Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Boobialla misprounced, misapplied and misleading

The Creeping Boobialla sounds like some kind of stalking pervert, or maybe a scatty bird of some kind. In fact it's a local Aborginal name now applied to most species in the plant genus Myoporum. This is one of them.

According to Anthropologist Philip Clarke, boobialla was originally use by Tasmanian Aboriginal people for the Coastal Wattle (Acacia longiflolia subspecies sophorae), whose roasted seed they ate. Originally it was pronounced more like 'bubiala'.

Europeans started to apply the name to another genus of plant with mostly edible fruits, Myoporum, which they - with typical metaphoric and wildly inaccurate longing - also called the Native Juniper. Some of the Myoporum species, such as Myoporum insulare, are not unlike the Coast Wattle in leaf.

Scientists prefer to call the plant I've illustrated here Myoporum parvifolium. The species name means small leaves, which it has, both relative to other boobiallas and also in the plant kingdom more generally. The genus name (Myoporum) means closed pores and is a reference to these warty oil glands on the leaf surface.

Oil glands seem to be a mechanism for plants to excrete a waste product, possibly with subsidiary benefits such as attracting pollinators or fending off pests. The crushed leaves of the Creeping Boobialla smell mildly unpleasant, but only a little (unpleasant and smelly).

Oils, when retained in the plant, can make leaves more flammable, which is sometimes a good thing (from the plant's perspective). The Creeping Boobialla is actually recommended as a plant for fire-prone areas due to its fleshy (succulent) leaves - I tried and couldn't set alight the leaves.

So I don't really know what the glands are for, or why or how the oil is produced, only that there doesn't seem to be much oil retained by the leaf and it would seem unlikely to have much value attracting or dissuading insects. Although...all parts of the plant are apparently poisonous to humans.

There are 30 species of Myoporum, just over half (16) growing naturally in Australia, the rest in Pacific Islands and eastern Asia. Myoporum is closely related to, and sometimes classified in the same family as the emu bush, Eremophila, even though the flowers are more symmetrical in Myoporum. The Creeping Boobialla is particularly hardy species, so much so that it is one of the most commonly used root stocks for grafting emu bush.

Our two bushes at home (photographed here in December) have, as you can see, flowers white (albeit with a pink tinge) with purple specks to guide the pollinating insects towards the centre of the flower. There is also a (fully) pink-flowered form in cultivation but that colouration, I presume, has more to do with attracting gardeners, who can touch but not eat.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The deceptive world of the bladderwort

Don't be fooled by this picture. Like some orchids, bladderworts produce flowers that mimic a female insect. Or so it seems.

That said, the species I've illustrated here, Utricularia multifida* from Northcliffe in Western Australia, isn't one of the deceptive species so this is a double bluff from me. Sorry. But it does look so pretty en masse...

I've posted before on bladderworts, but it's worth a quick update before I head into the sexually deceptive tendencies of their flowers. These days there are thought to be about 230 species of Utricularia, all them producing small suction traps (bladders) on their roots to catch insects. Like other carnivorous plants (e.g. the Albany Pitcher Plant) the bladderwort extracts nitrogen and so on from the diseased bugs, allowing the plant to live in nutrient-poor soils

The bladderwort flower you are most likely to see in Australia has two small petals fused into knob at the top and the remaining three petals fused into a fringed apron of some kind, leading to their other common name of Fairy Apron or Fairies' Aprons. Utricularia tenella, also found in Victoria, is a good example.

But the flowers of different species vary considerably in size and structure, depending on whether the pollinator is a bee, butterfly, gnat or hummingbird. The flower that interests Polish botanist Bartosz Płachno (who spent some time at the Melbourne Gardens last year) and his colleagues, is that of Utricularia dunlopii from Tropical Australia.

In this beautiful image from Nicole Ribbert's 'Utricularean' site you can see how different the flower is from its aproned relatives. The two long threads sticking upwards are appendages from the upper petals and the three smaller ones from the lower.

At microscopic scale these appendages are covered in glandular hairs, which Płachno says may be involved in production of seductive (to a fly) perfumes. The flowers are hypothesised to be attractive to male flies who cross-pollinate them by attempting copulation first with one flower, then the next, transferring the pollen.

