Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Wine palm a very ugly 'tree'

Palmas de Ocoa, La Campana National Park is about a one hour drive out of Santiago, Chile, and famous mostly for its stands of Chilean Wine Palm, Jubaea chilensis. This species, the only one in its genus alive today, is restricted to only a few populations in central Chile. It grows further south than any other palm in South America.

Mostly it occurs on steep slopes of high mountains but in the La Campana National Park is grows in an accessible valley which Lynda and I visited under the guidance of Estela Davis and Catherine Kenrick from the Chigual Botanic Garden in Santiago.

The park also supports lots of other species restricted to this region. Our visit in autumn meant we were not destracted by many flowers but the local cactus Quisco (Echinoposis chiloensis) supports a leafless mistletoe, Tristerix aphyllus, which was in vivid red flower.

And there were the two species of large-flowering bromeliad, Puya beteroniana (with blue-green flowers) and Puya chilensis (with yellow flowers). Both had dry brown floral remnants when we visited in April.

But most importantly this is where the Chilean Wine Palm grows most abundantly today after its range has been severely reduced due to land clearing and fire, its seed traded as currency and many of the plants harvested (cut, then placed on their side to drain) for fermenting of the sap. Here, reaching up to 30 m, it towers impressively above nearby vegetation. Like the Monkey Puzzle Tree further south, it is an ‘architectural’ plant, described by Estela as like a column from a Greek or Roman temple.

Not the most elegant of columns perhaps. Charles Darwin dismissed it as 'a very ugly tree', despite it not technically being a tree but more accurately a giant grass or lily. The trunk starts out nice enough but narrows, unattractively to some, after 60 to 70 years. Noone is quite sure why this happens but one of the popular theories is that the change occurs after it first flowers, which takes about this long. It's a slow grower, and this is what an avenue of Chilean Wine Palms (in Jardín Mapulemu, in Santiago) looks like after a decade or two.

When young it can be easily mistaken for the more commonly planted, and somewhat weedy, palm from the Canary Islands - Phoenix canariensis. The difference lies with the crease in the leaflets. They fold downwards in the Chilean Wine Palm and upwards in the Canary Island Palm.

There is plenty of seed produced in the wild, and a nursery nearby within the private park 'Cocalan' was propagating large numbers for horticulture. Until recently, when it had to be removed to allow for a £35 million restoration of the Temperate House, London's Kew Gardens was home to a specimen planted as a seed in 1846 and arguably the tallest plant in a glasshouse. Here it is on its last day, just over a year ago, with only a few other palms for company.

In RBG Melbourne we have a number of specimens perhaps a 100 or more years old, growing outside. A particularly statuesque specimen (hardly narrowed at its top, interesting given its age) was planted on the lawn behind the Herbarium in 1904 by the Government Astronomer, Robert Ellery.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Strange staminal swellings on Gold Medallion Tree

The Gold Medallion Tree, Cassia leptophylla, has large clusters of (appropriately enough) big, yellow flowers. These medallions were particularly dramatic in January this year, weighing down a specimen just opposite the Rose Pavillion in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Garden.

In California the Gold Medallion Tree is celebrated as one of the few 'tropical trees' that will flourish in LA and beyond: "Although it shares the large, showy flowers and tropical-looking foliage of its cousins, gold medallion tree is much hardier to frost, dry heat, and drought than the other two (Cassia fistula and Cassia nealiae) — and that’s what makes it special in California". Sounds like a good plant for gardens in southern Australia.

Take another look at that flower at the top of the post. What caught my eye - or to be fair Neville Walsh's then mine - was the capsule-shaped swelling on the three larger filaments (the stalks of the male part of the flower, the stamen, terminating in the pollen-bearing anther). It's true we were attracted by the in-your-face flowers to start with, but up close these golden tabules are rather odd.

