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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:

Spirited Plants

Dusky - The Runaway Coral Pea

Growing Rhododendron lochiae

A Spider in the Rain Gauge

Cuttings and Myths


Spirited Plants?

Andrew Philips

Anyone who has tried growing cuttings knows that there is a large element of chance in the success of the endeavour. This has always been the greatest mystery to me. Being a strong believer in causality (ie. there is a cause for every effect) I have given a great deal of thought to possible reasons for this apparent randomness. I believe I have finally discovered the answer and it has nothing to do with UFOs or astrology.

A major problem of conventional scientific thinking is that it considers the parent and all the cuttings to be one plant, notwithstanding that its parts are physically separated. I believe that this thinking is wrong: each physically distinct plant should be regarded as having its own individual identity, which for want of a better word I will call a "soul".

As I will explain, the nature and behaviour of these souls is the source for the capricious nature of making cuttings. Obviously there are a large number of plant souls on the planet since there are a large number of living plants. However, there are very few unattached souls. When a plant dies its soul will float around for awhile until it finds a new seed or cutting to occupy. If a plant soul is unattached for long enough it might eventually join with a group of passing souls. Souls by their nature are attracted to each other and given a number of unattached souls a "swarm" will form. This explains why two batches of cuttings given absolutely identical conditions have completely different outcomes. That is, all of one batch may survive whereas all of the other batch dies or only one or two survive. In the first case there was luckily a swarm of passing souls.

In the second case there was no passing swarm and all the cuttings died or a few were lucky enough to pick up the soul of a nearby plant that had recently died.

"The practical consequence is that it is better to take cuttings a few days after the weekend when the grass clippings from the neighbours' lawns are dying."

As an actual case study, sometime ago I took about 20 cuttings of Boronia heterophylla. All except one died. Intriguingly the parent/donor also died.

The obvious conclusion is that the one survivor somehow was the one that retained the soul of the parent plant.

How is it then that some types of plants are very easily struck. It appears that these plants are more attractive to plant souls and can draw them from great distances. Other possibilities are that these plants can survive longer without a soul, or that there are different grades of soul and they can make do with a lower grade.

Like any good scientific theory this one is amenable to experimental verification. For example, it should be very difficult to make cuttings straight after mowing your lawn, as there will be thousands of new "plants" (ie. the grass clippings) desperately seeking a free soul. Even if a large swarm of plant souls floated past its unlikely that your box of cuttings would be able to compete for many. However, a few days later when the clippings are drying out and perishing any souls that they captured will be gradually freed.

The practical consequence is that it is better to take cuttings a few days after the weekend when the grass clippings from the neighbours' lawns are dying.

Of course, cuttings may simply die due to plain stupidity. Amongst my stupidities was the time that I tried to air-layer a branch that was over a metre (well over 3 feet) long. I have also experimented with not watering my cuttings for several weeks. Plants may require spiritual fulfilment to survive but the primary consideration should be the provision of an adequate physical environment.

May a cloud of plant souls pass by whenever you are making cuttings.

From the May 1996 issue of "Blandfordia", the newsletter of the North Shore Group of SGAP.

Ed. Well I believe it! All except the bit about stupidity. If this theory is to be accepted it needs to include a procedure to absolve the propagator from any culpability in the demise of the cuttings (now that's a convoluted sentence...I'm quite proud of it). If I forget to water my cuttings for several weeks I want to be able to blame someone! Or something! Anything!

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Dusky - The Runaway Coral Pea

A bedtime story about the right plant in the wrong place......

The SGAP Member

Once upon a time, at a school where the children had stately Melaleuca trees to play under, it was decided that further plantings of Australian flora would make the school grounds even more beautiful for the children.

The hard working Janitor was very pleased about this. First all the shrubs were planted in beds made around the Library by some SGAP members, Then the Teacher and the children of Grade 5 farmed a Project Club and planted even more Australian plants.

The Janitor said to himself, "Now it is my turn to plant some trees." And so he did. When he had a lot of different Callistemon and Eucalypts and others growing nicely, he decided that it was time for him to make a big garden too.

The soil in the area was sand and poor, so the Janitor got busy and dug and dug until he had removed a lot of it from the area. Loam was ordered to take its place. The Janitor was very happy! He got an SGAP member to select some suitable plants for this sunny, well drained position.

Soon the plants arrived. There were Baeckea and Grevillea, Hibbertia and Callistemon, Leptospermum and Lomandra, as well as Kennedia rubicunda, a Dusky Coral Pea, that was bought for a living mulch.

Kennedia rubicunda, the "Dusky Coral Pea", is a vigorous climbing plant which can become rampant under suitable conditions. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (30k).

Still the loam did not come, The Janitor waited and waited, Then one day along came a truck with a big load of HEAVY BLACK SOIL. The Janitor got busy and put all this into his garden bed. Then he got a rotary hoe and dug a load of manure into it too. Within a short time all the plants were planted, watered and mulched with leaf mould over newspaper. The Janitor was very happy! The garden bed was so rich that he didn't have to water it very often. He could just watch all his plants grow. Little did he know what mischief was afoot.

Before long all the plants were getting new leaves. The Callistemon pachyphyllus got pink flowers and the Baeckea camphorata produced a lot of tiny white ones, but it was the Dusky Coral Pea that was growing the fastest of all!

By and by the school holidays began and there was nobody at the school to watch over the plants. "Now is my chance", thought Dusky, and he grew and grew and grew!! In no time he had put runners around the downpipe and started his long climb. Up and up he went! Out and along he went! First he covered some of the ground floor windows and, when there was still nobody to stop him, he kept right on growing. Up and up!

By the time all the children and the Janitor came back from their holidays nearly half the building was covered by Dusky's dark green foliage. The poor Janitor. He was not very happy! The SGAP member was not very happy either! Dusky would have to be pruned back and removed from the garden. All his long twining foliage would also have to be removed so that the children could see out of their classroom windows again. The Janitor will then be happy again.....

If you have rich HEAVY BLACK SOIL and you plant a Dusky Coral Pea - DON'T go on holidays unless you leave someone to watch that it does not get up to mischief while nobody is looking.

From the December 1983 issue of the the Newsletter of the Queensland Region of SGAP.

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Growing Rhododendron lochiae

Frank Hatfield

I have heard many Australian plant enthusiasts say that they have great difficulty in growing Rhododendron lochiae, the most commonly cultivated of Australia's two species of Rhododendron. I do not claim to be an expert on this species but I have grown it successfully for a number of years in suburban Sydney, so I may be able to help others do the same.


I find that cuttings taken in late spring/early summer (late November to late December in Sydney) form roots fairly quickly. For example, cuttings taken on 2 December 1987 were potted up on 16 January 1988. Forget about the usual recommendation of cutting below a leaf node...this is a waste of good cutting material. One whorl of leaves and from 3 - 10 cm of stem is enough. Expose the cambium layer by removing a narrow strip of bark for about 1 cm from the end of the stem and cut the leaves back by about one third to minimize transpiration. Place the cuttings in a glasshouse, cold frame or whatever you use. I use a mixture of clean, sharp sand, perlite and sieved German peat moss in the proportion of 4:4:3 (note that a peat substitute would probably be more environmentally responsible these days; eg products made from composted coconut fibre).

Rhododendron lochiae, is one of two Rhododendron species native to the mountains of north Queensland. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (40k).

Potting On

I use the same mixture for potting on as for striking cuttings but I add a good half teaspoon of slow release fertiliser (eg Osmocote) per 15 cm pot.

Planting Out

The late Perce Parry of "Floralands" nursery had a beautiful plant of R.lochiae in his garden at Kariong on the NSW Central Coast. Perce gave me this advice: select a position in a built-up garden where the plant will get morning sun and protection from afternoon sun and from wind. Perfect drainage is essential. I followed Perce's advice and was not successful - not because of the siting which I have since satisfied myself is correct - but because of the inadequate drainage of the clay loam over clay shale of which my garden is composed.

I then had a talk with Max Hewett who had a very good plant at Mt Ku-ring-gai on Sydney's north (Max has been one of the most successful and experienced growers of Australian plants for many years). This is what Max suggested I try. Dig a hole 60 - 90 cm square by 30 - 50 cm deep or down to clay or other hard topsoil. Build up around this with rocks or treated pine logs to one third to one half metre high. Fill the space with alternate 8cm layers of coarse broken sandstone and composted Casuarina needles. Build up to a mound well above the desired level of the garden because settlement will be considerable due to the further composting of the Casuarina needles. Plant the rhododendron in this mound, keep it well watered and give regular dressings of slow release fertiliser.

I planted my rhododendron early in autumn 1982; it flowered before the end of the year and has flowered every summer since. It is now more than half a metre high and a metre across.


For those interested in grafting, in November 1984 I successfully grafted R.lochiae on to Azalea "Alba". This plant has put on very good growth and flowered for the first time in the summer of 1988/89.

From the June 1989 issue of "Native Plants for New South Wales", the newsletter of the New South Wales Region of SGAP.

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A Spider in the Rain Gauge

Calder Chaffey

When I first came to live in this best part of the world, the Far North Coast of New South Wales, I knew it was essential to have a rain gauge. Well...it is a rainforest region and we wanted to plant our very own rainforest. Anyhow, every serious SGAPer must measure the daily rain. Acquiring one, I set it up on an isolated post, away from trees and shrubs, and proceeded to chart the rainfall each morning. Looking back now at those historic readings the chart goes:


  • Day 1- 5mm
  • Day 2- 14mm
  • Day 3- 10 mm & 1 spider
  • Day 4- 3 mm & 1 spider
  • and so the readings continued........
Well, I thought, it is no good having this delicate piece of scientific equipment unless an accurate measurement is made, and this arachnoidal body presented a problem. I cleaned it out. But, next day as I opened the cylinder, another hairy monster crouched there glaring at me with its compound eyes and a scowl on its face. He had taken up residence and twined a complex web around the entrance. I cleaned it out again, but each morning thereafter another spider was back with an aggressive sneer at my futile efforts.

Spider Web What was even more irritating was that because the post was isolated from trees by about 5 metres, the spiders who did not like to get their feet wet on the dewy grass threw a tightrope web across and simply slid down. OK for the spider, but I got my ears tangled up in a sticky mess each morning while taking the reading.

It was clearly impossible to keep them out. I worried considerably about those readings until one day I got the solution - or so I thought. All I had to do was take the spider out shake the water off its back into the cylinder and all would be well. Only too easy and I did this for a few days until my good friend remarked "How do you know the spider has not drunk some of the water?" Well I didn't know and I suppose all spiders must drink. I went to the learned text books and asked the experts but none could tell me how much a spider drank. I thought of ways of squeezing the water out with a rolling pin or making it vomit but then there was perspiration, transpiration and urination to be contended with, and no way could I estimate this.

I have become neurotic, agitated and sleepless, worrying about the accuracy of my readings. I have been biting my finger nails to the bone - no good at all for a SGAPer who must be able to dig holes and plant things. I know when I get up each morning another 8 legged chitinous arthropod will be squatting there with some irrecoverable water in its belly that I will be unable to measure. I must find out!!

Can you HELP? Can you answer me the questions?

  • How much does a spider drink?
  • Do you too have a spider in your rain gauge?
From the Newsletter of the NSW Far North Coast Group of SGAP; August 1991.

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Cuttings and Myths

Ross Doig

Over the years there has grown up a body of "do's and don'ts" which, in the course of time, has assumed the nature of Holy Writ. Australian native plants have not been immune from this disease.

