, which means they very much at home on the range-side of Toowoomba. They are small trees (trunk diameter to about 20cm). Mature plants have corrugated trunks, often adorned with lichens. They begin flowering while young, and havea long flowering period in spring, with tiny, white, honey-scented white flowers which invite the attention of masses of bees and butterflies.
“Semiglauca” means “half-white”, and refers to the leaves which are green on the top and whitish underneath. This makes the shady canopy of the guioa very attractive when a breeze ruffles the leaves.

These little trees are fast-growing pioneer plants, particularly useful for re-establishing forests, or getting a garden off to a quick start. Their timber is rather brittle, and mature trees tend to break in storms if they are grown in exposed positions. This is not the problem it might be with a larger tree. However, the best site for it is a sheltered one where it only has to cope with polite breezes.

Guioas are good shade and shelter tree for ferns, which like to grow under them. Epiphytes, both ferns and orchids, grow naturally on the trunks of these “good all-rounder” trees.

Brown Malletwood

Rhodamnia rubescens
I photographed these fruits at Peacehaven Botanic Park in Highfields in November. The same little plant is still in fruit, two months later, demonstrating how the fruits make this an outstanding ornamental small tree.
We can see old specimens in the centre picnic ground at Ravensbourne National Park (though not just at present, as it is inaccessible due to flood damage on the Esk-Hampton Highway). There, the topknot pigeons, and no doubt many other birds, delight in feasting on this plentiful food source.

Brown Malletwood grows to be a small tree, suitable even for small suburban gardens, and develops a shady canopy of these pretty leaves. Its little white flowers are sweetly perfumed
Hardy and fast-growing, it is one of the few local native plants sometimes seen in gardens.

A plant of dry rainforests, it is drought-hardy.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Amaranthus mitchellii
I would like to think all my readers had come through the floods unharmed, and with your property more or less intact - though I know that some of you will not have been so fortunate. My heart goes out to those who have suffered grief, or injury. My sympathy also goes to those who are surveying flood-ruined property, and girding themselves to face the tasks of cleaning, repairing and replacing - tasks which I know may take years in some cases.
Meanwhile, most of you have probably been shopping for food by now, as I have, and have glumly surveyed almost empty shelves, with a few bedraggled vegetables and sad-looking fruits being all that’s left of the rich and varied offerings we have come to expect of our supermarkets and greengrocers.
Early white settlers in Australia were quite familiar with the problem, and for them, it had a major effect on their health. They suffered from scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C. They often failed to recognise it, scurvy being thought of as a sailors’ disease, so they called it “Barcoo rot”. In time, they came to realise that eating green leaves cured the problem, and they looked for reasonable-tasting plants which could provide them with what they thought of as “spinach”.

Boggabri was one such plant.

Nowadays, “amaranths” are quite familiar to us, as at least 17 species have been introduced to Australia - most by accident, but some as garden vegetables - and they have become common garden weeds. There are few native amaranths, and they are all plants of the inland. The one called Boggabri  typically grows on periodically flooded sites such as our blacksoil plains. It’s a knee-high annual, with protein-rich seeds and leaves high in Vitamin C.
Amaranths of various kinds, the world over, have a long history of being eaten as leafy vegetables. They have an unfortunate tendency to concentrate nitrates in their leaves. As nitrates are implicated in stomach cancers, this is a concern, albeit a minor one, to users of this plant. The risk is proportionate to the amount of nitrogen in the soil, so plants grown in soil high in artificial nitrogen fertiliser are best avoided, while those wild-picked from poor soil would be safe so long as they are eaten in normal spinach-type quantities - quite enough to keep the “rot” at bay. The tastiest (and safest) leaves, as with all our leafy vegetables, are those of young plants ,which have not yet flowered. (Nitrates accumulate in plants with age.)
If our local Aborigines used this plant at all they probably ate the seeds only. They are very high in protein - probably around 18%. Compare this to grains such an wheat and rice which have about 9-14% protein. Unlike them, amaranth seeds contain complete proteins, so are very suitable for vegetarians.(The "amaranth" seed sold in health food stores comes from South and Central America. Species used are  Amaranthus caudatus, A.cruentus, A. hypochondriacus.)
Boggabri should be planted in a sunny spot, at any frost-free time of year, and needs good soil moisture for the 6-8 weeks growing period. It often “volunteers” in cotton crops, taking advantage of the irrigation period and being regarded as a weed by growers (who also use the name “boggabri” for the much smaller native plant, Amaranthus macrocarpus).
Other plants used by early white settlers used to stave off scurvy include: New Zealand Spinach or “Warrigul Greens” Tetragonia tetragonioides (See Oct 2008), Wandering Sailor Commelina cyanea (See Dec 2008), various saltbushes (March 2009 and Feb 2010), rainforest spinach Elatostema reticulatum and common pigweed, or “purslane” Portulaca oleracea.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Plants Suffering in the Wet?

There is just a bit too much rain happening, isn’t there?
The native plants are loving it of course - except for the ones that are drowning!
Other plants having a bad time of it are garden plants which only grow naturally in well-drained soil. Introduced into our red- and even our black-soil gardens, they may do well for years, so long as they don’t get too wet. A rain event like this can be too much for them. Our basalt soils have a high clay content. Once wet, they stay that way, and that is too much for the roots of some plants, which succumb to fungal diseases.
I have great admiration for those skilled gardeners who can grow plants from anywhere and everywhere - especially those who are helping to preserve rare and endangered plants by cultivating them.
But for those who want an easier life, there’s no doubt that growing local native plants can be a surer way of filling your garden with things that won’t drop dead if there’s an extreme weather event.
Meanwhile, it’s the BEST PLANTING SEASON we’ve had for many years. It’s a particularly good time to get dry rainforest trees and shrubs in. Some of these plants can have an irritating tendency to mark time, growth-wise, in dry weather - but given this kind of rain, they can grow very fast indeed.
Meanwhile, WATCH OUT FOR VOLUNTEERS. If you live in a place where local natives may self-seed, and they happen to do it in a place where they could have a future, it is well worth preserving these little bits of serendipity in your garden - even at the cost of sacrificing a previous planting plan. Having grown in situ from seed. They will have the strongest roots systems, and are likely to be the longest-lived, strongest and healthiest of all your plants.

Native Hibiscus

Hibiscus heterophyllus

Here’s a plant that’s loving the rain. My native hibiscus have flowered better this year than ever before - their only problem is that they will only open their flowers if the sun shines. I feels hard to believe as I write this with the rain pouring down, but we've actually had a lot of sunny intervals these last few months. During those sunny periods, the Hibiscus have been the stars of my garden.

Dry rainforest is a plant type that can lack showy flowers, so these light-coloured beauties are a feature which can be seen from far away. No wonder the butterflies and beetles love them!

The plants are medium to tall open shrubs, with branches and blue-green leaves that are "scratchy" rather than actually prickly. If I prune them I do prefer to wear long sleeves and gloves.

However they do well to be allowed to find their own natural shape, a graceful one which contrasts strongly with that of the commonly-grown introduced hibiscus.

Like so many dry rainforest species, they are very drought hardy, but only tolerate light frosts. They prefer to be sheltered, and may break, or just lean over, if exposed to strong winds. And of course they need a sunny situation to flower.
They are fast-growing in all weathers.
There is a local yellow form of this plant, growing on sandstone ridges down Flagstone Creek way. I have a young one growing in my hillside redsoil, and so far it has stood up well to to the assault of the rains.