Now the flower of this bladderwort doesn't look a lot like any fly I know, and no one has observed pollination taking place, but the colour and overall form are similar to flowers where 'pseudocopulation' has been proven. Supporting evidence comes from the absence of a nectar reward (that is, there must be some mechanism at work to attract an insect!)

So from this recent work we can't rule sexual deception and pseudocopulation in or out (so to speak) but until someone observes these plants doing their thing in the field we can't be sure.

What we do know (again thanks to Bartosz Płachno and friends) about this and all other bladderwort species is their traps are home to various algae. Here's a stunning picture published last year by ScienceNews showing the artificially coloured contents of a bladderwort trap, featuring at the right-hand side a clump of Maltese-cross and disk-like desmids.

Many of the algae are deceived (or more accurately, sucked in) but it seems that a few at least continue to have happy and productive lives inside the trap. The blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) - which could fix nitrogen for the plant - seem to be stressed into producing 'akinetes' which are one of the ways they tough out hard times and propagate the species. Not quite copulation, pseudo or otherwise, but yet another complex inter-kingdom relationship involving a bladderwort.

*Note: In the original post I identified the Western Australian species as Utricularia tenella. In a comment added on 6 February 2016, 'quiet1_au' said "I think your Utricularia tenella is actually multifida? They'll always be Polypompholyx to me...". Greg Bourke, carnivorous plant guru at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah, says (on 9 February 2016) "Almost certainly Utricularia multifida. However, Utricularia tenella can produce fairly large flowers, especially around Albany. U. multifida can produce small flowers too, almost resembling Utricularia tenella. With this in mind, you can be forgiven for confusing the two taxa." I didn't even have to beg for it, but all is forgiven!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Trees as a muse (Talking Plants on the Wireless VI)

Relax, it's the last time you'll read this, but do continue to rest your eyes and entertain your ears for another week. Over the last six weeks Talking Plants moved itself to the (Australian) national broadcaster, ABC Radio National (RN), for a summer series. While summer is not over, normal broadcasting resumes this coming weekend.

As it happens, if you listen to RN  at 10 am next Saturday you'll hear the first of an occasional, pop-up series, In Season. RN's resident bird man, Matthew Crawford and I, talk about the weather and whether or not the weather is changing, among other things.

Also next week, I'll be back with my regular blogging, staring with a Bladderwort....

Until then, if you missed the last summer show of Talking Plants on Saturday, you can download a podcast or listen on-line on the RN website.

Guests for this week's final episode
Ashley Hay: Journalist and author (e.g. Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their ChampionsHerbarium (with Robyn Stacey) and most recently The Railwayman's Wife). Ashley is fond of gum trees, such as the one above..
Gordon Morrison: Director of Ballarat Art Gallery and enthusiast for the family Araucariaceae (things like the Wollemi Pine, Hoop Pine and 13 species that grow in New Caledonia).
Michael Leunig: pictured below in the Melbourne Gardens of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, but speaking in this show from his local bush regeneration site, where he singles out the River Red Gum (photograph at top of this post) as a favourite. For more about Michael and his love of trees, and planting trees, see the RN homepage (duplicated for your reading pleasure on the other blog, Talking Plants Too)

And regular guest, Jim Fogarty (here with the wonderfully talented producer of the series, Amanda Smith, and me).

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Should Australian gardens be natural or contrived? (Talking Plants on the Wireless V)

Rest your eyes and entertain your ears. For six weeks Talking Plants moves to the (Australian) national broadcaster, ABC Radio National, for another summer series.

I'll be back blogging in the first week of February 2016, but until then take a listen to Talking Plants 'the Radio Show', broadcast on ABC RN at 10 am every Saturday from 19 December 2015 to 23 January 2016. 

You can also podcast or stream from the RN website.

Guests this week
Kate Cullity: Partner in Taylor Cullity Lethlean, landscape architect company with main office in Adelaide.
Sam Cox: of Sam Cox Landscape, a Victorian based landscape architect company. 
Professor Steve Hopper: pictured below in the Cranbourne Gardens of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, but in the show speaking from his Western Australian home garden at Goode Beach (above; with wife Chris Hopper on the beach itself). For the full story about my visit to Steve's garden, in written words, see the RN homepage (duplicated for your reading pleasure on the other blog, Talking Plants Too)
And regular guest, Jim Fogarty.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Faking it with plants (Talking Plants on the Wireless IV)

Rest your eyes and entertain your ears. For six weeks Talking Plants moves to the (Australian) national broadcaster, ABC Radio National, for another summer series.

