Friday, December 4, 2015

Lovers Twine

Glycine clandestina
FAMILY: FABACEAE

 

This is a pretty irritating little plant.

At its best, which it is at this time of year, it is pretty, with its clusters of little mauve flowers liberally sprinkled over the plants, which twine up through other plants in the garden, never climbing higher than about 60cm. It’s so pretty that I wonder why I am such a grump as to find it irritating for most of the rest of the year.

But I do.

It’s just that it spreads so sneakily, spreading through the garden, producing so many of its thread-like little twining stems that they go into tangles, neither very pretty once the best of the flowering is over, nor really ugly enough for me to make a serious push to get rid of them completely.

Not that I ever could.

The fine stems also spread unperceived over the ground, rooting at the nodes. Each root grows into a little tuber like a miniature parsnip, making it impossible to pull the plants out. The fine stems simply break off. To get rid of them is a matter of digging out the tubers individually.



And the flowers all produce hairy little pea-like pods of seeds, so new plants spring up all over the place.



Some gardeners seem fond of them, and say that they “prune” them, and get more attractive plants as a result. “Pruning” can be done, and does reduce the general messiness. It consists of combing the fingers through the tangles of lovers twine, pulling it off the other garden plants, until the patch of garden is reduced to a reasonable appearance.

the plants bear some resemblance to that other little native purple pea, Hardenbergia violacea (below). Hardenbergia, however, flowers earlier in the year and  has single leaves...

while the leaves of lovers twine are trifoliate.


Unlike some native peas, glycines can safely be eaten by stock.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Small-leafed Water Vine

Clematicissus opaca
(Cissus opaca)
FAMILY: VITACEAE


I have failed (again) to catch this plant in flower, so am showing you the spent flowers, without their petals and all ready to grow into the little black fruits which will ripen in autumn.
 I suspect that the petal phase of the flowers must be rather short, as this plant had plenty of bud and plenty of spent flowers, but no petals to be seen.

Another clue to the plant's family are the seeds. There are only 2-4 per fruit, and they are so large they almost fill the fruit, but you can see they are unmistakably grape seeds.
 
You can eat the fruits, but as with most local native grape species they are only tolerable when very ripe, and even then not very interesting.

As so often happens with closely related plants, one member of the group is adapted to drier conditions. This member of the grape family is in the Cissus group, and the secret of its drought hardiness is its large tuber. In very dry or frosty conditions it dies back, regrowing from the tuber when warm weather and rains come.

The tubers get very large – as much as 30cm long and 15cm in diameter. A friend who is a clever gardener suggested I plant one in a pot, with the top of the tuber exposed. The result is a rather nice pot plant, which needs a bit of light trellis to support it.


Young tubers are said to be edible, and can apparently be eaten raw or roasted. They have a pungent taste which has given the plant the alternative common name of “pepper vine”.

The plant grows into a light vine. Grown in the ground, it needs only a small trellis or can simply allowed to ramble though a shrub or sprawl over rocks. Even the smallest garden would have room for  few of these plants.

Their leaves take so many forms that they can be difficult to identify in the wild. The leaves have 3–7 stalkless leaflets, arranged like fingers on a hand. The distinguishing characteristic is the middle “finger” which is much longer than the rest. The leaflets can be narrow to medium width, toothed or not, softly hairy or smooth and shiny, and have whitish or reddish backs.


Note the sprig at top right of the photo, showing a tendril coming from the stem opposite a leaf. (Click on the photo for a closer look.) This is another clue that the plant is in the grape family Vitaceae. Unlike some grape species, however, this one has few tendrils and on some plants there may be none to be seen.

In times of desperate drought, when water restrictions make garden watering impossible, it is reassuring to know that plants like this will survive even if their beauty is temporarily lost.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Crows Ash in Flower

Flindersia australis
FAMILY: RUTACEAE
November is Flindersia flowering time.


Sometimes the flowers are discreetly tucked among the leaves.




Sometimes the November flowering is accompanied by a partial leaf-drop.




But never before have I seen such a complete, spectacular leaf-drop as the trees have had this year in Redwood Park.
 
 

Meanwhile, the capsules which have been hanging on the trees for almost a year, are ripening fast.

