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Short Cuts

Short items of interest about Australian plants selected from the many newsletters and journals published by member Societies of ASGAP.......

Short Cuts in this issue:

BulletWaratahs - A Few Facts
What on earth can you do to get your waratah to survive?
BulletWedding Bush - Ricinocarpos pinifolius
A beautiful plant, widespread in the bush but not often seen in gardens.
BulletA Rare Experience
The elusive pink flannel flower makes an appearance.
BulletGardening in a Time of Water Restrictions
How to help your plants cope with the long dry spell.
BulletNew Life
Experiences in plant recovery after a drought.
An important seed dispersal method in nature.

Waratahs - A Few Facts

The Waratah (Telopea speciosissima) causes more problems to gardeners than most other native plants but Jeff Howes has unearthed a few tips to ease the pain. Ian Shackle, on the other hand, approaches despair......

I have been unable to grow a Waratah (Telopea speciosissima) both in the ground and in pots, let alone get one to flower. However, I have not given up hope and this has led me to read a great book entitled 'The Waratah' (Paul Nixon, Kangaroo Press, 1997). It is full of valuable information on how to successfully grow Waratah and get them to flower. The following are a few facts from the book (in no particular order) I found interesting:

Ode to a Waratah
Ian Shackle (Shax)
I'll never grow a Waratah;
God knows I've tried and failed.
Number 30's bit the dust
(It wasn't fungus, wasn't rust -
Perhaps it was my looks of lust).
But to the shed it's nailed.

One full week it sat and sulked,
No matter what I did.
Expensive compost, pricey pot,
I really gave that plant the lot.
It daily drooped its once proud head,
Until this morning - it was dead.

From the Australian Native Plants
Discussion Group

Telopea speciosissima
Click for a larger image
  • The best soil for them is deep, free draining, with a north, north-east or north-west aspect to ensure maximum sun.
  • They usually grow 1 - 3 metres high and if in deep fertile soil free of competition, they will grow to 5 metres.
  • They normally flower at the spring equinox.
  • Once flowering has started to open, the bushes should be well watered, as stress at this time will cause added bract burn.
  • They are frost hardy to -12 degrees C.
  • The primary cultivation requirement is similar to the requirements of citrus namely a well-drained site.
  • When planting one sure method of achieving positive drainage is to place the plant on the ground or above ground surface - do not dig a hole but mound around the plant to form a bed.
  • They respond to very high levels of nutrition - especially Blood and Bone and farm manures (not fresh poultry manure).
  • The ideal NPK ratio for fertilisers is: N of 15-20%, P of 2-5% and K of 5-10%.
  • Apply fertiliser to correspond with leaf growth - Spring and Autumn.
  • Pests - too many to list, but the main pest is the borer that attacks the ripening bud. Look out for sawdust at the base of the bud for sign of activity. Use carbaryl or Endosulphon (although I am sure Confidor will work - JH).
  • Pruning juvenile Waratahs is desirable to make the plant divide and encourage basal growth.
  • In the wild, they flower best after bush fires as they are free from root competition for a few years at least. Lack of root competition in the home garden is recommended.
  • Flower buds develop early in the year, so it is in bud for 7 to 8 months.
  • Vase life of flowers is 10 to 14 days. To get an extra week pour a cup of water over the flower each day.
  • You can expect 500 flowers to a plant in ideal conditions, although 250 blooms is a more realistic total.
  • Fresh seed germinates readily. The seed deteriorates fairly rapidly unless stored at low temperature, low humidity and not in a plastic bag.

From "Blandfordia", Newsletter of the North Shore Group of the Australian Plants Society, April 2004.

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Wedding Bush - Ricinocarpos pinifolius

Not easily propagated and a bit difficult to cultivate as well, wedding bush is worth the effort, as Christine Howells reports....

Ricinocarpos pinifolius belongs to the family Euphorbiaceae. This family has around 280 genera with 7,000 species, mostly growing in tropical areas of America and Indo-Malaysia.