I'll be back blogging in the first week of February 2016, but until then take a listen to Talking Plants 'the Radio Show', broadcast on ABC RN at 10 am every Saturday from 19 December 2015 to 23 January 2016. 

You can also podcast or stream from the RN website.

Guests this week
Tom Donohue: Managing Director of Bradford Potter, the only Australian manufacturer of silk flowers.
Chris Kooijman: from Royal Grass, manufacturers of artificial turf.
Elaine Musgrove: pictured above in her botanical art studio. For the story behind the In the Garden chat, see my post on the RN homepage (duplicated for your reading pleasure on the other blog, Talking Plants Too).
And regular guest, Jim Fogarty.

What's the song heralding in all the talk? Think fake plastic trees, think Radiohead, and also think Christopher O'Riley doing Radiohead. You get the real thing plus a fake, all in the one show.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Plants to save the world (Talking Plants on the Wireless III)

Rest your eyes and entertain your ears. For six weeks Talking Plants moves to the (Australian) national broadcaster, ABC Radio National, for another summer series.

I'll be back blogging in the first week of February 2016, but until then take a listen to Talking Plants 'the Radio Show', broadcast on ABC RN at 10 am every Saturday from 19 December 2015 to 23 January 2016. 

You can also podcast or stream from the RN website.

Guests this week
Professor Marilyn Anderson: Laboratory head of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science and recently the co-recipient of the Ramaciotti Biomedical Research Award.
Dr Paul Reddell: Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer at EcoBiotics.
Yumi Sakauchi: Pictured above, in the Milson Park Community Garden. A summary of my chat with Sakauchi has also been posted on the RN homepage (duplicated for your reading pleasure on the other blog, Talking Plants Too)
And regular guest, Jim Fogarty.

Plus...this week only...a very brief appearance by Matt Damon, playing the best botanist on the planet Mars...

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Can plants really talk? (Talking Plants on the Wireless II)

Rest your eyes and entertain your ears. For six weeks Talking Plants moves to the (Australian) national broadcaster, ABC Radio National, for another summer series.

I'll be back blogging in the first week of February 2016, but until then take a listen to Talking Plants 'the Radio Show', broadcast on ABC RN at 10 am every Saturday from 19 December 2015 to 23 January 2016. 

You can also podcast or stream from the RN website.

Guests this week
Associate Professor Monica Gagliano: Centre for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Western Australia. Hi Monica.
Emeritus Professor Robyn Overall: Chair of Women in Science, at University of Sydney and botanist.
Jayde Caldwell: Listen to this week's episode to hear Jayde talk and his cactus collection (pictured above), and read more on the RN Homepage (repeated for your reading pleasure on the other blog, Talking Plants Too).
And regular guest, Jim Fogarty.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Learning to love invasive weeds (Talking Plants on the Wireless I)

For the next six weeks, rest your eyes and entertain your ears. Talking Plants moves to the (Australian) national broadcaster, ABC Radio National, for another summer series.

I'll be taking a short holiday break from weekly blogging, and posting instead a link to the most recent episode of Talking Plants 'the Radio Show'.

This second summer series (the first ran last summer) is broadcast on ABC RN at 10 am every Saturday from 19 December 2015 to 23 January 2016, or ... available soon after to podcast or stream from the RN website. Episode 1 (Learning to love invasive plants) is available now!

Guests this week
Fred Pearce: Fred writes for The Guardian and New Scientist and he’s author of a fascinating and disconcerting book called The New Wild: Why Invasive Species will be Nature's Salvation. [I don't know that I'm converted to a weed-infested utopia (to oversimplify and trivialise Fred's thesis grossly) but I am trying to view all plants dispassionately and eliminate unnecessary biases - and that's a good thing! Besides all that Fred Pearce is a pleasure to read and I like to be challenged.]
Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert: Research Associate at the University of New England in northern New South Wales.
Georgina Reid: see a story I posted in this blog a few weeks ago called Trees of Death, and an updated (and improved, by Producer Amanda Smith) version on the ABC RN website, When I die, please bury me (repeated for your reading pleasure on the other blog, Talking Plants Too).
Regular guest, Jim Fogarty

Image: Me in the studio, sitting opposite regular guest (and photographer) Jim Fogarty. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Christmas lantern a leafless plant in bud

A Christmas Lantern from the plant world! It's a flower bud, less than a centimetre long, produced by a plant with no leaves and never rising above the leaf litter. The Christmas conundrum is, how does it do it?

