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Short Cuts

Readers are invited to submit short items of interest about Australian plants to be included here. If submitting non-original material (eg newspaper or magazine cuttings), please also advise if the author has given permission to republish and, if not, please provide a contact address so that permission can be sought.

Short Cuts in this issue:

My Battle with Clematis aristata
Some plants defy all attempts at control!
My Dad's Bunya Pine
A bunya pine in a pot??....Why not??
Pultenaea from Cuttings
Vegetative propagation of the bush peas.
The Magnificent Tree Waratah
An Australian rainforest plant attracting admiring glances
Wattle Day - a Short History
Should we celebrate on August 1 or September 1?
Trees and Tags
How "small" is small and how "tall" is tall??

My Battle with Clematis aristata

The right plant in the right position. It all sounds easy enough but sometimes plants have their own ideas! As Marianne Beek discovered....

It must have been more than 20 years ago that I got some seeds of this species. I planted them with tender loving care, in a pot, and waited for them to show up, but nothing happened. But six months later, two seedlings appeared. They grew well and soon I could plant out the strongest one in its permanent position, against the neighbouring fence, next to the carport. To help it along I connected some wire netting against the fence, hoping that my plant would grow up, neatly and tidily, and drape itself over the top of the fence.

Well, grow up it did. Neatly and tidily it did not. It did drape itself over the fence but long, unruly shoots stretched out in all directions, trying to find some support anywhere.

Between the fence and the carport grows a bottlebrush and soon those branches found the bottlebrush and in no time smothered it with a thick coat of greenery.

I had to do something. Rescue my bottlebrush! Tame my wild clematis! Prune it, severely! But at the same time, my climber was covered with buds, which would soon erupt into a multitude of starry flowers. I relented and decided to enjoy the flowers first and then do something drastic. I am glad I did for the flowers were absolutely beautiful, just a sheet of creamy, lacy loveliness.

The starry flowers of Clematis aristata make a spectacular display....and it isn't always as vigorous as Marian found!
Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (30k).

Clematis aristata has male and female plants. Female plants produce pretty, fluffy seedheads after flowering. Male plants don't. They just look messy. My plant is a male and when finished flowering I chopped it down to ground level. Did I kill it? No way! Strong shoots grew up and the whole wild and disorderly procedure started all over again.

Every year I pruned it back to ground level and every year it shot up again, until I decided to get rid of it once and for all, as I planted it in the wrong spot anyway. I got a can of Zero weed killer and thoroughly sprayed my plant. And at last it died. And my poor, long suffering bottlebrush, freed from the clutches of the clematis, felt rejuvenated.

For several years there was peace in that corner of the garden. Then - suddenly - a shoot appeared. I pulled it out. Another shoot shot up in a different spot. I pulled it out. His happened several times over a few successive years. Then for a long time nothing happened until, last year, a bundle of lush green shoots appeared next to the carport. They looked so strong and healthy that I didn't have the heart to pull them out. So a trellis was installed and my plant gratefully climbed up and up, reached the roof and stopped. It refused to grow over the roof, but produced those long, menacing, untidy shoots again, which tumbled down, grew up, reached out and found the bottlebrush - and the fence! And after Christmas the whole area was again transformed into that glorious, lacy, creamy mantle of loveliness.

And at the moment? It is again chopped down severely at ground level, but new shoots already warn me what will happen next. So I give up. Oh well, if you can't beat them, join them, they say. But if anyone wants to grow this species, give it plenty of room, but most important of all - plant it in the right spot.

From the June 1998 issue of the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria).

Marianne Beek passed away at the end of 1998. She will be sadly missed by her many friends in the Society for Growing Australian Plants.

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My Dad's Bunya Pine

David Ratcliffe finds that the majestic bunya pine makes an outstanding container plant for growing indoors.