They can be trees, shrubs or herbs, some of which have milky sap and include a number of plants of economic importance such as those producing rubber, tung oil, (used in paint), cassava (a staple food in tropical areas), castor oil. and croton oil. Some members of the family are very poisonous.

Tasmanian representatives include Amperea, Micrantheum and Beyeria, as well as Ricinocarpos.

The genus Ricinocarpos is generally known as wedding bush and there are 15 Australian species and one in New Caledonia. Of the Australian species, there are ten in Western Australia, one in Queensland, one in the Northern Territory, two in Queensland and New South Wales, and Ricinocarpos pinifolius which extends from Queensland through New South Wales and Victoria to Tasmania. It just happens to be the most floriferous of the genus!

   Ricinocarpos pinifolius

Photo: Barbara Henderson
Click for a larger image

Ricinocarpos pinifolius is a small-to-medium shrub 1-3.5 metres tall and up to 2.5 metres wide. It may sucker, and it re-sprouts after fire. The leaves are narrow and the edges are often rolled in so they look like pine needles - hence the specific name pinifolius. The flowers are 2.5 cm (or one inch) across with a female flower quite often surrounded by a cluster of male flowers. The fruits are quite noticeable, being round and covered in soft short spines. Seeds are fairly large and hard but may be difficult to find as they are often eaten by bugs.

Propagation is not easy though smoke treatment of seed has improved results. If you damage a plant by pruning, fire or chopping the roots, the soft new growth can be propagated as cuttings.

Ricinocarpos pinifolius is very spectacular in flower often being totally covered in pure white blooms. It grows on sandy, acidic soils, needs very good drainage and copes with drought and frost. It grows quickly and responds well to pruning early on to make it bushy, and trimming regularly keeps it that way.

From "Eucryphia", Newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Tasmania), July 2003. This article is based on a 'Flower of the month' presentation by Christine to the April 2003 meeting of the Hobart Group of the Society.

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A Rare Experience

The pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii) is a plant that few people have heard of and that even fewer have seen but, as Merle Thompson reports, a massed flowering is an experience worth waiting for.

A number of our members have recently enjoyed something that most plant enthusiasts in the Blue Mountains only experience on a few occasions in their lifetime - a mass flowering of the pink flannel flower, Actinotus forsythii. In the book Native Plants of the Upper Blue Mountains by members Margaret Baker, Robin Corringham (who now lives down the south coast) and Jill Dark they use the expression "the existence of the pink flannel flower is doubted by many". They describe it as rare, its flowering as sporadic and call it a 'very special annual'. Seeing it is such a special event that one member of the Society, when I told her about it and even though by then it was well past its prime, was prepared to drive from Newcastle to Blackheath just to see it.

Actinotus forsythii   
Actinotus forsythii   
Actinotus forsythii
Photos: Jill Dark
Click for larger images

I understand that it flowers for one season a year after a fire if there has been rain. This year it flowered at Hargraves Lookout in Blackheath. The photo which we have from time to time used in out rare plants and Blue Mountains plants displays in the Reserve was taken by Jill Dark at Narrow Neck some years ago and it has also been found on Kings Tableland - all exposed heath areas of the upper Mountains. It has apparently also been recorded to the south of Sydney near Nerriga. A few years ago we drove through a fire on this road. Perhaps if I had gone back the next summer I might have found some pink flannel flower there too. I was at that time visiting another rare plant, Callitris oblonga ssp corangensis, which only occurs along the banks of the Corang River.

The Flora of New South Wales says that Actinotus forsythii "grows in damp areas in sclerophyll forest and heath on skeletal soils over sandstone, south from Newnes Plateau; usually seen only following fires." It lists its occurrence as South Coast, Central Tablelands, Southern Tablelands and Victoria. A search on the internet showed that it is listed as a high risk/vulnerable plant in the alpine area of Victoria for which there is commitment to conserve but there isn't a specific conservation plan.

My search also found a 1925 painting by Adam Forster in the National Library of Australia collection but no information on where he got his specimen. It did say you could buy a photograph of the painting for $28 - $34.