 

Now is the time to collect the seed, if you’d like to make more of these lovely trees. The seed is very easy to grow if you plant it very fresh.






Long Jack

Flindersia xanthoxyla
FAMILY: RUTACEAE

In the Toowoomba area we have three local Flindersia species, all growing in similar dry rainforest habitats close to the great Dividing Range. The smallest and most drought hardy is the leopard ash F. collina.  Next in size is the crows ash, F. australis. The tallest of the three is long jack, F. xanthoxyla.
Old specimens soar to heights of up to 45 metres, in rainforests.
They are difficult to photograph in that situation, so here is a smaller one growing in a paddock near Toowoomba, where we can see its upright growth habit and and dense green canopy.

The above plant is growing naturally on its site. It must have begun its life in a patch of dry rainforest, before its growth was slowed by the conversion of its home into this open paddock.

Long jacks grow naturally from Lismore and Maryborough, between the Great Dividing Range and the coast, so they are at the dry edge of their natural range here in the Toowoomba area. As you would expect of a sub-coastal plant, they like to be well watered when young, and are happier if well mulched. Given these conditions they reward us with fast growth.

They make magnificent specimens in parks and large gardens, and are used in timber-growing projects. Xanthoxyla means “yellow wood”, and this tree's pale yellow timber is particularly amenable to steam-bending, so it was used in coach-building and would be very good for bentwood furniture and the like.



Flindersia capsules are ripening around the district at present. I found this Long Jack capsule (at right) last week, under magnificent tree in the nice little patch of dry rainforest in Charmaine Court, Highfields.

 

Unlike the sturdy capsules from crows ash tree trees F. australis,  (on the left, in the above photos ), Long Jack’s capsules tend to break up as they fall, so I saved this survivor to put on my mantelpiece. I am handling it gently in the hope that it will look pretty for at least a few weeks.








Friday, November 20, 2015

Irongate Seat of Knowledge

There are plenty of reasons to visit Irongate Conservation Park at present. It is looking very green and leafy after the good rain, and is full of birds, butterflies, and ripening fruits and seeds.
Whoever takes care of the park has done a great job of making a nice new path, carefully raised so you don't get your shoes muddy with Irongate's sticky black soil, if it rains.
But best of all is this lovely new seat, which has appeared half way round the circuit , just where you might want to sit down and contemplate your surrounds.
I never met Noel Mahoney. I understand he was a local farmer, respected and liked in the Irongate district, and obviously loved by his family who have installed this memorial to him.
What a wonderful way of celebrating the life of someone who must have felt a strong affection for the Irongate district's little gem of an environmental reserve.




Friday, October 23, 2015

Raspy Root Orchid

Rhinerrhiza divitiflora
Family: ORCHIDACEAE

 
I was surprised to find this orchid in flower, early this week when we were still complaining that there had been no rain for ages. Its reputation is for flowering after rain, but it was undeterred by the very dry weather.
It is also said to prefer a damp, shady site, but this plant looks very healthy in its dry site on the eastern slope of the Range near Toowoomba. It was growing in dry rainforest with a rather light canopy. Its need for shade was apparently satisfied by its situation on the southern side of its host tree.
It is difficult to catch this species in flower, in the wild. All of a single plant’s flowers open within a short time, often on the same day, and last only a day or two, so its flowering season is very short indeed.  Note the buds on this plant, which I photographed late in the morning. I wonder whether they would have been open, if I had gone back a few hours later.


There is also a tendency for all the raspy root orchids in an area to flower simultaneously, so if you are lucky enough to find one, it’s worth looking around for others.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Slender Onion Orchid

Microtis parviflora 
Family: ORCHIDACEAE 

This humble little fellow must be our least ornamental local orchid. The flowers have tiny “faces” and seem to be almost all ovary.

You have to be paying attention, to notice that they are orchids at all!

However, the minuscule flowers are really delightful, so if you find any, look at them closely.





















  

Not that they are easy to find. (Yes, there are some in the photo below. If you click on it, it will enlarge. Can you find them?)

Some internet sources claim that onion orchids are plants of “bogs and damp places”, but this colony of plants looked perfectly happy today, on an exposed, dry slope on Mt Kynoch red soil. They are said to do better after fires. This particular grassy, cattle-grazed site hasn’t had a fire for years and the plants were thriving. It would be interesting to see how it might be improved with fire.









 



The plants grow from underground tubers. At first glance they seem be quite leafless, but you can see that each flower stem does have a leaf wrapped firmly around its stem.

Like most orchid tubers, they are probably edible, and their tendency to grow better after fires was one of the reasons Aborigines burned their land. Early white settlers couldn't see why the fires were lit, and believed so strongly that Aborigines weren't farmers that they were not inclined to find out whether these apparently (to them) pointless fires actually had a practical purpose.









These orchids are highly unusual because they are pollinated by  ants.
Ants are normally the enemies of plants, when it comes to pollination. They secrete an antibiotic substance which kills it. (The antibiotic is produced by their metapleural glands, for those who are interested in that kind of thing).
Just to add to the difficulty, some ants’ rough little skins are simply too hard on pollen and likely to kill it.
Plants that need animal help for pollination have evolved flower designs to attract their pollinators, so it is quite interesting to examine just what appeals to ants.
Onion orchids are unique among orchids, as their pollinaters are wingless worker ants - usually little tyrant ants, Iridomyrmex gracilis. There is no question of attracting flying male ants by looking and smelling like a female, as happens with the other ant-pollinated orchids. Colour is clearly not relevant, and it is very obvious that this plant’s pollinators are not being attracted by showy petals!

(Hope you like the photo. It looks like a studio shot, doesn't it? However I assure you that no onion orchid was harmed in the making of this blog. It was held steady with a clothes peg on a stake, and the background is an out of focus trouser leg.)
These little orchids produce a sweet fragrance to attract the ants, and they deal honestly with them, providing the sip of nectar that the perfume promises. Honesty is not something we expect from orchids. Most of them are cheats. They dress up to imitate nectar-producing flowers, even having "nectar guides" - those lines that lead to the centre of the flower - but they don't supply the goods. The trick works for most insects, as demonstrated by the fact that the orchid family is one of the largest plant families in the world. Perhaps ants are not so forgiving as other kinds of insects (or not so stupid as to keep going from one unrewarding flower to another).
Having attracted their ants, the next problem is to deal with their pollen-destroying capacities. These knacky little onion orchids have evolved flowers which organise the nectar seeking ants so they can only get their reward if they are correctly aligned to pick a dab of pollen on the fronts of their faces,  well away from their metapleural glands. The flowers may look small, but they’re bossy!
They also have pollen with short stalks to hold the pollen grains safely away from the ants’ destructive skin.
Onion orchids fit a pattern shown by other types of ant pollinated plants. They tend to have small flowers, each supplying only a little nectar. This means that larger insects are not interested, and that even little ants have to visit a number of flowers to collect enough for their purposes.
They also tend to have flowering stems with flowers that open serially. This means that ants can’t find enough nectar by foraging all the way up a single flower stem, so they have visit more than one plant, carrying pollen as they go.

These little flowers, which at first seem quite boring, have a lot to interest us!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Copper Beard Orchid

Calochilus campestris
FAMILY: ORCHIDACEAE

Doesn’t this little old man of the woods have a wonderful face?

We found him (and a number of his friends) in the Merrit’s Creek Road area today. They seemed to like growing among low grass, close to broad-leafed stringybark Eucalyptus acmenioides trees.

Much of this plant’s life is spent underground in tuber form. In spring, it puts up its single long, floppy leaf, usually going unnoticed until it also puts up a flower stem.


Aborigines used to eat the tubers, back in the days when there were considerably more of them.

These flowers are pollinated by male wasps (Campsomeris sp.). Wasp pollinated orchids emit a scent which resembles female wasp pheremones, and, unlikely as it seems, the male perceives this flower as looking like a female wasp. On investigating whether it would make a good mate, he will get dusted with pollen. This is then transferred to another orchid as he repeats the process of attempting to find a mate.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bluebells - are they Boys or Girls?

Wahlenbergia Species
FAMILY: CAMPANULACEAE
 Australian bluebells, with their sky-blue flowers, are one of the spring/summer delights of the Darling Downs. They particularly love the bit of extra moisture provided by road runoff, so they are lining many of our country highways at the moment.
One of the few bits of natural lore that my mother taught me was that there are boy bluebells (left, below) and girl bluebells (right).