Back in 1977 a nurseryman from the north coast of NSW who had over-estimated his own demand for Bunya pine seedlings, brought me a number of ‘poly’ fruit boxes each containing about 20 seedlings, some 25cm tall. I had also found the demand to be very small so I potted a dozen or so into 20cm pots and discarded the remainder. Yet even of those I had potted, few sold and the bulk were pushed to the back of the nursery – out of view and out of consciousness.

I had always harboured a fondness for Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii), not only for their multifaceted historical significance which included being a valuable food item for some aboriginal communities, but also for their handsome, if rather pungently-pointed, leaves. It therefore came as no surprise to me when, in the early 1980s, my father, looking for something to brighten his parlour, took a fancy to one of the, by then, very pot-bound Bunya Pines.

The years of neglect had stunted their growth and they had remained less than 60cm tall but otherwise, despite their ordeal, the plants still looked remarkable well. After a little root trimming and a move to a larger container, his chosen plant took up residence behind the lounge where its prickly foliage would not present a problem to anyone except the housekeeper on her periodic rounds; and there it remained.

In 1986 I was looking for plants to photograph for a book I was writing about the value of Australian plants for use indoors. Naturally I rekindled my acquaintance with the Bunya pine. By then it had grown a little and filled out to form quite an acceptable house plant and although I didn't consider the background very inspiring, I took my photograph and moved on. After all, I had work to do.

This year the old Bunya pine turns 21 and I cannot believe how well it looks. Although I have seen it many times in the intervening years, each time I visit, it is more striking than before. It now stands 1.8 metres tall and has not shed any of its lower branches or leaves despite the rather dim light where it stands. It’s long branches fully clothed in deep green mature leaves and contrasting sprays of bright green younger leaves hang gracefully almost to the floor and glisten in the light which reflects from their glossy surface. The stem, too, has retained most of its leaves which stand as rigid spikes to ward off those who might casually push it to one side.

An unexpected indoor plant? The Bunya pine, Araucaria bidwillii is usually a majestic tree to 40 metres or more.
Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (37k).

This outstanding Bunya pine is one of the best potted plants I have encountered. It has performed remarkably well under adverse conditions and with very little attention. It should alert us to some of the unexplored potential of our Australian rainforest plants and encourage us all to try something a little different.

From the April 1999 issue of the newsletter of the Australian Plants for Containers Study Group.

David Ratcliffe has been a specialist native plant nurseryman for more than 35 years and for the major part of that time has specialised in rainforest plants. He is, with his wife Patricia, the author of a book about the use of Australian plants indoors, first published in 1987 entitled "Australian Native Plants for Indoors", Little Hills Press, Sydney (reprinted as "Australian Native Indoor Gardening Made Easy"). He has also made a significant contribution to numerous other works, and published papers on environmental matters.

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Pultenaea from Cuttings

Growing the bush peas, Pultenaea species, from seed is relatively easy (if you can find the seed) but have you tried cuttings?? Ross Doig thinks you should!

In past issues of the Australian Plants journal, the 100 plus species of pultenaeas have been featured, many accompanied by superb photographs. The articles have revealed not only how beautiful they are in bloom, but also their variety in foliage, their habit, ranging as they do from prostrate to tall treelike shrubs and their Australian-wide distribution. They grow from desert to tropical coast, from Alps to lowland swamps, in rainforest and in heath, both mountain and coastal. There is certainly a Pultenaea for all seasons, with one in bloom every month of the year.

It might be asked why should one grow them from cuttings when long established practice has decreed that in common with most other members of the Fabaceae genus growing from seed after boiling water treatment achieves satisfactory results.

Cuttings can be justified on several grounds. Seed is shed in a comparatively short period and it is not always possible to collect at the right time. Insects attack the seed too, and very often it is difficult to obtain viable seed. An examination of Regional Seed Banks of the Society for Growing Australian Plants is usually a fruitless exercise. Nurseries, if one wishes to purchase plants, would realise a half dozen or less. Except for notable exceptions pea flowers are just not considered saleable species.

Some species feature closely appressed stipules of a hairy and/or powdery nature and these may be pulled, rubbed, or cut off if rotting occurs as a result of their retention.

Pultenaea villosa is one of the more commonly grown bush peas.
Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (33k).

The following pultenaeas have been struck, either in cold frame or cold shadehouse conditions. Although not all striking times have been recorded I have listed those recorded -in weeks- as a guide:

SpeciesTime to Strike
P.brunioides, P.daphnoides, P.elliptica12
P.ferruginea var deaneii, P.flexilis10
P.incurvata, P.linophylla, P.microphylla, P.paleacea, P.parviflora15
P.pedunculata, P.retusa6
P.humifusaNot recorded

Poor results have been experienced with P.scabra and failure with P.scabra var biliba after several attempts with both, but all other species tried have averaged out at 50% strike. In most cases six cuttings have been used at each trial. Potting on has been free of problems, although as a general rule growth has been negligible during winter and rapid in the warmer months often progressing from 10-15cms to 25-30cms. Flowering has take place with all species in the first season.

Fertiliser has been used sparingly on about 30% of struck cuttings in the form of Osmocote Native Plant slow release pellets without any dramatic results against control plants.

Finally the more serious cultivation of these often striking pea flowers is long overdue and why (with so many species in every state) this should be so is hard to understand.

From the June 1999 issue of the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria)

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The Magnificent Tree Waratah

One of Australia's most spectacular trees is still poorly known in cultivation....a situation that must surely change now that plants are becoming readily available. Norm McCarthy extols the virtues of this wondrous plant.

Imagine my surprise and elation to see this magnificent rainforest tree in flower, for its very first time, in late November.

I was sitting in the garden (Toowoomba, Queensland), soaking up the atmosphere when I just happened to look up. There was difference in the colour of that tree from a distance of, say, 25 metres. Could it be die-back or a broken branch? I looked and looked again. No, the colour was decidedly reddish. With mounting excitement a closer examination proved it to be - yes! - wonderful flowers.

The tree waratah Alloxylon flammeum is a spectacular rainforest tree from north Queensland. It has proved to be successful in cultivation in both tropical and temperate areas.
Select a thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (52k).

The large flower clusters of Alloxylon flammeum are displayed conspicuously towards the ends of the branches.
Select a thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (62k). Photo: Keith Townsend

This tree was planted as a small seedling, approximately eight years ago and has now reached 4 metres x 2 metres. It is a subject which was allowed to grow along on its own after providing sufficient water for its immediate establishment. This means that it has endured some fairly hard seasons, relying as it has, on mostly natural rainfall. It is in a situation of reasonable protection and is well drained amongst other trees. Its success seems to confirm that most rainforest trees are rather hardy once established.

The flowers are particularly interesting in their formation. They project from the upright stems in serried rows, one above the other. Each floret of fan-like shape consists of many separate pins that taper slightly towards the tip and end in a knob, not unlike the flowers of the firewheel tree, Stenocarpus sinuatus. The whole appearance is a brilliant orange-red conglomerate of flower of overwhelming beauty. Flowering occurred on the upper branches and mostly on the southern side of the tree. Future flowerings will probably be more complete and over most of the branches.

The leaf structure is of great interest and enhances the flowers. At present most of the leaves have 5 lobes up to the height of say three metres and are mid to dark green. It is assumed they are usually only like this in the younger stage of growth.

Some of the top leaves are now two or three-lobed and a great number just single or entire leaves only - the adult stage.

The tree waratah, previously known (incorrectly) as Oreocallis wickhami, is now known as Alloxylon flammeum. It is a lovely tree and well worth growing in tropical to temperate areas, and certainly by all lovers of Australian rainforest flora.

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Lets Celebrate Wattle Day

Confusion about the correct date of Wattle Day persists. August 1 or September 1? Jeff Howes has the definitive answer.... And it seems that September 1 is the winner!