The plant and flower are considerably small er than the more familiar flannel flower Actinotus helianthi but larger than Actinotus minor, the 'lesser flannel flower'. This latter plant is like a 'mini' version of the better known plant and used to occur naturally in our garden but I don't find it much now. They belong in the family Apiaceae, formerly called Umbelliferae. Other local plants in this family are Platysace and Xanthosia but it also includes such things as carrots.

All three flannel flowers have a centre like a daisy which is really a cluster of little flowers, with separate male and female flowers, surrounded by bracts which we think of as petals. In the pink flannel flower the central flowers are a deepish pink and the 'petals' are a very pale pink. Its stems are very thin and wiry with little grey woolly divided leaves.

The plants were growing among re-generating Casuarina nana, Banksia ericifolia and Xanthorrhea, some with long flower stems.

From the newsletter of the Blue Mountains Group of the Australian Plants Society, April 2004.

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Gardening in a Time of Water Restrictions

Water restrictions have become a fact of life in much of sourthern Australia as the drought continues. What can be done to help your plants cope with water stress? Phil Keane, of Ausplants Nursery, Gymea, has some suggestions....

Let's start with the obvious - get rid of the lawn and all those thirsty exotics and fill your garden with natives. So you've already done that - now what?

The water restrictions state that you're not allowed to used fixed sprinkler systems (including lawn sprinklers). These are a very inefficient with a lot of the water being lost to evaporation and not actually getting down to the roots where it is needed. So if you have a fixed spray-type watering system replace it with a drip system. Fixed-flow drippers deliver about 4 litres per hour (l/hr) and variable-flow drippers can be adjusted to deliver from 0 to 30 l/h.

For very large shrubs and trees you'll probably need 2 or 3 drippers. To get the same coverage with a drip system as with sprays you will almost certainly need to install more drippers than you have spray heads. For further information drop into your garden centre or hardware store and pick up a copy of the Nylex or Pope watering system guide booklet - these give you all the information you should need to install a water-efficient drip system. Remember that whatever watering system you use, it is best if you water once or twice a week and thoroughly soak the soil. If you lightly water more often only the top layer of the soil gets wet and the roots of the plants will tend to grow up to near the surface where they can dry out in hot weather. Water only permeates into the soil slowly so, if you hand water, give the water time to soak in by doing one area at a time and if necessary, go back over the areas later.

If all these measures fail ............ you can pave the whole area or install a tennis court! You can brighten up your back yard with a few native garden gnomes.

Another method that is good for trees and larger shrubs is to install a 300 mm (12 inch) length of 50 mm (2 inch) or similar pipe in the ground near the plant (on the uphill side if the plant is on a slope). Pouring water down the pipe ensures that the water gets to the roots where it's needed. This is a good method to use with a new plant as it can induce the plant to send down deep roots in search of water - particularly if the pipe is angled so that its end is immediately below the plant.

Having sorted out your watering system, the next thing to do is to ensure that there is a good layer of mulch on your garden. This can reduce the loss by evaporation by up to 70%. If you've still got that lawn, mow less often and with a higher setting - this will also help to keep the soil cool and reduce losses by evaporation. Also mow in the early morning or in the evening when it's cooler.

"Ah ha," I hear you cry - "But what about recycling my waste water?" A great idea, but make sure that you comply with Local Council and Water Authority regulations. If you pump the water from your washing machine back on to your garden make sure that you are using a phosphorus-free washing powder or liquid otherwise you may end up killing off your natives. Even if you use a normal low-phosphorus washing powder it is suggested that you only recycle the final rinse water from your washing machine. However you may save more water in the long run if everyone in the house stops leaving the tap running while they are cleaning their teeth! Of course you could install a water tank to collect the rainwater from your roof. This can be a expensive exercise - particularly if your house is at the low end of the block and you need a pump to get the water to your garden.

If all these measures fail and your plants wither and die, you can pave the whole area or install a tennis court! You can brighten up your back yard with a few native garden gnomes.

From "Native Plants for New South Wales", newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (NSW), October 2003 (originally in "Inplant", newsletter of the Sutherland District Group, October 2003).