My mum was not strong on knowledge about native plants. As I grew up I learned to be a little sceptical about her pronouncements in this area, so I was delighted when discovered she was right.

Well, almost.

Like so many flowers, each bluebell has both male and female parts. They are little hermaphrodites, with a central style(female) surrounded by anthers (male).
The style, as you would expect from its name, looks like a post in the middle of the flower.
You don’t really notice the anthers. They are tucked right down in the bottom of the cup, and perform their pollen producing role before the flower opens. (You may be able to see them if you click on this photo to enlarge it.)
 
As the style grows in the unopened bud, it passes the anthers. It collects pollen on the way, with its purpose-designed hairs. When the flower opens, the style does the job that is done in most other flowers by the anthers, presenting the pollen in a conspicuous position for pick-up by the insect courier service.  (The insects also pick up their "pay", in the form of a bit of nectar). The photo below shows a bluebell in the male phase, well loaded with pollen.

Once the pollen has aged to the point of being unviable, the style moves into the female phase. It splits into three and exposes the sticky surface of the stigma.

Another flush of nectar brings the insects back. If they are carrying pollen from male-phase flower, some adheres to the stigma. From there it makes its way down into the ovary, to grow into seed.

This sex change process is fairly usual in hermaphroditic flowers. They have both male and female parts, but do the jobs one at a time to ensure the spread of their genes around their species. Some, like bluebells, are protandrous - meaning that they are male first, becoming female after that. Flowers that do it the other way round, being female first, are protogynous.

I wish I could tell you which species these bluebells are, but Wahlenbergia ID drives me to despair.
If anyone out there has some helpful tips on how to tell one Darling Downs bluebell species from another, I’d love to hear it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Wattle We Do, on Wattle Day?

FAMILY: MIMOSACEAE
I do so love the idea of Wattle Day.

But I find the reality deeply unsatisfying.
Today is the “official” National Wattle Day. Did you know?
What I did was to go bushwalking. I kept an eye out for wattles, but it was not a success. I found a lot of wattle plants, but only one species with flowers on it and they were mostly dead.
Did you have any better luck? Or did you just not know it was Wattle Day?
The only good wattle flowers I saw today were in my photo file. The ones above were photographed a month ago.
Apparently the patriotic urge to have a Wattle Day began around the time of Australian Federation. Wattle leagues had been established in most states by 1912, with each capital city making a decision on behalf of its own state as to which day suited them (and the city’s local wattles) best. The first day in September was a popular choice down south, but it wasn’t universal. Sydney chose it, but soon changed to 1 August, which suited it better.
In Brisbane, the organisers sensibly settled on a Wattle Day in late July, to match the peak of the annual wattle flowering in that district. It was a bit too early for those of us who live in Toowoomba, of course, but it was the start of a good idea.
It never really took off, though. Despite growing up in Queensland and living here for most of my life, I hadn’t actually heard of it until a few years ago. I have never been aware of any celebration of it in Queensland, or even any acknowledgement of its existence except for odd occasions when someone remarks “It’s wattle day today, you know”, to listeners who usually didn’t.
Supporters of the day have soldiered on, however. In 1990 they decided for some reason that the concept would be best served by agreeing to a National Wattle Day, on September 1st.
I’m not really sure why.
I even wonder whether Queensland agreed, or whether it was just that no-one cared enough to protest.
If the idea was that we Australians would be moved to patriotic fervour and enthusiasm for some of our loveliest native plants, it would really better for wattle days to be celebrated at a time when we could all actually go out into the countryside and see for ourselves how beautiful it is.

In much (perhaps most) of Australia, this can’t be done on 1 September.
For us in Toowoomba, mid-August would be perfect.
I can’t see that Wattle Day will ever really be a widespread Australian success, unless we fragment it to suit the reality of our great range of climates, and our matching rebellious, non-conformist flora. Telling wattles to behave themselves, and flower on the “official first day of spring” just isn’t going to work. (Who were these officials, by the way, and why did they feel the need to be official about when spring should start? Fortunately, the real spring ignores them, knowing a great deal more than they do about when it should really begin each year, in each part of Australia.)
There is really no reason why Australians couldn’t celebrate locally suitable Wattle Days on much the same basis. If we feel the need for some kind of uniformity, perhaps “official “ Wattle Days could be organised by local government areas. This is probably the largest unit that could make a decision likely to reflect what the wattles are actually doing in its bailiewick.
But why wait for an official decision? Next year, Let’s just do it!
It would be rather fun, really.




