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.

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!

A fossil in the garden

Gardens are time-capsules.  I don’t just mean the odd, poignant occasion when you dig up a bone carefully buried, long ago, by a dog you never met. I mean the fashions in plants that date gardens just as surely as winklepickers, blue eyeshadow or shoulderpads date photographs.  As you walk round the suburbs you’ll see  jacarandas arching over Californian bungalows, rows of red cordylines hemming eaveless McMansions, 70s brick veneer hidden behind shaggy bottlebrushes and rambling grevilleas.  Social history has roots in the backyard.

Our place was built in the late 1950s, and I reckon a few of the bigger trees date from about that time.  The largest hibiscus I’ve ever seen, entwined with an ancient honeysuckle as weighty as a strangler fig, reaching up above the roof of our neighbour’s two-story house to catch the light, speaks to me of post-war dreams of expansive America, a Hawaiian fantasy.  The liquidambar and the Japanese maple – a yearning for colour in the fall.

Until today, I put the tallest tree in the yard in the same category – I figured it was a swamp cypress, native of the Everglades, happy knee-deep in water (and, with enough water, they do grow knees!).  Like a larch, it’s a deciduous conifer, needles turning copper in the autumn, then returning, fresh and feathery green in the spring.

But I was wrong.  It’s not an imposing American, though it is a cousin of the great sequoias.  It’s Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a dawn redwood: living fossil from the “dawn of time”.  It’s the Wollemi Pine of the 1940s.   An expedition to a remote village in Szechuan province in 1946 discovered a giant living Metasequoia, a species known from fossil evidence to have existed for 100 million years, thought to have been extinct for at least two million more.

Metasequoia (“sort of Sequoia”, “Sequoia-ish”) was something of a sensation in the late 1940s. In 1948 Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens, along with arboreta all over the world, received seeds and commercial nurseries in Australia began growing them for sale the same year. With seeds both easy to collect and propagate, the dawn redwood, George Seddon says, was a big money spinner and the trees are are now common in parks and gardens all over the world, from the subtropics to Alaska.  It’s proudly grown as a street tree in China, though it is critically endangered in its only location in the wild, Metasequoia Valley, not far from the staggeringly huge Three Gorges Dam, a hydro scheme so big filling it slowed the rotation of the earth.

Now of course, I want more lazarus taxa – more trees returned from the dead.  Gingko with its maiden-hair leaves, a clear yellow in the fall.  Okay, it has fruits that smell of vomit and its edible nut is toxic.  Who cares! It’s a dinosaur tree, over a hundred million years old!  As is the Wollemi Pine – three clumps of genetically identical trees discovered in a deep, remote canyon in 1994 – weird looking, self-coppicing, lusted over by others in possession of dawn redwood, it seems.  Although John Benson of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney advises against hoarding this fossil: “people who put them in their backyard will soon have no backyard” (Seddon, 2005, 100).

My neighbours say every winter they look out their window and think, hearts sinking, that the redwood tree we share has gone and died.  Perhaps I should reassure them that it will live for more than a hundred years; that it is Lazarus, come back from the dead; that it has been around for a hundred million years.

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.

Bee-ing positive

Tropic snow and bee

It’s dry as a chip in the garden: less than 20% the average amount of July rainfall in Sydney and bushfires have already starting in the north of NSW, months ahead of the official fire season.  Warm too – a record 24 days of 18 degrees C and above.  It’s been 2.7 degrees C above the historical average for July.  Climate change – it’s here, suckers.

But on the bright side, gorgeous blooms on the Tropic Snow peach, and plenty of bees.  Touch wood, the varroa mite hasn’t arrived in Australia (yet) and our honeybees seem to be doing better than the rest of the world. I’m thinking about getting a hive or two, either of native stingless bees (though you can’t collect their honey here in Sydney) or just your everyday honeybees.  So far I haven’t had any flowers from my kiwifruit vines (notoriously hard to pollinate), but you have to plan ahead.

In the mean time… welcome, visiting bees!  Please help yourselves to our beautiful if precipitate peach-blossom.

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.