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New Life

Once the drought breaks, plants often recover at an amazing rate. Barbara Buchanan relates her observations as her water-starved plants emerged from a long hibernation.

Around this time (late January) last year I was feeling like giving up gardening. After normal spring rains which had led me to hope the drought was over it had returned with a vengeance and we were right out of water for the garden, even though each year I cut the area to be watered and lowered my expectations of the degree of greenness to be maintained. It did not really help knowing that other areas were even worse off than we were, it just seemed to make it even more depressing - maybe that was where we were heading. The autumn was cruel, it was just a matter of surviving each day and hoping the plants were too. Not all of them did and clearing away the dead ones was an ongoing chore.

Mostly it was older plants that succumbed but there was no obvious pattern. Then miraculously over winter we had bursts of rainy periods, one month would be wet, the next dry. Slowly the soil moisture built up, it became a pleasure to dig and plant and the rainfall total for the year was just over average, boosted by 6 inches in December, most of it around Christmas when another dry spell had had us fearful again. (We are ready for some more now - it is falling everywhere in the State but here it seems.)

What a Spring we had! Such an exuberant outburst of flowering as we had forgotten was possible. Even the rough grass areas flourished with species not seen for years bringing the wonderful problem of when to cut the kangaroo grass for safety (fires and snakes) or how long can we leave it and enjoy the reddish brown heads waving in the breeze.

For a time every few days brought some fresh delight with many plants flowering for the first time here. With all the riot of flowers came the birds, bonus flashes of colour and music to further lift the heart. A pair of Wonga pigeons adopted us for more than a month. The frogs added their melodies, later replaced by the cicadas, as deafening as memory said they ought to be but had not been for years. I found an area strewn with cicada wings under some gums used as perches by their bird predators.

Neil Marriott has often raved about the perfume of some grevilleas but I had begun to doubt him because I could not detect it. Not any more. Grevillea polybotrya and G.candelabroides flowered properly for the first time and I am absolutely hooked by the gorgeous caramel scents. So too, it seems were the Gum Moth caterpillars I removed by the dozen from the candelabroides where they seemed to favour the flower spikes. The G.australis I have was also scented this year, yet I had not been able to detect a perfume other years. My grafted G.eriostachya/excelsior plants have both made their debut this year, an event well worth the wait. The pairing of the names is due to labels being tossed out by birds while they were side by side in pots. I suppose I now have the information needed to sort them out but I have become so used to the double name that I am confident I would still not remember which is which if I did take the trouble. I just love them both. I have been lucky enough to grow G.treueriana on its own roots for several years and delighted in the few flowers I have had. This year, after removal of a nearby tree, it has flowered and flowered - each rain event seems to provoke a fresh burst, and what a voluptuous red-orange-yellow colour those flowers are, for they remind me of a rich oriental silk.

Plants springing back to life after the dry!
Click on thumbnail images or plant names for larger images
Backhousia citriodora
Backhousia citriodora
Jasminum suavissimum
Jasminum suavissimum
Grevillea eriostachya
Grevillea eriostachya
Grevillea candelabroides
Grevillea candelabroides
Grevillea treueriana
Grevillea treueriana
Photos: Keith Townsend, Brian Walters

The plants that fill the whole garden with perfume seem to come from rainforest areas. Hymenosporum flavum needs no introduction I am sure and I never cease to be amazed by how hardy it is, considering the rich, soft, dark green leaves one would expect it to demand constant water and frost protection. Yet its only problem here is occasional loss of a limb in high winds. Or the destruction of a limb by hungry cockatoos as the fruit develops. (Something I have observed with a lot of fruits this year is the attacks by strong cocky beaks.) At a stall the group ran at a local expo we had some well grown seedlings for sale and I found I was able to move these by telling people of their perfume. It was intriguing how this would encourage people to give them a try which they were less likely to do with other rewarding plants in which we tried to interest them. It seems that many of the public are aware of our native frangipani.