Golden Medallion Tree is the only native American species with this kind of weird swelling on the filaments, although Cassia ferruginea, also from Brazil, has filaments with a gradually flattened expansion towards the end. Elsewhere, the pink- or purple-flowered Cassia javanica from central and southern Asia has a very similar swelling but this is thought to have arisen independently (that is, through what is called parallel evolution - similar pressures, perhaps, producing similar looking adaptations).

But why produce these swellings in the first place? Dunno. They don't seem to produce anything like nectar or act in an obvious way to make the flower more attractive to pollinating insect or bird. Perhaps they give a foothold to any visitor trying to get to the more lucrative female bits of the flower?

Gold Medallion Tree is said to have a 'massive four-angled pod', up to 70 cm long, but I gather they are rarely formed. There are definitely none on this particular tree, now four months after flowering. The leaves are still there, though, attractive but less mysterious.

Although...why so many (a dozen or so) pairs of 'leaflets', and why does the leaf end in a pair rather than a single leaflet? The terminal pair makes the botanical description of the leaf just a little simpler, being paripinnate (a equal number of pinnules or leaflets) rather than imparipinnate (an odd number of pinnules and leaflets, implying a single terminal one).

The Gleditsia japonica next to it, also paripinnate, has lost all its leaves. In full leaf they are difficult to tell apart (in the picture below Cassia, in flower, is on the left, Gleditsia on the right). In fact in it was a question of identity that drew Neville Walsh to the tree in January. Someone had commented on these flowers being rather odd for a Gleditsia, which tend to have small greenish flowers (as in the Honey Locust), thinking a branch of one was the other. The Gleditsia has the last laugh, though, with a number of fruit pods evident yesterday.

Note: There was supplementary question once the identity of the plant was sorted, as to whether this tree, a Cassia, might be an alternative source of cinnamon. The answer was no. Neville Walsh explained that cassia bark, sometimes used as a substitute for the bark of Cinnamomum verum ('true' cinnamon) and reputedly able to hold its flavour better during cooking (although reputedly more bitter and of inferior flavour), comes from Cinnamomum cassia

And for some better pictures of the Gold Medallion Tree in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, see the January 2013 blog post by Nick V. at Melbourne Fresh Daily.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Marx, the revolutionary Brazilian

Brazilian landscape designer (and artist, musician, multilinguist, chef, etc.) Roberto Burle Marx, died in 1994. By then he had created hundreds of gardens throughout South America. Gardens that rebelled, gently, against the formalities of European landscapes and incorporating for the first time plants from the local tropical flora.

His estate (sitio) garden was described while he was alive as 'like a botanical garden', with extensive collections of tropical plants such as Philodendron and Helicornia, some of them bearing the species name burle-marxii. Some of these were grown in extensive shade houses.

Marx famously discovered tropical plants himself in the glasshouses of the Berlin-Dahlem Botanic Garden, while in Germany in 1928 studying art. Back in Brazil a few years later he crammed his sitio near Rio de Janeiro with local orchids, bromeliads and other indigenous species.

From there his influence and inspiration extended to other private and public gardens of the city, including Flamengo Park and Copacabana. He was inspired by artists such as Van Gogh, and later cubists, but also by tropical plants and forests.

His 142 ha sitio lies about an hour south of Rio. Around 37 ha of the garden is maintained now by the State of Rio de Janeiro and is open to the public, but only by invitation or as part of a tour group. (I gather at the moment it is closed to nearly all visitors, but with the kind assistance from Ronaldo Camargo Veirano, Honorary Consul for Australia in Brazil, I was able to visit during my recent trip to South America.)

After a brief meeting with the Director, Claudia Maria Pinheiro Storino, Lynda and I were taken for a tour by early-career botanist and part-time tour leader, Igor Azevedo, shadowed at all times by an armed guard. We are told that 30 horticulturists care for the 3,500 plant species, and various tropical landscapes. Some of them worked with Marx, carrying a special insignia on their shirts to signify this link.

