Russet trees & scarlet tails

Is that fall colour I see on the hillside as the mist parts over Calabash Bay?  Nope, wrong season, wrong continent.  It’s the golden-brown tips of the casuarina trees, the males that is, laden with pollen and catching the morning light.

For all their evocative latin label – named after their cassowary-like foliage – the casuarinas are a mournful kind of tree, I think.  The wind whistling through the wispy branchlets of the she-oaks takes me straight back to solitary times in childhood.  Even Wikipedia notes, rather poetically, how quiet it is in a she-oak forest, sound muffled by the blanket of fallen “needles”, in an understory where other things refuse to grow.

Not so quiet this morning, though.  Just as I was cursing my missed train, there was a “kraaaaak!” and a flash of red in the trees between the commuter car park and the RSL.  New guys in town (or new to me anyway): glossy black-cockatoos.

Two young fellas and an older female, I reckon – a typical little group for these birds, it seems, unlike the yellow and red tailed black-cockatoos that stay in bigger flocks.  The two lads flapped from tree to tree, red tails glowing in the sun, while mum (or cocky-cougar?) chilled out next to Berowra Car Care, having a good old preen.

Glossy black-cockatoos are fussy eaters.  The penny has dropped for yellow-tails that they need to diversify their eating habits and these days they’re doing okay, thanks to pine trees like the great big decrepit ones in our yard.  But these birds really only like the woody fruits of the allocasuarinas  – and turn their noses up at even some of those.  The black she-oak, casuarina littoralis, is a particular favourite and, now I’ve started to notice them in their winter finery, it seems there’s plenty of them around here.

But the black oaks don’t come back too well from big, hot fires.  And the glossy black cockies are competing with galahs, corellas, sulphur cresteds and mynahs – birds that don’t mind land being cleared and subdivided.  Humans knock down the big old trees, feral bees nick the nesting hollows and possums steal black-cockatoo eggs.  Perhaps it’s not surprising I haven’t seen these lovely birds before.

Or maybe they’ve been here all along, “inconspicuous and cryptic”, leaving a trail of half-chewed casuarina orts, just a red flash in the golden silence of the she-oak trees.

Backyard bounty

Okay, only metaphorically our backyard… but we got there on foot in less than ninety minutes, and that’s at child pace.  In my own garden, the cut the critters take makes me want to weep.  It’s a lot more fun watching the surplus of Waratah Bay feeding the locals.

A crab-eating goanna was a first for me.

Even a bunch of yelling kids couldn’t drive this white-faced heron from a great seafood buffet.

No pics of the circling white-bellied sea eagle, but you’ll be pleased to know, it too caught a fish.

Cloud inversions and sunsets: a year of backyard skies

Maps in bloom

Perhaps I’ve simply been oblivious before, but this year it seems the bush around Berowra is awash with flowers –  white posies crowning the Sydney red gums (Angophora costata) that now appear to be on every street corner, ridgetop and slope.

There’s something strange about this foam of blossom appearing across our familiar view, as if, while we weren’t looking, a stagehand unrolled a new backdrop to our lives.  I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed by capturing this new scene on camera. Here’s a small sample of my multiples.  Andy Warhol eat your heart out.

Closer to town, the jacarandas are also out.  I love the way this royal bloom redrafts the map of the suburbs, rerouting your eye from the usual lines of roads and railways and wires, to a new dot-to-dot of superbly laden trees.  The city shifts on its axis.  Or better, the city’s axis, the radial city itself, retreats behind a mist of purple flowers.

Of course, this new cartography of living things is still a map of privilege, of the breathing space between people.  They don’t call affluent parts of town “the leafy suburbs” for nothing.

Creating and keeping green space gets more urgent as cities get hotterAn article in the Harvard Gazette reports research on the way inequality, heat and green space correlate.  “Heat” says Joyce Klein Rosenthal, who teaches in Harvard’s School of Design, “is an environmental stressor, unevenly distributed in places where there are less trees, less green space, and associated with poorer housing quality”.   “At every scale” she noted “income levels are associated with surface temperatures. Poorer neighborhoods are hotter; wealthier neighborhoods are cooler”

Street trees have magic carpets beneath them, not just lilac flowers, but shade.  And on a stifling day the breath of wind across a city park – old-school evaporative airconditioning – is almost as good as the breeze off the water.  Just now, the City of Sydney is trying to green streets and villages, beating the urban heat island effect by shading concrete, weaving plants into walls and sowing seeds on roofs.

But, that hasn’t stopped the chainsaws round here.  New regulations in NSW, created in the name of fire risk-management, let householders rip, at least on trees ten metres or less from their place (oddly, it seems that trees in the middle of spectacular views present the greatest fire hazard).  What an irony: climate change, worsened by tree-felling, makes the Australian weather hotter and extends the bushfire season.  We fear the urban forests, just as we need them the most.

After years of cultivating a back yard the size of a large picnic blanket (that’s to say, a picnic blanket made of concrete) every day I bless the growing things I see from my window.  I may feel differently one day when the view from my back deck is Sydney red gums topped with flame rather than flowers.  Let’s hope I don’t find out anytime soon.

The inconspicuous, the insignificant and the underwhelming

Sure, to the swanky author of a well-received volume on gardening it’s a throwaway line: “has insignificant flowers”, “flowers are inconspicuous”.  But how about some consideration for feelings, eh?  What’s wrong with “reserved”, “low profile”, “unpretentious”?

My 7 year old drew me aside the other day and whispered conspiratorially “At school I drew a picture of a plant’s bits!!!” In the light of this insight, which I really hope she didn’t share with her teacher, perhaps we could even go with “modest flowers”?

To be honest, I find persimmon flowers faintly perturbing when upended and exposed to the rude light of day.  Much better to let them shelter under their curtain of leaves.

I do, however, need to be rather forward with my demure custard apple flowers soon.  They may not look like much but there’s the smell of perfume in the air.  Time to wave my magical pollinating paintbrush and help create some atemoyan fecundity.  Or, given my pruning anxieties and the consequent fact that most of the new flowers are more than two and a half metres off the ground, perhaps it’s time to fall off a poorly located stepstool, crashing through branches, crushing multiple flowers and possibly poking myself in the eye with pollen-dusted painting gear on my way down.

Thankfully there’s no need to hand pollinate the midgen berries to get tasty little purple-and-white fruits.  Otherwise I’d have to get one of those three-haired brushes they use to paint a portraits on a grain of rice.

And then there’s the flowers that are not so much shy as downright recalcitrant.  On the left, a NSW Christmas bush down the road.  On the right, the unimpressive shade-dwelling specimen in our yard.

And another offender: Kunzea ambigua doing its thing elsewhere on the left and in our garden, not even making the effort to take a decent photograph.  Very poor form.

Thank goodness for institutional plantings.  Just because councils like to plant it on the median strip doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see the blue flax lily producing its, shall we say, somewhat coy flowers in the shade under the maple tree.  If your camera is close enough, even the teeniest flowers are significant. Could that be a metaphor for this blog? Or is it just a sales pitch for a macro lens?

Black wattle and a pile of rotting logs

We missed the October snowstorm in the Blue Mountains by a week, dammit.  But as we walked the historic (if annoyingly snow flake free) National Pass last weekend I suddenly realised why my callicoma serrata has been struggling in its spot right next to a humungous, thirsty pine tree.

Despite the lack of a 200 metre waterfall in our garden, our black wattle is finally enjoying life enough to flower. A rainy August probably helped, but I reckon our extreme torpor also played a role.  A few weeks back, our helpful neighbours stacked the severed remains of a casuarina tree on our side of the fence, right round the base of the callicoma.  It took us a while to move the logs into the woodshed and I suspect the callicoma enjoyed the hyper-mulch experience.

This unexpected flowering made me think again about hugelkultur – growing stuff in raised beds on top of a moisture-absorbing stack of rotting logs.  The idea has some appeal and it’s not just the fact that the word reminds me of delicious German pastries.  I’ve sometimes toyed with ad hoc terracing of the part of the garden into which storm water is unceremoniously decanted after big rain.  Since the yard is full of piles of wood, “hugelswales” (surely the name of a lime green chest of drawers in the IKEA children’s department) may be the way forward.

I admit, there’s a faintly faddish feel about the hugeltalk.  I’ve got a pretty good idea that eventually it will go the way of my superannuated chicken dome, parked up like a rusted out combi van at the bottom of the paddock, only used by weary, equally superannuated chickens.  But what the hell, may as well give this hippie thing a bit of a spin before we put her up on the blocks.

A long drive

One of the garden projects I’ve been plotting for a while is clearing and revegetating the green strip beside our vertiginous, fifty metre long driveway. “Your front yard is reportable” was the dry remark of a local ranger passing through our botanical garden of pestilence.  After a long day of pulling out weeds in the sun, RB strategically averts his eyes from the tangle of asparagus fern, honeysuckle, spider plant, fishbone, agapanthus, ochna, freesias and trad on the final moments of his trek home.

My most unsuccessful plan to beat the access road into submission was undercover hedge replacement.  Slowly but surely, I figured, blueberry bushes surreptitiously planted amongst the morass of agapanthus would take over, without me every having to have a cross word with the neighbours.  Just like the state under the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the benign influence of my edible fruits the floral weeds would simply wither away.  Right.  I reckon agapanthus could give the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China a good run for its money.

My driveway strawberry patch was a less immediate fail.  When we first moved in I planted up the space between the concrete wheelruts with a couple of dozen Diggers’ strawberries.  At one stage, I had about three metres under weed matting, the strawbs basking in a good bit of morning sunlight and not so close to the footpath to actively invite passers by to help themselves.  We got quite a decent crop during recent La Nina years, possibly because the backyard critters couldn’t be bothered roaming so far from the easy pickings of the chicken run and the compost bin.  The lure of ripe strawberries at the top of the drive had the kids bursting out of the front door on school mornings.

Unfortunately the demands of ministering to this patch in the drier times have demonstrated my deep seated laziness.  Even the glute work-out offered by the stiff hike up the hill out front couldn’t get me sufficiently motivated  to stop the strawberries disappearing beneath the buffalo grass.  Ironically, since mowing said grass is best undertaken with pitons, crampons and a length of abseiling rope.  The occasional stroll, watering can in hand, would have been much less effort.

So I’ve been considering the low-maintenance alternatives.  I got as far as ordering and trying out a couple of prospects just before our recent camping jaunt to South Australia – because it’s always good to leave tiny plantlets without attention or water in their first couple of weeks in the ground, right?

Bearing in mind the can’t-be-bothered-with-the-watering-can factor I figured desert plants might be best.  So, pig face around the post-box and maybe creeping boobiala on the graves of the strawberry plants.  I popped some in to see how they got on.

But it turns out there was no need to watch and wait to find out what myoporum parvifolium would look like.  As the sun rose on the first morning of the trip and I headed into the bush, shovel in hand, for alfresco ablutions, what should I find underfoot but boobiala creeping towards the horizon.

And by the side of the road, a carpet of pig face*.

*Okay, It was probably a different variety of pigface – maybe carpobrotus rossii or aequilaterus or even the round-leaved pigface Disphyma crassifolium subsp. clavellatum (thanks Sherilee!) .  And the myoporum parvifolium wasn’t the fineleafed kind most common in nurseries.  Stop being so damn fussy and let me enjoy the coincidence!