Some common myths follow:

  • Plant material in flower or with seed cases should be avoided. Not so. In fact many a cutting is struck from flowering material collected at SGAP meetings! You can even allow flowering in the cutting box, although it is a good idea to remove floral material when dead.

  • Time of year is critical. No, cuttings of many genera will take root whatever time of year they are put down, provided the "wood is right". However, they will certainly be slower to strike (in cold frame/shadehouse conditions) in winter and, in holding them longer, death from various causes is risked.

  • Cuttings should be between 50 and 100 mm in length if possible. As many propagators have discovered, such genera as Telopea (Waratah), Hakea, Banksia, Grevillea, Pultenaea, Correa and Boronia contain many species where cuttings between 100 and 300 mm strike readily. In fact, in such species longer cuttings often strike more rapidly and form more roots.

  • Hormones should be used. It has been proved that hormone preparations result in more and stronger roots in many genera but, in setting cuttings in identical conditions with and without hormones, I have found no significant difference particularly in growth when potted on. I have experienced a blackening die back to about 10 mm of stem ends with hormones and suspect burning from hormone use.

  • Many a good book advises, "Remove all except a few leaves". One understands from illustrations that few means up to, say, six. With Epacrids I have found that leaving up to 30 leaves works well with such species as Epacris pulchella, E.microphylla, E.longiflora, and E.obtusifolia, a fact very much appreciated when you consider the difficulty of removing leaves without a sliver of bark adhering!

    With Banksias, some Conospermums and Hakeas, the lower leaves die over a period of months. Start by leaving six leaves attached and striking is a lottery but with Banksia ericifolia, Hakea sericea, H.gibbosa, H.bakeriana and Conospermum taxifolia, having up to, say, 20 leaves attached would be good insurance.

  • Cut off growing tips is another directive. Answer, well yes and no. When tips wilt under propagating conditions then remove them but, if they do not wilt (probably the case with 80% at least of native plants cuttings), leave them. More often than not vigorously growing tips reveal that a cutting has rooted. If terminal growth is in the form of budding flower heads, removal is probably advisable although I have allowed various Pultenaeas to flower without apparent retardation.

  • Fungicides and bleaches should be used. Possibly, but only when an atmosphere of soggy humidity is fostered. Combine this environment with low light levels and poor ventilation in mid winter or mid summer and you will certainly need them. Confine moisture to the cutting medium and they should not be necessary.

  • Keep everything antiseptic - sterilise mediums/soils, tools, cutting tubes/pots and benches. Very commendable and in commercial practice absolutely essential. In the small SGAP memberís set-up, avoidance of undesirable conditions noted above render such treatments unnecessary. Remember - rooted cuttings end up in gardens replete with a magnificent range of nasties. Exposure to these before planting out will, hopefully, generate some immunity.

  • Cuttings need to be watered frequently. Again yes and no. In the standard shadehouse/cold frame situation this is certainly so but if a plastic, recycleable PET bottle and matching closely fitted plastic pot is employed, watering can be almost eliminated. Straight sand with some silt, peat and sand, gravel and "tennis court loam," are mediums which will suit the non-watering method. Note that the top must be kept on the bottle in this system and a semi shaded environment chosen. Further, a plastic bag is not suitable for a non-watering system.
Finally, some Holy Writ of my own - A surprising number of species will strike readily if cuttings between 200-300 mm are selected, retaining up to 20 leaves (if under 20 mm length) and having 3 or 4 growing tips. Often such larger cuttings strike before the more normal 50 - 100 mm sizes. Try this with Kennedia, Hardenbergia, Pultenaea, Correa, Banksia ericifolia, B."Giant Candles" and Boronia.

From the September 1994 issue of "Native Plants for New South Wales", the newsletter of the New South Wales Region of SGAP.

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Australian Plants online - September 1996
The Society for Growing Australian Plants