Equally fragrant, drought and frost tolerant, is Jasminum suavissimum a rambling scrambling plant usually described as a climber which keeps its bright green in the hottest weather. The small starry flowers peak in late spring but can appear throughout the warmer months and seem to be increased by pruning. Just as well because this plant has a more serious fault, in time it spreads itself widely and will smother neighbours. However in a bygone era I grew its exotic relative just known as jasmine which not only rampaged much more strongly, it also changed its scent from sweet to rather unpleasant as the flowers aged. I had few qualms disposing of that one. So far I have coped with controlling two patches of our native jasmine, one at the front and one at the back door, but I think I might soon have to cut one out.

In the front the perfume season is extended by Cuttsia vibunea, more dark green shining leaves and this time great heads of white flowers like their namesake viburnums and smelling richly of honey. While the plant at the door is under shadecloth and receives every TLC, another in the gully has shade from the canopy but no other amenities. I suspect that given fertiliser it would do every bit as well as its pampered friend. The Cuttsia has been succeeded by Bolwarra (Eupomatia laurina) which has a strange but appealing scent and is frost tender. Now the Backhousia citriodora is opening with masses of fluffy white blossom, however the perfume here is confined to the leaves. Several plants in the open here do well enough but not to compare with the favoured one under shadecloth.

The blooming season has been prolonged by the callistemons making up for their quiet years when they were little more than background. I almost think it is worth not being able to water to enjoy the abundance of flowers that follow rain. Gardens should be seasonal, not a formal set piece of clipped green which is the same year in, year out, year after year. I've come through my bad patch and the garden has me enslaved again.

From "Growing Australian", newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria), March 2004.

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Myrmeco-what-chory!!! Myrmecochory is seed dispersal by ants and, as Peter Vaughan explains, it's an important factor in the survival and reproduction of some plants

Ants are common seed dispersers - plants that depend on ants for seed dispersal are termed myrmecochores. There is usually a reward attached to the seed.

Compare Acacia melanoxylon seed to A.implexa seed. A.melanoxylon has a red seed stalk that is so long it encircles the seed while A.implexa has a short pale coloured seed stalk. The seed stalk is very nutritious and remains attached to the seed after falling. Ants gather the seed of desirable species, take it to their nest, remove the nutritious portion and then discard the unwanted seed - either in a disused part of the nest, or on the rubbish heap (usually an area beside the nest). A.melanoxylon is obviously ant dispersed and A.implexa isn't. This probably accounts for the maior difference between the habits of these two species (their distributions are very similar).

Animated ant   

Grevillea banksii - I once had a sealed plastic bag of Grevillea banksii seed (natural form, not garden form). Ants detected the seed inside and chewed through the plastic, gathered the seed and carted it back to where their trail disappeared into a crack in the concrete. The grevillea seeds would not fit in, so they chewed the wings off and left the seeds Therefore, winged grevillea seeds are also ant dispersed.

Brachyscome - Brachyscome seeds aren't very different to grevillea seeds, except they are much smaller. In contrast to most daisies, they are not wind transported. We now know the reason - ants do the deed for them. Therefore, if you find brachyscomes and no seeds, look adjacent to ant nests. Their rubbish dumps may hold some.


What does the plant gain from ant dispersal? There are some very big advantages:-

  1. They are safe from predators.
  2. There is less seedling competition (ants remove seeds and seedlings of undesirable species).
  3. The ant nest rubbish dump is a nutrient-rich site and seeds are often covered with a layer of compost (not necessarily an advantage with daisies).
  4. They may be favourably placed for fire. Seeds placed undergrornd are often stimulated and grow after intense fires. Seeds on the surface respond to minor fires. The ant nest rubbish dump generally does not burn and therefore seed survival is high.

From this you can see that myrmecochory is a common feature of Australian plants, yet we do not appreciate its full value.

It is significant that the important identifying feature of brachyscomes. ie. the wings on the seed, appear so significant in seedling establishment and consequently plant growth. A particular ant species probably favours a particular seed due to ease of handling (and perhaps flavour) and therefore the seedling lives with the ant in its desired soil and moisture levels.

From the newsletter of the Nowra Group of the Australian Plants Society, May 2001.

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Australian Plants online - June 2004
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants