Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Tropical plant dreaming (Plant Portrait IX*)


Botanical glasshouses are a place to dream. As are tea shops. Early in James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom stares through a window at a canister of tea from Ceylon, thinking:

... The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand's turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence on the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of Idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes. Hothouse in Botanic Gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves. Imagine trying to eat trip and cowheel …

Bloom/Joyce is musing on the tropics being the bounteous and slothful garden of the world. Good that a botanic gardens hothouse is mentioned. Joyce presumably had the one at Glasnevin, in Dublin, in mind so my first four images are of that conservatory, taken during a visit in June 2010.

The Conservatory at Glasnevin is a particular kind of glasshouse, one that is more about content than context. You enter to learn about tropical, and other plants, not to necessarily experience the tropics. This is as much a function of size and budget, as it is of intent - it takes a mighty lot of room and money to recreate even a mock tropical environment inside a house made of glass.

And there is nothing wrong with displays of this kind. Much of the plant collection in the glasshouses of Kew Gardens, and plenty of other leading botanic gardens around the world, is displayed like this. Visitors learn about particular species and about how plants they eat or grow in their garden once grew in liana ridden forests near the equator (or elsewhere). 



But even in Glasnevin it's not all plant diversity and straight laced displays. Here is picture deep into the glasshouse, with some tropical atmosphere and context.



At the other end of the spectrum we have glasshouses that are big on context and, usually quite deliberately, thin on content. I'll take the liberty of repeated two images from earlier posts, the first from South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, the other from Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. They are very much about creating an atmosphere and sense of being in a tropical forest. 

If you look beyond the mist and behind the waterfall, the plant selection is not particularly true to a rainforest of any kind or demonstrating any natural diversity or ecosystem. It's all about the vibe, as we Australians like to say - at least since the line was used with such impact in the film The Castle. The designers of these two glasshouses are quite aware and comfortable with this.























So.... what about here in Melbourne. Our rather plain and small Tropical House in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens is about content, albeit with a pretty design to bring the best out of the collection. We had someone recently describe it as their favourite place to visit in the city. They liked its dagginess I think. It is quaint and it does have a familiar and evocative feel about it, harking back to simple days. Nothing grand, nothing showy, understated...all the things we like in Australia. But...is that enough. Is it?

I have grand plans to build a new glasshouse in the Royal Botanic Gardens. I don't want a temple for botanists nor a tropical themed wallpaper. I want context and content. I'd like a place where people could gather and learn, perhaps over one of those great coffees I'm so keen on (a meeting place like no other, with a backdrop like that imagined by Mr Bloom in the Dublin tea shop). But also a place that brings the tropics (or some other place) to life, in all senses of that phrase.

Somehow this has to fit within the heritage landscape of the Royal Botanic Gardens, adding rather than subtracting from the spectacle (as does Guilfoyle's Volcano). It should also have a minimal impact on the environment through clever heating and cooling. I'm sure our bright minds at the Gardens will come up with a solution that does all this and more. If that 'more' includes the plants Rafflesia and Victoria in bloom, I shall be much pleased.

Images: for more pictures of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, see my post on various gardens from Ireland back in 2010. For more on South China Botanical Garden is my 2009 post and Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, my post earlier this year. Below is a bust of the author (of Ulysses, not this post) in the Martello Tower museum at Sandycove, near Dublin.



Tuesday, 12 August 2014

From mangroves to mountains, without either (yet)


The staff, Friends and many supporters of the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens will, in time, establish a mangrove grove in Lake Rosser as part of their grand plan to express every kind of vegetation from the Gold Coast to the green hills nearby. The lagoon at the other end of the gardens, pictured here, is already showing off some distinctive local plants, as well as an unwanted fern in the form of a Salvinia carpeting the water surface.

Lake Rosser, on the other hand, is an area 'ripe' for botanical improvement. You can see it this next picture, with some typical Gold Coast housing at the back. What you can't see is the 1.5 kilometre pathway behind me, already showing off a colourful butterfly garden and whispering she-oak forest (featured in the photographs at the end of this post).