There are fascinating trees such as the Rainbow Gum (Eucalyptus deglupta, from the Philippines and a species we are about to trial at the edge of the Fern Gully here in RBG Melbourne), old frangipanis and an avenue of local Leopard Trees (Caesalpinia ferrea). There are also lots of colourful bromeliads, again some named in honour of Marx (he wasn’t a botanist but introduced many plants into cultivation), ferns and begonias.

But the landscapes are what really impress, with curved garden beds and adapting to the contours and setting, all mildly revolutionary in Marx’s time (the middle twentieth century). Paul Urquart provides an expert and upbeat review of the garden on GardenDrum (although elsewhere, on a site I can no longer find, Paul is more frank about their lack of enthusiasm towards the visitor), making the point that his main innovations were the use of local (Brazilian) plants, avoiding symmetry, and emphasizing paths and open spaces.

A lingering memory for me is the series of stunning pools and garden landscapes around them. All up it was a thoughtful, fascinating and inspiring garden to visit. 

There is a fascinating debate taking place at the Garden, so I was told, about whether to keep the garden as Marx created it, simply nipping and tucking to keep it true to the original design, or... to invite similarly minded (or indeed differently minded but equally innovative) designers to continue the same approach to gardening (a la Tim Richardson's recent editorial in Australian Garden History Society newsletter). I'm inclined towards the latter approach, albeit with Roberto Burle Marx and his initial creation as the reference point.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Primrose and proper gardening (Plant Portrait XII*)

For me Robin Lane Fox's Thoughtful Gardening is an irritating read. His writing style is overly constructed and constrained (and I have no doubt he would find mine ill-formed and erratic). His dogmatism is annoying, even when he holds the same views as me - like most of us I'm generally happy with an opinionated writer who thinks the way I do.

To the person who recommended the book to me, apologies. I tried to like it. To the many I'm sure who have read it and found it inspiring, ignore my rant. For all my dislike, I read the book through. In fact I quite enjoyed riling and reacting to its style and substance.

To be fair, there is good in the book, including a lovely essay on how flowers sustained author Katherine Mansfield's in her last years and on plant obsessions like 'snow dropping' (for Galanthus). There are intriguing portraits of gardens I must now visit. Amid the smugness and haughtiness I find so unattractive, there is self-defacing humour and some charming one-liners, such as "[To Plato] ideas...were more divinely beautiful, certainly more beautiful than Chemical Aldous's [Huxley, writing after taking mescaline) perception of an iris" and in response to Rosemary Verey's suggestion that if your children are facing an examination they be given angelica (for inspiration), red clover (for industry) and pink cherry blossom (for education), "From my practical observations, the young recipients' first thought would be to try to smoke them".

Less appealing, and enough to tarnish my persisting memory of the book and its author, are things like the easy swipes at climate change (we've had a few frosts in recent years to you shove your advice about the world getting warmer and don't you try to suggest we need to plant anything different), refusing to share the garden with any of the local wildlife (badger, fox or any animal the Royal Horticultural Society promotes as good for the garden), and dismissing organic gardening (while I share his scepticism on this matter, I'm a little more nuanced in my response than saying I'll use whatever nasty chemicals I want because I need to get rid of that weed in my garden, and that's that).

Then there is the exception he takes to trends and fashions, only to willingly create his own in the next paragraph. Perhaps I'm too post-modern for my own good.

But the big one, the one that took my goat and tethered it far from reality was his test of whether you are a thoughtful gardener. Happily, for those who don't want to read the whole book, this comes up in the introduction.

After protesting, me thinks, a little too much about how wise and worldly gardeners can be, he reveals his test. This is the Turing moment - the great Alan Turing devised a test for distinguishing between a machine and the kind of intelligent behaviour exhibited by a human - and at last, we can tell who is a thoughtful gardener and who is not. The big question in life.

Lane Fox has asked this of his students and various others, over 35 years of teaching. Some have read poetry, he says, some have distinctions in plant sciences, but this is the one true test. This is the way to dismiss the large majority of humankind who may be gardeners but not thoughtfully so.

You simply ask, what does a primrose look like? That's Primula, a genus of small plants with variously coloured flowers that finds its way into rock gardens, perennial borders and sometimes into pots inside the house. There are some stunners, like Primula vialii and Primula capitata (which I've illustrated here, from Kew Gardens, again), but I suspect many who 'know what a primrose looks like' would be unfamilar with these two examples.

When asked this penetrating question, most shrugged and moved on. Some fought back, such as a 'sharp-eyed young lady' who told him it was a pedantic question, and that she sees the same flowers but doesn't put 'academic names on them'. Another said it was a pretty flower and found in spring, but failed in his description of it. A professor of logic tried to let Lane Fox down gently by confessing, after being told the story of the sharp-eyed young lady, that he in fact didn't know the plant. Later when our author gave him a bloom he responded with an article about how words have different meanings and references depending what we know about them or the object they describe.

I'm assuming Robin Lane Fox is trying to make the valid point that knowing what something is, or what it is called, adds information and appreciation of the object before us. It provides connections to all kinds of knowledge about the thing that can make life more pleasant, more stimulating and perhaps even better. This is a reasonable point. 

But, the corollary isn't that if one doesn't know what a Primose looks like, or a black hole, or a paradox, or murder (you can read Dostoevsky for this) or Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate (one of the key chemicals in the photosynthetic pathway that allows the Primrose to live and grow by producing sugars using the sun's energy), one is a dunce. 

Moreover, and I might be going a little Buddhist here, it would seem to be the test of a truly enlightened gardener/thinker/scientist/poet that they themselves do not need to test those around them or display their own knowledge like the tail of a peacock, or the blooms of a Primrose. Those things, the tail and the petals, are all about sex and that barely gets a mention (apart from a cameo by female weevils and a chapter on the masculinity of English landscapes) in this primrose and proper book. 

Next on my horticultural reading pile is Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden by George McKay. It was described by Lia Leendertz in The Guardian as "uncomfortable in places, but hugely thought provoking'.  I expect this to be an entirely different kind of book.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Chilean pine no puzzle for this monkey

Norfolk Island has one species of araucaria, Araucaria heterophylla (commonly and sensibly called the Norfolk Island Pine) native to its 35 square kilometres. This species is found no-where else in nature, but commonly in seaside and other public plantings.

At about the same latitude on the Australian mainland, and then more rarely further north above Cairns, grows the Bunya Pine, Araucaria bidwillii. Its remaining natural populations in southern Queensland are scattered over an area of about 19,000 square kilometres. It too is relatively common in cultivation although often having to be fenced off when the dropping of its football-sized cones risk serious injury to those walking underneath.

The third Australian species, Hoop Pine, Araucaria cunninghamii, grows naturally in New South Wales and Queensland, as well as in Papua New Guinea which also has a species of its own, Araucaria hunsteinii. There are another two species in South America. The best known is the Monkey Puzzle Tree, Araucaria araucana, or more helpfully sometimes Monkey Tail Tree (the 'puzzle' name refers to how challenging it would be to climb this spiky leaved tree, even for a monkey) from Chile and Argentina. The other is the Paraná or Brazilian Pine, Aracauria angustifolia, of southern Brazil and bits of Argentina and Paraguay.

This accounts for six of the 19 species of araucaria on Earth today.

The other 13 species are restricted to the 19,000 square kilometres of New Caledonia, about 1200 kilometres east of mainland Australia. This is amazing, but today I'm not going to talk about the ridiculously diverse and fascinating flora of New Caledonia, but about South America, where as you know I've just spent a week or two.

In the parks in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Santiago (Chile) you see plenty of Brazilian and Bunya Pine, but very little of the Monkey Puzzle Tree. In Santiago there are a few young specimens planted in the Jardín Mapulemu which they promised me will grow into towering trees, but the general wisdom is that it's too hot in these cities.

The Monkey Puzzle Tree once formed extensive forests in southern Brazil and Chile, in cooler, high-altitude areas. Today it is under threat of extinction due to previously widespread timber harvesting but there are some beautiful stands in the parks near Pucon in southern Chile. The pictures here are from Huerquehue National Park, about 40 km from Pucon and with a nice view of Villarrica volcano (which erupted in March this year, leading to the evacuation of Pucon) about 50 km away.

According to Kew Gardens, Archibald Menzies introduced the tree into England in 1795, only fifteen years after a Spanish explorer became the first European to see it in South America. Menzies squirreled away some seeds he was served as a dessert, while eating with the Governor of Chile. He sowed the seed while at seed and returned with five plants, one of which grew in Kew Gardens, London, until 1892.  

The common name alludes to the fact that the task of climbing the tree, with its sharp branches tightly clothed with spiny leaves, would puzzle even a monkey.

It was in Kew Gardens I last saw a mature (well, teenager) specimen, on the lawn near the Orangery. What surprised me about it in nature was the trunk, with its plates or large tessellation (I remember the excitement around the Wollemi Pine, a relative in the same plant family, and its coco-pop textured bark)...

...and the cryptogamic flora on those trunks (up high mostly a kind of Usnea, or Old Man's Beard, giving a grey-green colour to its trunks).

Well, that and its striking visage as trees, some of them reputedly 1500-2000 years old, emerged above southern beech (Nothofagus) forest. As we enjoyed the view across a lake that reminded me of south-west Tasmania (although the water was glacial blue rather than tannin tea-coloured) our guide, Gonzalo, completed the experience by offering us seed to eat. Unlike those served to Menzies, ours were boiled and quite dead. 

As we enjoyed our lunch of sandwiches enhanced with Monkey Puzzle Tree 'nuts' another forest of this species was burning a few hundred km away. The species is listed as vulnerable to extinction (not the highest rating but one that means we need to keep an eye on the remaining populations) and it has been declared a 'national monument' in Chile, which seems very fitting. This all means you won't find wall paneling, tables and lamp stands like these in the 1950s designed and built Hotel Antumalal, just out of Picon.

As to seeing one in Australia, I remember a fine specimen in the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mount Tomah, near Sydney, and here in Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne we have this, with a few (hundred) years growth to come and dutifully worried over by Chris Cole.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Un(m) trio de latinoamericanos Jardín(im) Botânicos

Over the next few months I'll intersperse my posts of locally found plants with those I discovered on my recent visit to Latin America. This travel was supported largely by the Charles and Cornelia Good Foundation, to provide the opportunity for me to develop as a botanic garden Director, learn more about world botanic gardens and spread the influence of Melbourne's own.

This first post is quick guide to the three botanic gardens I visited, in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro), Argentina (Buenos Aires) and Chile (Santiago). Later I'll extract intriguing plant species from their collections, or from trips made into a couple of parks and gardens in these countries.

According to all the locals I spoke to, botanic gardens are not as deeply embedded within the cultures of Southern America, or for that matter their historical European connections. Unlike the United Kingdom, North Ameria or Australia, for example, I was told that 'Latins' generally don't have a great love or attraction to plants or nature. They are more interested in human culture it's said. Anyway, these are three botanic gardens trying to change that.

Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

This 55 ha botanic garden (in a 137 ha property, the rest not open to the public) in Rio de Janeiro was established in 1808, making it the oldest botanic garden in the Southern Hemisphere I think, predating Sydney’s by eight years. There are no trees remaining from that original date but the famous avenue of Imperial Palms (Roystonea oleracea; pictured at top of post) is continually replaced using progeny of the original specimens – the oldest today is probably 100 or so years. Trees (and palms) are the most important part of this botanic garden; in fact they refer to it locally as 'The Arboretum'. There are elderly avenues of mangoes, cloves and those palms. Cannonball trees (Couroupita guianensis) line one path and important tropical crop trees such producing Breadfruit, Jackfruit and Rubber are scattered through the collection.

The garden started as an acclimatisation garden, created by Dom João VI, who fled to Rio in fear of being captured by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. He secured the site for a gunpowder factory and a place to trial and harden plants from the West Indies. In time it evolved into a botanic garden (for a while being called the Royal Botanical Garden) and was made open to the public in the 1820s. Today it is an impressive collection of tropical species from various ecosystems in Brazil and elsewhere in the world.

The stands of giant bamboo, large amazon lily leaves on the ponds and the exotic flowers and fruits of the tropical trees are all stand outs. One of the signature plants in the 6,000 species collection is the Brazil Tree or Pau-Brazil Tree, Caesalpinia echinata (a genus of legumes well represented in the tropics). The country Brazil (Brasil) is named after this tree, or more accurately after the workers who harvested the wood from these trees, who were called were called Brasilians. (Interestingly, the former name of the region was Pindorama, meaning land of the palms.) The shade house collections, including many epiphytic orchids, are not as impressive as those in the Roberto Burle Marx garden (just out of Rio, which I also lucky enough to visit), but pretty enough. That said, the bromeliad collection (housed in what is called the 'Roberto Burle Marx Glasshouse') while not a stunning landscape display was rich and had great interpretation. Nearby an outdoor landscape of bromeliads has been created from plants saved before an area of Rio de Janeiro was cleared for housing development. A medicinal garden, within the walls of the ammunitions store, is informative and linked to creative displays of laboratory glassware and traditional plant products.

Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Argentina)

The entire garden is only seven hectares, with about 1,500 species and 12 horticultural staff. Established in 1898, it lies almost midway between the Rio and Santiago gardens in age, but experienced a period of grand neglect between 1930 and 2010. French architect Carlos Thays designed the layout, the broad outline of which remains intact today with some of his tree plantings (many of them too close now that they are mature). Apart from the rudimentary remains of some formal gardens, most plants are organised by geographical region, with an extensive Australian collection of eucalypts and other familiar trees and shrubs. 

The flora of Argentina, and other parts of what is called the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay), is well represented and the Director Garciela Barreiro is adding to this as she restores the garden. A particularly successful new addition is the butterfly garden, a collection of plants to attract butterflies and caterpillars, such as the Monarchs. While I was there the garden was flittering with butterflies, as well as attracting many other insects and one humming bird. There is a good collection of conifers, including the genus Araucaria with representatives from South America, Australia and New Caledonia (Araucaria bidwillii, the Bunya Pine, is commonly planted in public parks in Buenos Aires). I was impressed to see a large specimen of Chrysophyllum imperiale, a species growing in bothy Sydney's and Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens but now extinct in its natural habitat near Rio de Janeiro – I don’t recall seeing a specimen in that city’s botanic garden.

Another new addition, but with a link to the past, is a small crop of Ilex paraguariensis. This plant is the source of the local (non-alcoholic but apparently caffeine-rich) beverage, 'mate', which I'll post on separately. Something even more unusual is the presence of domestic cats, as well as bowls of cat food and water. Cats are so regularly dumped in the garden, volunteers have decided to feed and care for them then offer up for adoption. This is tolerated by the Director.

Jardín Botánico Chagual (Santiago, Chile)

The setting for this very new botanic garden is in equal measure challenging and spectacular, with steep slopes set above the Santiago valley, with the Andes in the distance. Horticulturally it’s an extremely challenging situation due to the dry, clay soils, and the steep slope. Then there is the lack of support, yet, from the local government. With only 9-10 staff, five of them actively involved in horticulture and those without any formal horticultural training, it’s a struggle. At the moment the ‘botanic garden’ consists of an interesting collection of pot-bound plants in a nursery and a few scattered plantings out in the public areas. While technically open to the public now there is no front entrance or welcoming signage, and the interpreted collections are in pots bordering the nursery area. But there is great potential. 

When completed the 44-hectare botanic garden will include plants from Mediterranean regions around the world, but with a strong focus on the local flora (including endangered and medicinal plants). Expect to see extensive displays of Chagual (pronounced ‘Cha-well’, in first picture of the two above), species of the bromeliad genus Puya, of which five of the known nine species are native to central Chili – you might be familiar with the giant flower spikes of Puya berteroniana, with vivid blue-green flowers. There will also be Chilean representatives of various southern hemisphere genera we are used to such as Nothofagus and Araucaria, and displays of the Easter Island endemic Sophora toromiro (which is being introduced, after extinction in the wild, from seed held and grown by our own botanic garden). And of course Chilean Wine Palms (Jubaea chilensis, of more in a later post), which is widely planted in botanic gardens around the world, including a majestic specimen planted on the lawn behind the National Herbarium of Victoria in 1904 by the Government Astronomer, Robert Ellery.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne formed a partnership with Chagual a decade ago, just five years after it began, sending over Rodger and Gwen Elliot to advise on Australian plantings, and previous Director Phil Moors twice to advise on planning and strategy. My visit was to reconnect and continue that relationship. 

* * *

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A plant with a twist, nearly missed

It's so easy to miss a quirky flower or fruit in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens. There is just too much going on. You have to always be on the look out for a fleck of colour here or a odd bauble way up there.

Back in early February I discovered this Corkscrew Tree on twitter. It was flowering beside a major path near the Canna Bed, but it wasn't until I tracked back from a tweet to MelbourneDaily that I realised it was in my own (work) backyard.

Nick V. posts occasional, and always well illustrated, posts on MelbourneDaily. His pictures are always great and he does his research. These are my pictures, with only a little more research!

Nick headed his story 'Pretty Deadly', which is a sure way to attract attention. Like lots of plants in the Apocynaceae (think Oleander) the Corkscrew Tree is poisonous in anything but extremely small quantities, and then sometimes medicinal. The PlantzAfrica website lists among its common names Poison Rope, Common Poison Rope and Forest Poison Rope.

I get the poison bit and thought perhaps the length of the unruly shoot heading out of this generally pruned plant (to the top right) might be an indication that its flexible branches are used for rope, albeit of a poisonous kind. In its natural habitat, in the forests of south-eastern Africa, I gather it is a scrambling climber.

My rope theory is supported by a Flowering Plants of Africa synopsis of the species but the genus name Strophanthus means 'twisted-rope flower', because the petals have a jaunty twist, so it may be that the term Rope in the common name references this too. In Australia we call it the Corkscrew Tree, again a reference to the flower. Or sometimes simply Corkscrew Flower.

The genus Strophanthus is widespread in Africa, with a handful of the 38 species in Asia. The various species pop up in herbals and healing websites, usually with strong warnings about the toxicity of the leaves and seeds.

Strophanthin, present in the seed of most species, is a little like digitalis in its action. It can stimulate muscles, like the heart, and it can kill when painted onto arrow tips (a single seed crushed and glued to the end of the arrowhead is enough to increase contractions then seize the prey's heart). Apparently, antitoxins from some species can be used to treat snake bites in the absence of specific anti-venom. Here in Australia though we have good access to anti-venom and it isn't a recommended method.

I was happy just to photograph and observe our species. The blood or red-paint splotch must surely attract the pollinating butterflies into the sexy middle of the flower. The white threads are appendages on the petals rather than the males parts of the flower (the anthers), which are nestled deep inside the flower with the female bits. (If you do tease a flower open you'll notice the real anthers are topped by lovely soft hair, looking very un-anther like.)

Once I'd got past the twisted, blushing flowers I noticed these large, pencil-shaped fruits. When they dry out, feathery seeds are released, carried away by the wind. Strophanthus speciosus was once separated out into its own (single species) genus called Christya because the tuft of hairs at the top of the seed is hardly stalked.

So just another plant, and another story. But I almost missed it!