Friday, August 28, 2015

Austral Indigo

Indigofera australis
FAMILY: FABACEAE

I photographed this one last week in the Palmtree area (near Ravensbourne), where it grew on red soil. You can see it on the 4k walking track with follows the old MunroTramway, which begins in Palmtree road. A blue signpost at the beginning tells us that the track has been developed by the local council as one of our  “Great Short Walks".
This native indigo is a slender shrub, pretty year-round with its blue-green leaves, but tending to go unnoticed in the wild until it produces these lovely flowers.

The species is widespread throughout much of Australia, and very variable in form, but our local form is a small shrub, usually less than a metre high.
It can be used effectively in a garden, especially if planted in a postition where advantage can be taken of the contrast between its unusual leaf colour, and green-leafed plants.
Tip pruning regularly is important, to help it grow into a more dense shrub.
This is a frost hardy plant, preferring well-drained soil and semi-shade.

Austral indigo is related to the plants which have been used to produce an indigo dye, since time immemorial. (The "woad" used by ancient Britons to tattoo and dye their skins was indigo, and so is the dye in blue jeans.) Austral indigo contains less of the active ingredient than the species that are used commercially, but Australian dyers have used it to produce green, yellow, a good fast red, and of course the traditional blue.
Here are some sites of successful modern hobby dyers who have used it:
http://localandbespoke.com/2013/06/29/austral-indigo-1-cold-vinegar-process
http://www.tinkermaker.com.au/2013/08/indigofera-australis-australian-native-indigo
http://theplanthunter.com.au/gardens/growing-dye-garden
http://handweaversandspinnersguildofvictoria.org.au/dyegroup09.htm
http://turkeyredjournal.com/archives/V18_I1/heywood.html
The last has a photo of an interesting, multi-coloured piece of knitting, made by treating the Indigofera australia leaves in different ways to create dyes of different colours.
IF YOU WANT TO USE Austral Indigo FOR DYING, PLEASE GROW YOUR OWN PLANTS. Nature is doing it tough, and leaf-collecting in the quantities needed for even a small amount of dye may deprive native insects of the food they need to make the next generation, and may even kill the plants.
Seed of the species can be bought on the internet. This would be of plants from other parts of Australia. If you care about cross-pollination damaging the integrity of our local plants (the same problem that CAUSES many people to strongly oppose GM crops), then you will collect local native seed when it becomes available in November. (Once again, correct behaviour is to collect no more than about 10% of the seed you see around you. Nature needs its seeds, too.)
It is easy to grow if you use the boiling water method: Put the seeds in a coffee cup. Pour boiling water on them. Leave to soak overnight. Plant the seeds that have swelled, in the morning. Repeat the process for any seeds that didn't swell. (They have a tiny hole through the outer coat that is blocked with wax, and the wax must be melted for the water to penetrate to the seed inside and start it growing.)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Brigalow

Acacia harpophylla
FAMILY: MIMOSACEAE

You have to be lucky, to catch brigalow in flower. The plants will often go for years without it. However this season seems to be a good one, so look out for the flowers.



This undervalued plant is one of Australia’s prettiest wattles, but not so much for its rare flowers as for its beautiful, sickle-shapes leaves, its black trunk and branches, and its graceful form.



 

In certain lights, the leaves are a lovely shade of silver. They are especially good in the sunshine after rain, while they are still wet.








In other lights, the trees have a dull grey, almost sinister beauty.



Brigalows sucker if damaged or cut down. This can be a nuisance to those who want to clear paddocks for agriculture, but is an advantage to those who want fresh, young, edible regrowth within reach of their cattle.
It also means that a row of brigalow can be turned into an effective windbreak with a bit of deliberate damage around the lower trunks to promote suckering.
For those who complain that wattles are short-lived, here's one that can live to a great old age.



Brigalow is the main inland host plant for the critically endangered butterfly, the pale imperial hairstreak Jalmenus eubulus. Unfortunately, it breeds only in old-growth forest or woodland and does not appear to colonise regrowth habitats following clearing or other major disturbance. This is a very good reason for conserving areas of old-growth brigalow.
Sadly, another threat to this and others of our more beautiful endangered butterflies are those so-called “nature lovers” who express their love by owning and displaying dead butterflies.  It is illegal to "collect" (as in "kill") butterflies in Australia without a permit, but this does not deter the unscrupulous.


Propagating brigalow is easy, provided you know the tricks, and its tricks are different from those of most wattles.
Seed of most Acacia species is very long-lived. It can be stored for at least 25 years and probably much longer. When the time comes for planting, you put a few seeds in a coffee cup, pour boiling water over them and leave them overnight. The seeds swell (repeat the treatment for the ones that don’t) and can be planted, germinating in a week or two.
Brigalow is different, though. It’s thin-skinned seeds are short-lived, so there’s no point in storing them as they’ll only die in storage. They need to be planted as fresh as possible, and without subjecting them to boiling water, which would kill them. Treated this way, they germinate within days.
Given that flowering and seed production are erratic, producing new little brigalow plants is a matter of taking advantage of opportunities when they occur, and this coming season looks like providing that.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Common Wilga

Geijera parviflora
Family: RUTACEAE


This type of scenery was once very common on the Darling Downs. A high, open canopy of Eucalyptus species was partially filled below with a lower canopy of common wilga and other dry vine scrub species.

The Lake Broadwater Regional Park* near Dalby preserves a portion of it. It is rich in wildlife because of the mosaic of varied environmental niches that this type of habitat provides. There are windbreaks and nectar for butterflies; grassy patches and shade for the kangaroos, nutritious fruits for birds, sheltering undergrowth for lizards and tiny mammals, and so on.
It’s a great spot for orchard butterflies, which breed on the wilga leaves, and for nesting birds, which come for the protein-rich mixture of edible insects attracted by the long winter/spring flowering season of the wilgas.




We are more familiar with wilgas as fence-line survivors in our farmscapes, where there are easily identified by their shape. They look like great green beach balls.



Where sheep graze under them, the lower half of the foliage disappears, leaving shady green umbrellas.



They make pretty garden plants, as seen in this young one photographed (above) in Peacehaven Botanic Garden in 2012.
They are also fast-growing. It was twice the height when I photographed it recently (below).



Wilga’s wild-life supporting credentials mean that it is more than a stand-alone addition to a garden. Like so many “scrub” plants, we can leave it show off its beautiful ground-sweeping shape, or we can imitate sheep and trim it up from below for a pretty little shade tree.
The strongly vertical lines of the dense narrow foliage make it a good background or contrast plant.



 Wilgas belong to the Rutaceae family. Like the other members (including citrus fruits), the crushed leaves release a very pleasant fragrance.


 

Wilgas are notoriously difficult to grow from seed.
Sarah Caldwell, who was a recent guest speaker at a Toowoomba Society for Growing Australian Plants meeting, said that the secret is to peel off the little black seed coats to remove the chemical that inhibits germination. I can’t wait to try it!
Other techniques used are to put seed-rich soil from under older plants into seed trays and water it. Older seeds which have lost their inhibitions will grow.
Or you can put fresh seeds in a muslin bag and hang it in a toilet cistern for a few months. The frequent changes of water are said to flush out the inhibiting chemicals.

This plant is very hardy to both frosts and droughts.


* For those who like to ponder on matters political, it is interesting that the Broadwater park has had a recent name change. Its status as a “Regional Park” is new. Until the Newman government was elected and decided to fiddle with nomenclature and other aspects of our environment protection laws, it was called the “Lake Broadwater Conservation Park”. Gazetted in 1881 to conserve the only large, naturally-occurring freshwater lake on the Darling Downs and its flora and fauna, it is a nationally important wetland.

It was an odd thing to do, to carefully remove the word “conservation” from the names of our state’s Conservation Parks. What were they thinking?
And why has the current Labor Government, which was so fiercely opposed to the raft of changes made by the Newman Government to Queensland’s Nature Conservation Act, not changed it back?
The ways of politicians are mysterious indeed.