For a botanic garden built on a coastal plain, creating a mountain is a tall order. Still, the gardens have a couple of vantage points, one with a demountable housing the Friends' offices and shop, plus a new coffee cart that I can recommend for a cup of Mexican, fair-trade beans turned into a very nice double ristretto (with a dash of hot milk…).


I was on the Gold Coast for the weekend as keynote speaker for the national conference of the Australian Friends of Botanic Gardens. There were about 100 of us there, from botanic gardens all over the country (although interestingly only two representatives from New South Wales, my friends the Fletchers from Orange).

The conference was a lovely mix of the practical (e.g. how to build a herbarium), the new (e.g. apps) and the whimsical (ah, that must be my talk on a new set of seasons for Australia). You can see the full program here.

The Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens is plonk in the middle of the extensive Gold Coast city, about six kilometres from the surf. It was opened in 2003 and I (first and) last visited in 2008, to plant a tree in what is now called the Curator’s Walk. I couldn’t remember which was my tree so got photographed next to a healthy looking Syzygium moorei which, as luck would have it (as confirmed by a photograph sent to me last night by Alan Donaldson; that's me with the shovel, and Lesley Kirby and Steve Forbes enjoying the incongruity of the situation) seems to have been the species and perhaps specimen I planted. Although I should add that other pictures show a bit of shared responsibility in the planting...

2014
 2008

Kate Heffernan (prominent at the conference) and fellow plant enthusiasts formed the Friends of the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens in 1989. This group is very much the driving force behind the garden, although they now have the support of a part-time curator funded by the Council, Liz Caddock (with a PhD from the Jodrell Laboratory at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew no less). Together they are bringing to life the landscape plan of Lawrie Smith, creative mind behind nearly all the regional botanic gardens as well as a couple in New South Wales (and even some later additions to the Singapore Botanic Gardens).

Only 11 years since their first community planting day the garden already contains plenty of fascinating species and interesting collections. The plans include an expansion of the local flora collections and an even greater emphasis on plants used by local Aboriginal communities. On the day I arrived there were a few hundred school students participating in the Drumley Walk, a project linked to fostering the local Yugambeh language, sure to feature strongly in the next Commonwealth Games (our conference started with the national anthem sung in Yugambeh and then English).


There are some trees they don’t want, like these Camphor Laurels, remnants of the farmland hedges (that’s why they are multi-stemmed from low down – lots of heavy pruning) and an environmental weed up this way. But mostly it’s about planting. Every Arbor Day, in particular, community groups gather to create yet another botanic display.

At 31 hectares and with such an enthusiastic Friends group - although the conference proves, if proof was needed, that similarly passionate groups exist all over Australia (and I know from experience that the lack of Friends from Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens doesn’t reflect any lack of passion or enthusiasm there) – there is the potential to do some great things here. Already it’s a must-see on the Queensland Botanic Trail.

Here a few pictures from the Mangrove to Mountains trail - the butterfly garden and the she-oak forest - and two snaps of a Brachychiton in flower and fruit. And no, I don't know whether this species is from coast or the mountains, or somewhere entirely different. I haven't even tried to identify it...too busy enjoying the botanic gardens.





Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Winter rose trades petals for cones of honey


Most hellebore flowers have no petals. My wife Lynda discovered this in her weekly botanical art class with Mali Moir run by the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

When you paint a flower, with accuracy, you tend to pick up details like this. To be fair Lynda had to seek professional advice on whether the ring of coloured flaps around the crowded stamens (the male bits) and nectaries were petals, sepals (the next layer outside) or perhaps bracts. My professional advice was that yes they most certainly were one of those and we should find some reliable reference.

The hellebore, or Winter Rose, is in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, so around the cluster of stamens you would expect to find petals. Instead there are a these odd cone-like structures.


This ring of nectaries, or honey leaves, is found in all wild species today. They resemble olympic torches or, as colleague Neville Walsh prefers it, ice-cream cones, and they contain sweet, bee-attracting, nectar. Here are a few more.


In the original hellebore flower these cones (or torches) were presumably petals because they are relatively easy to convert back to a pretty layer or two of these according to the owner of Post Office Farm Nursery in Woodend, Peter Leigh. His half hour tour of the nursery on the weekend was fascinating and revealed lots of variation in the nectary-come-petals, including these so-called anemone flowered hellebores which seem to be undecided.



To propagate hellebores you either divide the plant or collect seed. Dividing is slow and doesn't give you many plants. Seed can result in unwanted variability. So Peter Leigh hand pollinates plants in a bee-free shade house. This way he can keep the cultivars he likes as well as experiment a little.



It's a slow business. These seedlings only emerge nine months or so after the seed has been sown. The seed has to be sown fresh and then kept moist for that entire time. It will be another two years before they flower. Like this Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica, with nectaries as you can see.



Nearly all hellebores come from Europe and nearby Asia. There aren't many of them, maybe 17 species in total. There is this (next picture) single species from China, Helleborus thibetanus, from high mountains in the central part of the country. Unusually the plants are deciduous, in that they lose their leaves and become dormant after flowering. Although discovered by botanists and named in the nineteenth century this species only made it into cultivation in the UK in 1991 and presumably into Australia soon after.



To answer the original question, the big showy flaps on these flowers are sepals, the layer usually found outside the petals and often green in colour. In the hellebores the sepals do all the attracting of pollinators, along with cones full of lovely nectar. Except of course when breeders like Peter revert the nectaries back to petals.

To finish, a couple of hellebore flowers showing off their colourful sepals, one with cones, one without. The latter, you'll notice, has yellow petals that you and I would now most likely mistake for sepals.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Called for not calling a cabbage a cabbage


As Ben Shewry from Australia's top restaurant, Attica,  finished answering my question about foraging I swung around to survey Ripponlea's vegetable garden, tended by Ben and his kitchen crew. Lots of colourful Brassicaceae, I said, among other things.

The interview went well, at least from my perspective. Ben was loquacious and learned and when distilled to five minutes or made a nice little outdoor element to a pilot I'm working on (with Jim Fogarty) for Radio National, RN. More of that in a later post, if by chance it gets up.

When I returned to the studio with my recordings I listened through with Amanda Smith, our producer for the pilot. Amanda was positive but looked askew when we hit the word 'brassicaceae'. What's a brassicaceae she asked. Good question I said, confessing that after telling all my guests to avoid botanical names unless explained I had slipped up on this one.


Cabbages and the like is what I told Amanda. Brussels Sprouts (photographed here are a bunch from the Farmer's Market at Abbotsford Abbey), broccoli, cauliflower, mustard and, yes, cabbage. But also Arabidopsis the experimental plant of choice by many scientists, the weedy cresses and plain but threatened species such as Ballantinia antipoda, Southern Shepherd's Purse, on Mount Alexander (and pictured below in our nursery at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne).


Much to my own surprise I like most Brassicaceae and I've featured quite a few in my blog. I got to know them when I was writing taxonomic accounts for the Flora of Victoria, growing to love their tiny cruciate petals (the old family name was Cruciferae, after the cross-shaped arrangement of four petals).

The current wonder vegetable Kale is a Brassicaceae. It's a cultivated form of Brassica oleracea, as are Brussels Sprout, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. All variations on a theme.

Brassicaceae, as you've gathered from the membership list, are a big part of the human diet. They are generally considered to be the healthy part of a meal, carrying plenty of vitamins, fiber and minerals. DNA repairing chemicals, free radical protection and antioxidants are all ascribed to Brassicaceae. Sure some folks don't like the taste of them, but we all know they are good for us.

Stretching out in front of me at Ripponlea were some colourful cabbages. That's what I should have said, not Brassicaceae. Or better still, both. Then I could have educated, and entertained. Amanda Smith didn't really mind and in the final edit, if it ever goes to air, you'll hear me talk of Brassicaceae and other things.

Tim Entwisle

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Pea flower more canary than butterfly




This is a canary, and these are the flowers of the Canary-bird Bush.


You won't get the two confused but you can see, perhaps, the point of similarity in colour and bearing. With flowers this large and showy, a bright little bird is not a bad analogy. For a plant botherer like me you can't help but wonder anew at the form and function of a pea flower, often described as papillionate, or butterfly-like.

Some flowers of the pea family are more like butterflies than this one but it has the typical bilateral symmetry, where there is only one way you can slice it to create two identical (but mirrored) bits. We call this zygomorphic.

The big petal sticking out the top is commonly called the standard, or sometimes banner, and less commonly these days (unless you read obscure taxonomic journal articles) the vexillum. It's the part that when broad and notched in the middle (in other genera) can look a little like butterfly wings. Below this is the keel, formed by two narrow petals at least partly fused together along their length, flanked by two wing petals. The reproductive goodies are gathered together inside the keel.


In the flowers of this Crotalaria agatiflora, the Canary-bird Bush, from the highlands of tropical east Africa (and the Grey Garden in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens) the standard is spade-shaped, the wings quite small and like little tongues poking out the side of the brown tipped keel.

The Canary-bird Bush is just one of 700 or so species of Crotalaria, most of them native to Africa. Crotalaria is a member of the Papilionoideae subfamily of Fabaceae (or in some systems, simply the Fabaceae with the other subfamilies including cassias and wattles pulled up to family level).

As I said, the flowers are zygomorphic, as are most in the subfamily. There are a only a few with more complicated symmetry, e.g. the asymmetrical Vigna caracalla, the Snail or Corkscrew Vine (its flowers have weird curly bits but you'd probably still recognise these as variations on the papilionoid theme).

Pollination in papillionate flowers is usually 'brush type', where the male and female parts emerge from the keel in response to the insect rummaging inside the flower for nectar. In all my pictures the stamens and styles (male and female bits respectively) are well hidden, waiting perhaps forlornly in Australia for butterflies and bees heavy enough to part the keel.

The colour, the drama, and the size are all about attracting the pollinator and presumably guiding it to the bits that matter. I'm not sure about the dark brown spur on the keel but I bet that guides the insects in some way so that they assist the plant in its pollination.


Finally, the source of these flowers, our Crotalaria bush, a green bush with yellowish green flowers, nestled among grey plants in the Grey Garden. We also grow it in a couple of other places in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Up north, and even in far eastern Victoria, you might find it growing weedy in the bush: it's naturalised widely in the Southern Hemisphere, even in cooler countries such as New Zealand. So beware and be careful if you grow it, but do enjoy its papillionate, or canary-like, floral display.

Images all from the Grey Garden in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, except for the Canary, which is borrowed from LafeberVet.com

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The deceptively dainty Sichuan Pepper causes a pleasant vibration


After the euphoria of our Gold Medal and Best in Show award at Hampton Court Flower Garden Show last week (and thanks for all the congratulatory tweets, emails and facebook posts) it's a return to a single species (or two) rather than a landscape. I took these pictures at the Dainty Sichuan restaurant in Toorak, an inner suburb of Melbourne (and the others at home after a little shopping), a few months back. We were treated to dinner by son Jerome, and his Sichuan-born wife Hao who knows her Sichuan Peppers. Her friends in Chongqing grew their own plants for their not so dainty (in a heat and spice sense) dishes.

These days most of us have eaten Sichuan Pepper fruits and experienced the tongue tingling sensation of 'sanshool'. Apparently, sanshool vibrates rather than tingles, causing a sensation equivalent to '50 taps per second'. Much like, again apparently, holding a vibrator to you lips.

Quite different to our table pepper and to chili pepper(s), although there are plenty of the latter in most Sichuan dishes as well (I remember one we had a few months back that consisted of 90% chili, 9% Sichuan Pepper and something else I can't now remember).


There is no point arguing over what is real pepper and what is not, or what was the first 'pepper'. That's what universities are for. Hadyn Druce's 2013 Master's thesis at the University of Sydney is a good place as any to learn about 'true' and 'false' peppers. According to Druce (and he uses an academically accepted and peer-refereed definition) true pepper comes from the fruit of a Piper species.

Piper nigrum (Black Pepper, from all over the tropics) is the most common source, but the Romans started it all with Piper longum (Long Pepper, from India originally). Druce lists 20 Piper species used to season food around the world. You'll most likely have black pepper on your dinner table, and given the sophistication of my Talking Plants readers I'm sure it is in some kind of grinding device.

False pepper comes from all over the plant kingdom, including the fruits of our favourite suburban and homestead tree, the Peppercorn Tree (Schinus molle), and the leaves and fruit of the Australian native Tasmannia. Chili (Capsicum) is quite different and not included by Druce as a pepper.

At the end of Druce's (alphabetical) list of 25 false peppers is Zanthoxylum piperitum and a few other species in this genus, all gathered together under the common name of Sichuan Pepper. Most species are native to China and Taiwan and its the fruit we eat.


I like Sichuan Pepper for the extra tingle (the 'ma') it gives to a spicy meal already fired up with chilli. So to do many Chinese. The two most commonly used species of Zanthoxylum are colour coded: Red Sichuan (Zanthoxylum bungeanum) and Green Sichuan (Zanthoxylum schinifolium - with a leaf like the Peppercorn Tree it seems).

Red Sichuan is native to the south-west of China, and would be the one Hao's friends grow and use. Green Sichuan grows further east and extends into Japan and Korea. These and other species of Zanthoxylum are also used to kill bugs and reduce inflamation, and (according to Druce) they appear in 'various skin care products'. A species native to North America, helpfully called Zanthoxylum americanum, is called the Toothache Tree - which I understand it soothes rather than causes. With its ability to cause a vibrating sensation, Scientists are hopeful Sichuan Pepper itself will help us better understand, and treat, the tingling associated with some chronic pain.

As to the botanical relationships of Sichuan Pepper, with such a pungent flavour and aroma you won't be surprised to learn its in the family Rutaceae, with things like citrus and boronias. Black Pepper is in the Piperaceae with not much else apart from the common garden ground-cover Peperomia.

Can you grow Sichuan Pepper in Melbourne? I doubt it. You also can't grow Black Pepper, so in southern Australia we are stuck with growing Capsicum (in the tomato and potato family, Solanaceae).


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

#EssenceOfAus ready for Showtime!


You can tweet your enthusiasm for our Hampton Court Palace Flower Show garden from anywhere on our planet using hashtag #EssenceOfAus, causing a ripple of pride in this small pond, in the Essence of Australia garden, in Hampton Court Palace, in London, UK, Earth, Universe etc.

After more than two weeks of carpentry, landscaping and planting, this patch of dirt (three weeks ago)...


...is nearly ready for the judges. This is what it looked like on Sunday, just after we finished adding the red stone and sand (carefully, like the reverse of an archaeological site dig).



For more pictures of the garden see the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne website, Facebook page or twitter feed (@RBG_Melbourne or @TimEntwisle). Or if we win a prize, hopefully you'll see it featured in a visual media outlet near you.

As this post goes to air, the awards will just have been announced (Monday afternoon London time, very early Tuesday morning Melbourne time). I'm either celebrating or downplaying the importance of awards with our (no matter what the verdict) prize-winning team. The decision was based on how well the garden 'meets the brief' so while you check social or other media for the decision, here is the intent.


The design was inspired by the Rainbow Serpent – an iconic creature from Aboriginal culture often seen in art and of continuing relevance today – with a nod to the Australian Garden at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne. (The Rainbow Serpent features in Aboriginal dreamtime stories and is credited with forming the mountains, ridges and gorges as it emerged from beneath the ground.)

Towards the rear of the garden is a shelter that, as Jim Fogarty puts it, reflects "the simple, clean and stylish lines symbolic of contemporary Melbourne". The structure also references inland rock formations of the Northern Territory such as Uluru and the MacDonnell Ranges. The charcoal timber blades symbolise the water that cascades off these rock features when it rains, providing nourishment for Australia’s flora and fauna.

As visitors to the garden follow the Rainbow Serpent deck, they are asked to reflect on the natural attractions and landscapes of Australia, including rock seams and outcrops, where, again as Jim puts it "the endless roads delve deeper into rich aboriginal culture, red sands, and an amazing array of Australian plants". The deck includes a ford crossing, commonly found on outback roads that flood in the wet season.

It was also our intent to demonstrate, again, the beauty of the Australian flora and to use plants that are not hard to source in the UK. Some are hardy and should be grown more widely over here (the gum trees, westringia, and some of the grevilleas and bottle brushes), others would need some mollycoddling in winter (kangaroo paws, emu bushes), and a few will always be annuals (paper daisies, brachyscome). You can find out more about a few of them in my previous four posts.

Almost all the construction materials can be recycled, or reused, and all were sourced in the UK or nearby (the plants are from Spain and will be donated to Kew Gardens at the end of the show).

And in case you were wondering, this is the team that brought the Essence of Australia to Hampton Court Palace Flower Show:
Design - Jim Fogarty
Hard landscape: Landform
Plants: Hortus Loci
Planting - Chris Russell (Director, Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne), John Arnott (Manager, Horticulture, Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne), Russell Gibb (Coordinator, Horticulture; Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne), Kajsa Bjorne, Tom Harfleet, Peter Wilkins and Jane Wilkins
Rippling billabong: Tom Harfleet with help from Lincoln University
Fundraising and promotion - Ken Harrison (Chairman, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria Board)
Scribe and other things - Tim Entwisle.
Plus a 'ground team' in Melbourne led by Susannah Jepson (Coordinator, Marketing (Events) at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne) under the guidance of Acting Director and CEO Jenny Steinicke, with Katie O'Brien and Robyn Merrett chasing up media. The whole caboodle was sponsored by Tourism Victoria, NT Tourism, Qantas, Trailfinders and us, the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

Thanks!

The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show starts today (Tuesday 8 July).

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

An Australian arboreal grass


Next week, show time! I'm in London now, at Hampton Court Palace, doing what Director's should do at this stage in the build - staying out of the way.

This gives me time to talk up Australian plants, the Australian Garden at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne and even a little time to talk about Australian seasons, priming the British audience for my 1 September launch of Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia's Changing Seasons.

While I do all that, here's my final plant selection from the show garden, the grass tree. We only have three individuals, all Xanthorrhoea johnsonii, a species named in honour of Lawrie Johnson, Director of Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney from 1972 to 1985.

Johnson’s Grass Tree as it's called, grows naturally in north-eastern New South Wales and up into eastern Queensland. As you'd imagine from that sub-tropical range, it would need to be tucked up indoors to survived a UK winter.

There are 28 species of Xanthorrhoea, all of them native to Australia. The trunks (above or below ground) are often blackened by fire; fire which they need to flower and set seed. They used to be called Black Boys due to their fire-blackened trunk but this name is, at the very least, disrespectful to the first inhabitants of Australia.

These days we call most of them Grass Trees because that's very much what they look like. They are in their own plant family, within an higher group (an order) called Asparagales. They are also 'monocots', like grass, lilies and asparagus.

There are some magnificent grass-trees in both Royal Botanic Gardens in Victoria (Melbourne and Cranbourne). The five multi-branched Xanthorrhoea malacophylla (native to north-eastern NSW) on the lawns of RBG Melbourne are more than a century old. All of them exceed two metres in height, something rarely achieved in the wild.


In the Australian Garden at Cranbourne there is a charming clump of grass trees off the Eucalypt Walk, on west side of the Red Sand Garden. These are the same species as in our show garden, Xanthorrhoea johnsonii.


Where I can I've highlighted culinary and other uses of the Australian flora in my four Hampton Court Flower Show posts. In this case resin in the stem and at the base of leaves makes a useful adhesive. The botanical name of the Grass Tree in fact comes from the Greek ‘xanthos’ (yellow) and ‘rheo’ (to flow), a reference to this product.

Aboriginal people across Australia use Grass Tree resin to make tools, weapons and other implements. The resin melts when heated but sets hard when cool, so it's great for cementing stone axeheads to wooden handles and spear tips to spear shafts.

Like many other nectar-rich Australian flowers, particularly those conveniently clustered closely together like banksias and bottlebrushes, the flowers of the Grass Tree can be sucked, or soaked in water to make sweet drink (which like Cider Gum sap, can be fermented).

The soft, white leaf bases and growing tip are also edible, but removing the latter will kill the plant. Given it takes many decades to get a trunk the size of the specimens in our show garden, and a century or more to get to the size of the ones in Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, this is not recommended.

Images: the grass trees featured are, in the order they appear, Xanthorrhoea australis (I think) near the Grampians/Gariwerd, Xanthorrhoea malacophylla on Eastern Lawn in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne (taken by Jim Fogarty, featuring yours truly), and Xanthorrhoea johnsonii in the Australian Garden at Royal Botanic Garden Cranbourne.