There are two main ways a leaf-less plant can survive in nature. Unlike a fungus, a flowering plant can't generate it's own food directly from discarded or dead parts of other plants and animals; that is, it can't be a true saprophyte.

The most common survival method is to attach itself to another plant and become a parasite (or perhaps like a mistletoe, a hemiparasite, where you keep some leaves and do a bit of the hard lifting yourself).

The other is to cosy up with a fungus, which we call mycoheterotrophy. In this relationship the plant's food and nutrients come from the fungus, which gets them from somewhere else such as decaying organic matter or another plant.

I've been lucky, or unlucky, enough to see an extraordinary example of each in bud, but not if full bloom. Lucky to see them at all, but unlucky to not experience the full unfurling of the flower.

The extraordinary parasite was Rafflesia keithii, a bud or two of which I saw on the Crocker Range, near Koto Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Saba, on the island Borneo. I was on a family holiday in 2004 and these are the closest we got to seeing what at up to one metre across is arguably one of the largest flowers in the world.

Surprisingly, Rafflesia is in the family Euphorbiaceae along with things like Poinsettia and rubber trees, but that doesn't tell you much about its life strategy. The seed of a Rafflesia germinates on its host, a species of the tropical vine Tetrastigma, possibly depending also on fungal partners to get going. The parasite sends out threads that penetrate into the woody stem of the host and spread throughout the vine.

At flowering time the parasite bursts through the barker outer later and produces a cabbage like swelling. From my reading of Rafflesia of the World published in 2001, and a little web surfing, it seems we still don't know much about what happens between germination and flower bud initiation. Pertinent to this post, though, we do know the bud gets its food directly from the host plant.

At the other end of the flower size spectrum for leafless plants are these little raspberry like flowers, called Fairy Lanterns, or Thismia. There is only one species of Thismia in Victoria and it seems to be scattered here and there in deeply shaded forest. It's a mycoheterotroph, living its whole life beneath the leaf litter and getting food from another plant species, but indirectly... When the seed germinates it has to be in contact with an appropriate fungal species, which then becomes it's permanent life support system.

That fungus already has a mutually beneficial relationship with nearby trees (it's called a mycchorizal partner) so the carbohydrates that end up fueling the Thismia originate in a nearby tree, with the fungus effectively providing a transport system between the two plants.

In the case of the Thismia rodwayi buds I saw this year, in November, that tree was mostly likely the Musk Daisy Bush, Olearia argophylla. The Thismia flowers, when they open, are most likely pollinated by insects rummaging through the leaf litter. The seed is presumably spread by the same bugs, or perhaps by marsupials.

With four other genera Thisma is now generally included in the family Thismiaceae, rather than Burmanniaceae, and despite my earlier post on Thismia, thought to be not particularly close to the orchid family. Which is fine because it does seem to have little to do with orchids, other than being the kind of plant with a flower you might spend a day looking for but return home strangely comforted by some beautiful images of leaves and buds.

Images: the Thismia bud pictures are from the Otway Ranges on 3 November 2015, under the guidance of Neville Walsh (with his head down here searching for a flower under the leaf litter), the Rafflesia buds from the Rafflesia Centre at Tambunin, Saba, taken in July 2004.

Coming up: For the next six weeks you can listen to Talking Plants (or something like it) on Radio National. I'll post a reminder each week here, listing guests and topics, and you can listen or podcast from the RN Talking Plants website.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Similar but different in the south-west, a pair of Dasypogonaceae

I'm milking the last from my sprinter (August) visit to Western Australia with two plants that are not quite what they look like. You might think the top one is a grass tree, and the other is not unlike the Queen of Sheba sun orchid I featured a few weeks ago. They might also look like they are unrelated to one another, but it turns out they are, related.

What we have here are two members of the plant family Dasypogonaceae, Kingia and Calectasia. Kingia is the grass tree look alike and Calectasia a small shrub with the most vivid of flowers.

In the case of Kingia I'm reminded of John Lydon singing 'This is not a love song' back in 1983. In that case the ditty by Public Image Limited was pretty clearly not a love song. In this case Kingia is something we still might like to call a grass tree - it has the grassy bits atop a trunk of sorts.

But the 'true', 'typical' or 'usual' grass tree is Xanthorrhoea with its spear-like flower stalk rising well above the tufty leaves. Kingia has a few short pom-pom-like flower clusters rising not far above the leaves and is not botanically close to Xanthorrhoea. The favoured common name is simply Kingia or Bullanock (and never Black Gin which is quite sensibly, along with Black Boy for Xanthorrhoea, considered in appropriate and offensive today).

Bullanock is only found in the south-west while there are species of Xanthorrhoea in the east and west. Both grow here near Pemberton.

Calectasia is a more diverse genus than Kingia, although for a long time it was assumed there was only a single species. The flowers are usually purplish with a metallic sheath, offset by fingers of bright yellow clustered in the centre.

The flowers of Calectasia grandiflora (Tinsel Lily) and Thelymitra variegata (Southern Queen of Sheba orchid) are similar and the orchid may be mimicking the tinsel lily in an attempt to trick visiting insects into thinking it has nectar to offer (but not putting any energy into producing energy so pollinating by deception). Here is the lily and then the orchid, both photographed in the Stirling Range.

Kingia and Calectasia both resemble other, unrelated species. On the other hand, while it's difficult to find any similarities between the two of them they are in the same plant family, called the Dasypogonaceae. 'Dasypogon' means something like a hairy beard.

The Dasypogonaceae is an odd little family with four genera. Its namesake, Dasypogon, is a genus of three species from south-west Western Australia, with pom-pom like flower heads (in form not unlike those of Kingia).  Kingia has this one species, Kingia australis, only found in south-west.

Calectasia these days has 10 species in the south-west and one in the east, and as you've seen the flowers are colourful, big and produced singly (although often in clusters on the plant). The fourth genus, Baxteria, has only a single species, from the south-west. It too has single flowers but fairly non-descript. This is Calectasia grandiflora in the Stirling Range.

Apart from that one species of the tinsel lily genus, Calectasia, all Dasypogonaceae are from the far south-west corner of Australia. Otherwise it's hard to find much they have in common. In the most recent classification based on molecular sequencing, the so-called APGIII (2009), the authors were still unclear about what to include in the Dasypogonaceae, and this remains the case today (2015).

Eventually, these genera might be combined with another order once the relationships are clearer (i.e. what is its nearest relative). But for now it's a convenient little dumping ground for plants mostly only found in the south-west and including these two distinctive genera.

What we can say is that Calectasia and Kingia have a common ancestor shared with a few other south-west Western Australian endemics and can be considered close relatives in an evolutionary sense. Otherwise, though, they still don't much look the same.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Coconut Palm, just like a woman

Just over five years ago I used this image to top a post about leaves farting in the sun. It was appropriately scatological for a story about plants breaking wind (which might be a good name for a television series one day) but today I want you to focus on the palm tree as I make the case for a Coconut Palm being like a woman.

Rest assured this isn't some Carry on up the Coconut routine, where I compare naughty bits of a plant with naughty bits of a human - that's better done with the Coco de Mer anyway. No, I just want to explore a comment made by friend of a friend about the similarity in what we might call their fertility cycles. Not monthly cycles but over the life of the palm and the woman.

Palms can live for a few decades, or up to 150 years or more, depending on the species. They tend to not live as long as 'true trees' which, as I have argued, can be theoretically immortal. In this cartoon, from In Praise of Plants, French botanist Francis Hallé illustrates what an animal might look like if it did with its waste what a long-lived plant does. That is, turn it into a sturdy trunk, or in the case of a palm, a trunk-like stem.

A palm is a grass- or lily-like organism that has developed a rather sturdy stalk, perhaps better termed a stem than a trunk. There is usually a single growing point at the top and a palm can't repair or send out laterals anywhere else. So if you damage the stem of a palm it stays damaged. If you kill or remove the growing point at the top of the stem (where the fronds emerge) you kill either the whole plant or if a clumping form, that particular stem.

So far nothing manly or womanly about all this. But when you consider the fertility and longevity of one of the best known palms, the Coconut Palm (Cocus nucifera), that's when things start to get spooky. The received wisdom is that the Coconut Palm can live to about 100 years. Fruit production (fertility) peaks around 20-40 years, tapering off from then on until it become infertile entirely about about age 70 years.

I appreciate it's a gratuitous and rather meaningless comparison but this cycle, you'll notice, is not unlike that of a female human. You could even say, as Bob Dylan might have put it, a Coconut Palm makes love just like a woman. Perhaps.
Coconut palms start life as a cluster of leaves. After about five years, the trunk forms, and the first flowers and coconuts are produced. Fruit production increases as the tree matures, peaking at between 20-40 years of age, at which point a healthy tree will produce 50 to 200 coconuts per year, depending on the cultivar. After that, the amount of coconuts produced by a single palm tree gradually diminishes, dropping off entirely around age 70. Barring diseases or other health concerns, the tree may live to see 100 years or more.

Read more : http://www.ehow.com/info_10020031_life-span-coconut-tree.html

Let me end briefly with the fruit of the palm's labour, coconuts. The coconut we consume is a large seed extracted from a fibrous case. When intact, the fruit of the Coconut Palm travels around the world on the surface of the ocean and in boats, starting somewhere in East Asia and ending up in 89 countries throughout the tropics.

It has been shown that wind and water can push the fruit along at around 40 kilometes a day, meaning it would take seven months (about 210 days) to travel from one side of the Pacific to the other. Not too far shy of the 9-month human pregnancy. Sadly for the windy-floaty hypothesis, coconuts not only can't stay buoyant for this long but the seawater they take in kills the seed within the first 110 days.

They could island jump, perhaps, but it's considered more likely Coconut Palms traveled the word thanks to humans - men and women - who found the coconut a highly portable source of food and water. These days you find Coconut Palms growing where you find humans (or evidence of where they once were).

With more more than 12 million hectares of Coconut Palms grown today, there is one hectare for every woman in Australia. Now that's a frivolous fact.

Thanks to Neville Walsh for suggesting this topic. The coloured drawing and seed germinating on the beach are from Wikipedia. The yellow kayak is mine, being paddled on the western edge of the Pacific, and the family with the coconut also mine, on the edge of Dunk Island in 2001.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

West Australian heath a big inspiration

This is the Tassel Flower, yet another species you'll only find growing naturally in south-west Western Australia. It's not immediately obvious what kind of plant it is. I saw it growing on the forest flora near Beedelup Falls, thinking at first it was a weed of some kind.

Whether weed or native I struggled to put it into a genus or even a family. Before I saw the flowers I wondered it it might be some kind of bamboo or even palm. Even with flowers it didn't quite register with me at first. The flowers are small and I thought the petal-like parts might by in two whorls of three (i.e. six), making it perhaps a 'monocot' or lily of some kind.

Only when my wife Lynda, who complements my botanical knowledge well (i.e. often knows more than me!), said it looked a bit like the heaths you see in the Grampians did it twig (so to speak). I also recounted the floral bits finding them to be five rather than six.

Once in the right family, Ericaceae (in the part of this family that used to be Epacridaceae), I could easily track it down to Leucopogon verticillatus, the Tassel Flower. It's described in FloraBase as a 'bamboo-like shrub', so my first reactions were sound.

The flowers typically have a pink tube with the lobes white and bearded on the inside. The plants I photographed had flowers half strong pink/red and half pale, almost split down the middle, and presumably hairy inside (I have to confess I didn't look and its not obvious in my pictures). Leucopogon means 'white beard' and almost all species have flowers bearing tiny white hairs on their inside.

But it's an unusual looking heath and an unusual looking Leucopogon. At up to four metres high, the Tassel Flower is the largest Leucopogon species in Australia and the tallest epacrid (heath) in Western Australia. So it's a biggun.

The structure, with the long separated whorls of 'bamboo-like' leaves is also unusual. According to iNaturalist and plenty of other sites repeating the same line, it's distinctive form and similarity to bamboo made it the first Western Australian (plant?) export to Japan, for use in ikebana.

Engineers seem attracted similarly by its geometry. The design of the Tree Top Walk in the Valley of the Giants (a couple of hours south-east from Beedelup Falls) was apparently inspired in part by the Tassel Flower, with the pylon platforms (below) owing their form to this heath and the connections in between to a local sedge, Lepidosperma effusum.

Back in nature, it grows in Karri, Jarrah and Marri forests all evocatively named after the local Aboriginal words for the dominant eucalypts (Eucalyptus diversicolorEucalyptus marginata and Corymbia calophylla respectively).

Images: Apart from the Tree Top Walk pylon, which comes from the Donaldson+Warn website, all pictures are from Beedelup Falls, near Pemberton in south-west Western Australia. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Trees of death

This post was written before the terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, but it resonates a little with those acts of violence. Trees are a source of solace and stability in a sometimes hostile world, and I often wonder why there aren't more in our cemeteries. I also wonder why our cemeteries aren't more attractive places to visit.

A few months ago I was waiting in a cemetery in Newtown, in the heart of the inner west of Sydney, for Georgina Reid to arrive so we could talk about why she likes the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park (aka Cemetery).

Within minutes I was swooped by magpies and saw two Goths take in the funereal air. Later a mother gently dropped her daughter over a fence onto a grave stone. Locals walked past with their dogs, and a crew of gardeners (or were they weeders) bobbed around with their heads down and bums in the air. I didn't expect so much life in a cemetery.

Then again, this is an unusual burial ground. It was started in 1858 and closed 18 years later, overflowing with bodies and not the most pleasant of places to visit. The upside of all that was plenty of nutrients for the newly planted trees that are still with us.

Georgina Reid is a landscape designer and on-line magazine editor (The Planthunter) and she spoke to me of her daily dog walks through the cemetery, and of her sense that the trees and the body-ridden earth (my words not hers) are inexorably linked. You can read more of this in her own words in the article Cemeteries: Death and the Landscape.

This cemetery has stately oaks, Canary Island Date Palms and one giant Moreton Bay Fig. It also has patches of remnant Kangaroo Grass, among which the weeders I saw were presumably do all they could to encourage various local wildflowers.

Horticulture is now part of a progressive cemetery. Not all mind you. Georgina mentioned some new cemeteries that call themselves Memorial Parks but are anything but a park - they are devoid of any vegetation other than turf and a rose or two (plastic or real).

In Melbourne, the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust looks after 17 cemeteries and they have very publicly stated their intent to create places that people visit more often, to picnic or enjoy in a cafe. For the Trust, horticulture is as important as tombstones. Kew Cemetery (aka Boroondara General Cemetery), near me in Melbourne, is extremely proud of its trees and you can do a walk to locate them all, plus the interesting graves...

There are plenty of more adventurous projects or project ideas out there about how to more efficiently deal with our bodies once we die, and how to make that connection stronger between humans and the rest of the living world.

The Daily Mail reported earlier this year on the US Urban Death Project, where corpses would be placed in a 'giant tower' to decompose for about six weeks, after which they would have converted, more or less, to compost which would be either returned to families or 'spread in national parks'. I'm not sure that national parks need to spread compost but we get the general idea.

The Mail quotes research from the USA showing that it takes 90 thousand tons of steel, 9 million metres of hardwood and 1.6 million tons of concrete to bury the dead in that country alone. Cremation has come under fire for the amount of energy used to combust a body.

One of the advertising slogans for the Urban Death Project, which is crowd sourcing for funds, is 'eventually I'll be a lemon tree' (here the Australian male, in particular, notoriously contributes some of themselves to a lemon tree when the relieve themselves in the backyard). The Project argues that is is more than simply a method for turning our no longer needed bodies into plant food, but a better way to understand our place in the natural world.

In Australia, Living Legacy, led by Warren Roberts, is a fledgling program to combine the ashes of the dead with living forests. This particular concept is likely to be more about a spiritual and intellectual connection with the living world than fertilising it, but it too is part of a change in our attitude towards the dead. 

Trees in a cemetery, and trees that interfere (in the nicest way) with the plots, would seem to be a simple way to connect spent bodies with a world that continues beyond their life. We living can then enjoy those trees, and our cemeteries. 

Note: All images are from Camperdown Cemetery and my chat with Georgina will become part of the second series of Talking Plants 'the radio show', to run on RN over summer.