On September 1, 1988 The then Governor General of Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen, officially proclaimed Acacia pycnantha the Golden Wattle as Australia's national floral emblem. The proclamation ceremony was held in the national Botanic Gardens Canberra. It included planting of seven small specimens of Acacia pycnantha at the entrance to the Gardens.

History of Wattle Day

On September 20, 1889 William Sowden, later to be knighted, an Adelaide journalist and Vice President of the Australian Natives Association in South Australia suggested the formation of a Wattle Blossom League. Its aims, set down in 1890, were to "promote a national patriotic sentiment among the woman of Australia". One way of doing this was to wear sprigs of wattle on all official occasions. After an enthusiastic start the group folded. However, their presence inspired the formation of a Wattle Club in Melbourne. During the 1890s parties were led into the country on September 1 each year to view the wattles.

The concept of Wattle Day grew stronger and spread to NSW where the Director of the Botanic Gardens, J H Maiden called a public meeting on August 20, 1909 with the aim of forming a Wattle Day League. As a result of this meeting the first Wattle day was held on September 1, 1910 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. On that day the Adelaide committee sent sprigs of Acacia pycnantha to the Governor and other notables in Adelaide. It was this wattle that become accepted as the official floral emblem.

Celebration of Wattle Day reached its height during World War 1. The day was used to raise funds for the war effort and many trees were denuded in order to supply the many sprigs of wattle sold on that day. Boxes of wattle were sent to soldiers in hospitals overseas and it become a custom to enclose a sprig of wattle with each letter to remind our soldiers of home. After the war Wattle Day was kept alive in schools. In 1917 however the date of Wattle Day was changed to August 1, for convenience, as that year had an early spring! In 1937 another date change, this time back to September 1 as this was the start of the school holidays!

Now as every one knows Wattle day is officially September 1. My Spicers desk calendar has the following quote for September 1 this year "The soft golden wattle blooms brightly in Spring; So why do we still call the daffodil, king?" - a good question.

The golden yellow blooms of the Mudgee wattle, Acacia spectabilis brighten up late winter days.
Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (45k).

Sentiment has always been associated with the yellow flowers of the wattle, but the common name developed from a more practical use of the plant. The early convicts and colonists of around Sydney wove what they called 'black wattle' to build the walls of their huts. They then daubed mud on the surface, inside and out, to make a more permanent structure. This "wattle and daub' building method is the oldest known method for making a weatherproof structure and was used as far back as the Iron Age (1100 BC). Different plants are used for "wattle" - interestingly acacias were NOT used in early Sydney times. Rather, Callicoma serratifolia -- commonly called black wattle - was mainly used and and that name is preserved in Black Wattle Bay (Sydney), an early source of that plant. The 20 volume Oxford Dictionary of 1989 states that "wattle" is an old English word of dubious origin.

Of course "wattle" refers also to the flap of coloured skin that hangs from each side of the face of some birds....eg. the domestic fowl. To confuse the issue even further there are two wattle birds in Sydney and the Lttle Wattle Bird' is wattleless! The other, the Red Wattle Bird, has, of course, red wattles.

Acacia species

Acacias grow in many parts of the world. They occur in all states of Australia and in all continents other than Europe and Antarctica. When George Bentham compiled his 'Flora Australiensis' in the 1860s there were 293 species of Acacia officially recognised in Australia. Today there are approximately 900 species. Unfortunately some are officially categorised as weeds (especially in other countries). Its perfume and dense clusters of bright yellow/gold flowers captivate all those who see the wattle and it is interesting to note that each 'pom pom' flower is actually many flowers each of them perfectly formed. Not all species have golden flowers - they range from bright yellow to pale yellow or creamish white.

Nearly all species germinate readily, even when seed is several years old, provided the outer covering of the seed (the testa) is sufficiently abraded to ensure penetration of water when the seed is soaked in preparation for sowing.

