A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

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Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.


More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

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Backyard gold

Bats about tamarillos

This time last year, a raid on my tamarillo crop had me pondering on possums.   What spidie sense tells the resident marsupials to gobble up your perfectly-ripe figs and grapes the very night before you plan to harvest them?  Are they tri-chromatic mutants like we humans, with gerry-rigged colour vision just good enough to grab a ripe mango before the visually well-endowed parrot gets it first? Or do they sniff out your glorious organic harvest in defiance of their typical mammalian red-green colour blindness?

But this year I’ve been mostly thinking about bats.

I’ve had a bumper crop this year off my quick growing and beautiful tamarillo tree, though not quite the 20 kilos that others brag about. So I’ve not been too miffed to find some of the ripe fruit scattered on the ground, flesh neatly scooped out, or to spot a few gnawed items left dangling on the tree.  All the other members in my household are either under ten or Scottish, and consequently I have no human competition for weird fruits of any kind.  It would seem churlish not to share with the local critters.

So who are my fellow tamarillo lovers?  I suspect the grey-faced flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus), the most common “macrobats” in this part of New South Wales.  While I haven’t eyeballed a single flying fox at our place, I’ve heard them playing cricket with the toxic fruits of the cocos palms for weeks.  Soon after lights out, there’s a sequence of companionable shrieks, rustles and thumps, and the palms start raining seeds onto the roof.

One of the many reasons cocos palms are a dangerous pleasure for flying foxes is that the fallen fruit lures them down where they can be chewed up and spat out by the local dogs.  Every morning for the last month or so I’ve found a little piece of installation art on a stump near the cocos palm – a few half-eaten fruit arranged with an eye to the design possibilities of the log’s in-house fungus.  I thought this was a convenient possum picnic spot, but I’m wondering if it’s a safe haven for bats who are obviously unaware that our house is guarded not by dogs but by night-blind attack chickens.

Our tamarillo tree (“Matimba”, as our eight year old has named her) is just beneath the hateful-but-expensive-to-remove cocos palm, in a jumble of shade-tolerating subtropical plants – galangal, ginger, bananas, naranjilla.  My kind of (sub)urban density.

Flying foxes are opportunists. They don’t just eat eucalyptus nectar, lillypilly fruits and mangrove leaves but take what they can find, and are willing to fly a long way to find it.  The closest bat “camps” to our place are in Gordon, Warriewood or Avalon – twenty kilometres or away or more.  Having come all that distance for a feed, only a bat-masochist who relishes the guts-ache produced by cocos fruits would turn up its nose at the delightful passionfruit-meets-apricot flavoured snack down below.

Unlike possums with their dud colour vision, megabats seem to be spoiled for choice when it comes to tracking down a ripe tamarillo.  When our mammalian common ancestor was hiding in a burrow and sneaking around in the dark to avoid veloceraptors, being able to see all the colours of the rainbow was less critical than decent night-sight.  Despite a largely nocturnal existence, fruitbats however have evolved the ability to see not just short wavelength but also medium and long wavelength light – and, like birds, can even see in ultraviolet, perhaps to spot flowers and fruits at dusk, at dawn and in bright moonlight.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that my surviving tamarillos were hiding underneath the banana and the monstera leaves, invisible to fruit bats cruising past above.  But flying foxes also have a pretty good sense of smell, so after the mysterious overnight disappearance of my first kiwifruit (and my mulberries, and my persimmons, and my grapes…) I don’t think I’ll chance it.

They may share colour vision with us primates and may even share some of our sexual peccadillos, but unless megabats evolve opposable thumbs and can open my back door, they’re not getting any more of my harvest this year.

Blood on the mulberries

This means war!  Or at least a humanitarian mission with military elements.

Just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by their generous assistance with your passive solar, suddenly the bowerbirds turn against you.   One minute they’re giving the liquidambar a light trim, the next they’ve descended on your mulberry tree and stripped it bare.

Mulberries are perfect backyard trees.  They’re easy to grow, fruit without chilly weather, and produce berries in spring before the fruitfly really get into gear.  Kids love to eat them: the Halloween themed blood-stained hands afterwards are a bonus.  You can feed them to silkworms which sorts out any number of school projects (and if you’re that kind of person you can weave your own scarves or caftans).  Chooks happily clean up the spoil.  And you never ever see mulberries in the shops – when they’re ripe they’re so soft and juicy they’re unshippable.  You have to eat them warm, straight off the tree.

And if that’s not enough, they also make a great spot for a diamond python’s mid-morning nap.

mulberry bush and snakey

There’s not much you can do wrong with mulberries, or so they say.  You’ve gotta love trees about which it can honestly be said: “you cannot kill them”.  You have to prune them for new growth and berries, but hacking randomly does seem to more or less work, though the outcome might be described less as “a classic open-centred vase shape” and more as “an ugly mess”.

The only bit of advice that people regularly give about mulberry trees is to avoid planting them near paths “to avoid stains”.  Given the chaotic state of our garden, I smiled smugly at this.  And then planted mine right next to the washing line.  Oops.

I know, I know, my Hick’s Fancy should have been netted against the birds (given that they can be weedy, this is probably a good idea for ecological as well as harvest-maximising reasons).  But the bowerbirds haven’t stopped at the mulberry.  They’ve also had a good go at the grapes up the granny flat wall and the kiwifruit vines on the “solar pergola”.  Exclusion netting is all very well but short of getting a great big net dropped from a helicopter to drape over the whole house and yard, there’s only so much you can do.  Thinking about it, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.  All I need is some air support.

Ornamental manoeuvres in the dark

I’m hip to the food forest concept but there’s only so much food you can grow in the shade.  Naranjilla, tamarillo, monstera, babaco, finger lime, warrigal greens – ticked all those boxes.  But at a certain point, you’ve just got to give up the dream of a waving field of wheat outside your kitchen window, and actually plant something that’s going to grow there.  Even if it means going over to the other side, down the slippery slope towards… the ornamental garden.  The garden you can’t eat but which ameliorates the existential despair of staring down at yet another sinkful of dishes.  Gardening in the terrain between utility and futility.

Just now quite a few of those spirit pleasing plants are in bloom.  Libertia Paniculata has made me very happy: a lovely native that flowers in the shade, and is even named after a female botanist and mycologist, Anne-Marie Libert (or Marie-Anne, depending who you ask).  Okay, you can’t eat it, and you couldn’t describe it as flowering copiously in its sheltered spot under the pittosporum (also blooming now).  But the delicate white flowers when they come – some in May and again in August this year – linger, picked out in the odd beam of light that makes its way between the ferns.

Plecanthus argentatus has been a stalwart too, sprawling a bit unless snipped back now and then, but you can’t have too much silvery-grey foliage in my view and it’s a rarity in shade-loving plants, so sprawl away, I say. It copes  well with dry weather and even produces small sprays of tiny white flowers in autumn.  I’ve had less success with indigofera australis which I hoped to plant alongside it – one cheap but sickly plant finally croaked recently after sitting there rather miserably for a year or so, and I failed to get any of the seedlings I sparked up from seed bought online to survive in the garden.  But I’ve noticed new growth on a second plant, put in last year, so I’m hopeful I’ll see some of its purple flowers eventually.

Vines are a good bet for shade, since they are usually happy to climb towards the light. I’ve got two varieties of pandorea jasminoides swarming up a trellised fence, entwined with Tecomanthe hillii.  The Fraser Island Creeper has done nothing flower-wise, which may well be a good thing, since I’m not wild about the hot-pink colour scheme (it was an impulse buy), although I do like the mauvy-purple of the new shoots.  There’s been a bit of action from the “Bower of Beauty”: though it’s decided to set up its bower of trumpet-shaped flowers on the neighbour’s side of the fence (in the sun, dammit!).

Pandorea pandorana, the wonga-wonga vine, flowers for a only couple of weeks a year – just about now – but with the occasional bit of cow poo it has done a good job of disguising the shonky engineering of our garage. Having seen “old man’s beard” going the full Ned Kelly in sandstone country up the way, I was a bit nervous about putting Clematis aristata over the car port, thinking the extra weight on the roof might crush our car like a bug.  But no – after a couple of years it’s barely hanging on.  I suspect that lime from nearby concrete might be the offender.

The correas seem to have done their dash more or less, so no pics.  Correa glabra, quite an upright small bush with fresh lime-green leaves and pale yellow flowers, and Correa bauerlenii, with greeny-white flowers in the shape of an implausibly towering chef’s hat, shiny dark leaves and reddish stems, have both grown well and flowered in a gloomy spot, though Correa alba struggled, never really growing much at all and finally giving up the ghost.  Another “Chef’s cap correa” did really well for a while out back but succumbed during a very wet February, so drainage seems to be a thing.

The correas apparently attract birds, but the plant growing in the shady front yard that has attracted the most attention, not just from our “house” birds, the red and little wattlebirds who dangle upside down to sip its nectar, but even the occasional beautiful visitor like the gorgeous rufus-chested Eastern Spinebill, is not a native but the abutilon, the chinese lantern.

I didn’t plant the chinese lanterns, but as time passes, I come more and more to like Val Plumwood’s idea of garden that is convivial – accepting the presence of foraging animal visitors and plants – local, native and imported – as long as they don’t go feral.  She was fond of daffodils – in part because the wombats and other critters that visited her garden didn’t eat them, and in part because they didn’t do a runner into the bush.  She was a smart lady: you have to respect anyone who survived a death roll with a crocodile.

Beyond the out-and-out baddies to be found in the noxious weeds list and the excellent Grow Me Instead booklets, it’s actually pretty hard to work out what to avoid if you don’t want to become notorious as the “Typhoid Mary” of the next generation of weeds.  I only know not to plant freesia, which I love, because of the fact they pop up everywhere at this time of year – in the wheel rut zone in the drive and the dog poo zone along the street.  The smell of murraya is gorgeous and it’s not listed on the plants to avoid pamphlets for around here but murraya paniculata “exotica” is a serious weed in South Eastern Queensland.  All sorts of scary things are for sale in garden centres and online, and there’s plenty to be worried about in my garden already (I’m going to have to hypnotise my neighbour if I want to uproot the avenue of seed-shedding agapanthus between our drives).  I try to grow local, but if all you can buy are hybridised natives, provenance unknown, perhaps you might be better off with some well behaved, hard working refugees from a South American rainforest or an English country garden.

Delicious monsters

After giving a damning review to one weird home-grown fruit I thought I’d better balance out the report card on the food forest.  The babaco I selected and carefully cultivated myself.  But the Monstera deliciosa (or cheese plant as its sometimes called, because of the swiss cheese-like holes in its leaves) was flourishing here long before we arrived.  It did seem to get a new lease on life when the large gum tree that had shaded it fell on our house – the rejuvenating power of schadenfreude perhaps – and I’ve had to hack it back numerous times since.

While most people grow this plant as an ornamental, I had heard its fruits were edible.  Our rampant vine has had quite a number of fruits over the years, but it wasn’t until I stepped over one knocked down and half eaten by possums that, in a moment of uncharacteristic boldness, I decided I would have to give them a try.  I hacked off the end that had been nibbled by critters, for cootie management, and, peeling off the small green cap on each, tasted a few of the hexagonal berries, compressed together pineapple-style. What a revelation – absolutely delicious, with a hint of a pineapple-like tartness, and the creamy mouth feel of a banana, but perhaps closest in texture and taste to a custard apple (also appearing from the bottom of the garden at the moment – yum!).

At a first taste the berries were sweet but quite firm.  After sampling a handful my throat felt slightly raspy, as it sometimes does after eating under-ripe pineapple, and there was a faint burning sensation around my chin and lips.  Rather hastily, I did some light googling to find that, thanks to needle-like raphides of our old friend oxalates, the fruit salad plant, including its unripe fruits, can be quite toxic. Oops.  There’s a lesson for the kids at home.

So, annoyingly, while babaco with its flavour of newly-laid-carpet is quite innocuous, monstera deliciosa fruits get the following rundown from the Queensland Government poisons centre: they are “considered edible” but can cause “immediate burning pain, and swelling of the lips, mouth, tongue and throat… copious salivation and difficulty breathing, swallowing or speaking… rapidly developing urticaria or hives, a transient swollen, itchy rash… nausea, abdominal pain and intense gastric irritation”.  Kill joys.

Given that my light snack on allegedly toxic unripe berries had only mild side effects, I decided to try to ripen the rest of the “cob” in a paper bag with a banana, as one site suggested.  As promised, after a few days the little green caps on each berry fall off spontaneously, although the fruit didn’t turn yellow as it appears in some of the pictures online.  The fruit seems to ripen from one end to the other, so I pulled off some of the rather scabrous looking lidless berries, leaving others, still clinging to their hats, to ripen further.  As you can see, the half gnawed fruit looks distinctly unglamorous, but the squoodgy berries underneath tasted great.

I’m going to keep eating them, carefully and in small quantities.  On a cautionary note, my tasters, the possums, haven’t been seen since the appearance of that discarded cob.  So if this is my last post, it was the raphides that dunnit.

First fruit


I’ve had a few babacos now: small, cool climate papayas that are said to fruit prodigiously, and in the shade too.  My first expired very quickly, probably from root rot, to which they are apparently quite prone.  I kept the second in a pot for a while, for drainage reasons, and it clung on despite my peripatetic watering habits.  The third plant I put in the “food forest” part of the garden, and it seemed to grow pretty well, on a sandy slope with filtered summer sun and not a lot of light at all in winter, so I popped the one from the pot into the ground nearby, in a slightly brighter spot.  The second plant has had two torpedo-shaped green fruits hanging on for quite a while, during which time it has slowly but steadily shed all its leaves, possibly encouraged by the possums.  I began to think it might croak before the fruits ever ripened, given the seasonal gloom.  Eventually one of its paps started to turn a patchy lemon yellow. After some bad guessing with custard apples last year, I wouldn’t have been game to pick it but the fruit dropped off the tree of its own accord and pleasingly, ripened up quite well inside, sitting next to a banana in the fruit bowl.

Apparently the ancient Greeks had a tradition of offering the first fruit of the new season to Demeter, goddess of the harvest.  I suspect Demeter might have turned her nose up at my first babaco.  It’s been called the “champagne fruit“, and others suggest it tastes of strawberries and pineapple… it certainly has a citrus tang along with that strange slightly off taste of papaya and something else… the odour of freshly laid carpet? the plasticky inside of a new car…? Not something I would be super eager to eat anyway.  That said, it’s a good looking plant which seems to grow reasonably well in a tricky spot and apparently propagates easily too.  I’m fairly sure the taste of slightly curdled carpet offcuts will be the least of my problems after the zombie apocalypse so I think after Number Two’s second torpedo has been launched I might have a go at growing some cuttings.  I have to drum up plants for the school fete this year (yes, we will be running a cake stall while the government spends $12 billion on jets) and it is always possible that there are fruit-growers out there in Berowra that like the taste of new cars.