Although other species are more abundant and easy to grow (Acacia baileyana is one good example) Acacia pycnantha now reigns officially as our national emblem. A.pycnantha is a shrub of small tree about 4 to 8 metres tall and occurs in the understorey of open forests or woodland and in open scrub formations in SA, VIC, NSW and the ACT, in temperate regions with mean annual rainfall of 350 to 1000 mm. It needs good drainage but tends to be short lived in cultivation. However, in spring you are rewarded with large fluffy golden yellow flowerheads with up to 80 minute sweetly scented flowers that provide a stark contrast to the bright green foliage.

Based on an article in the August 1997 issue of "Blandfordia", the newsletter of SGAP's North Shore Group.

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Trees and Tags

How small is "small"?? How tall is "tall"?? Do you find plant labels less than satisfactory in estimating the size of plants. Tony Bean agrees.

Have you ever studied plant tags at your local nursery and felt less than satisfied with the information given? There are, I feel, two major deficiencies with plant tags at present. Firstly, the adjectives used are vague – eg. small, spreading, fast growing. These terms are virtually meaningless. Heights or widths are rarely given, and when they are, size is often understated. Secondly, habitat requirements (soil type, moisture levels needed, salt tolerance, etc.) are rarely given, and the species natural distribution is never mentioned.

These deficiencies are greatly magnified when dealing with trees, where poor species selection is a real problem. If you buy a shrub which is supposed to be 1 metre high, and it grows to 2 metres, it is not a disaster. However, if you buy a ‘small tree’ and end up with a giant in your pocket-sized garden, it is an expensive error to rectify. With regard to trees, height and growth rate are of greatest concern, so I would like to concentrate on this area.

Most trees grow in the manner illustrated below.

Growth Diagram

There is a slow initial seedling phase (1), followed by a lengthy period of rapid growth (2). As the tree approaches its potential height, the growth rate ceases as long as the tree is living and healthy. Of course, the time and height scales will be different for each species and situation.

Where a maximum tree height is stated on the plant label, it suggests that the tree will grow steadily to that height, and then stop growing. This is a totally unrealistic model, but there are presently no alternatives to describing tree height/growth.

For the sake of example, let us examine Eucalyptus robusta. I have seen this described in nurseries as a ‘fast-growing small tree’. In the bush nearby, mature trees 25 metres high are readily found. Such labels have some truth attached to them. It is a small tree at some stage, and this would coincide with its fast-growing stage. We should also realise that a ‘fast-growing small tree’ is often a contradiction in terms. If your little tree is growing at 1.5 metres per year, it is obviously in the middle of its growth curve and has a lot of growing to do – it will soon be a tall tree.

The key to describing heights of trees is to also define the time span involved. For example, how about a plant tag stating: "Eucalyptus robusta – a tree attaining 10m in 8 years; 20m in 25 years, on favourable sites." Or, stating a height which could be expected after a certain fixed period of time, say 10 years.

Nurseries tend to understate tree heights for two main reasons:

  1. Data is often drawn from cultivated trees which are considered mature, but which are often only half full height or less.

  2. They are responding to, and catering for, the apparent tree-phobia of the Australian public.

Sadly, many people appear to be threatened by any plant that is higher than they are. This fear is usually unfounded, because healthy trees of suitable species will outlive their owners without crashing on top of the house or destroying the foundations. Nevertheless, the ‘small tree’ label sells more trees, and by the time the falsity of this becomes apparent, it is too late.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that tree height and time span are closely tied, and each is quite meaningless without the other. The horticultural industry must adopt a more responsible attitude to plant labelling, especially where trees are concerned, or potential tree growers will be alienated. I would like to see stated heights linked with appropriate time spans, plus tolerances and habitat requirements. Some brief mention of natural distribution would also be helpful.

Until such innovations become reality, tree purchasers must be careful in their choice of species. Pay little heed to the plant label. Try to research the tree species you plan to buy; in particular, determine its ultimate height and climatic and edaphic requirements. Best of all, seek advice from specialists on trees.

From the December 1986 issue of the newsletter of SGAP's Queensland Region.

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Australian Plants online - June 1999
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants