Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!


Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.

Implausible vegetables

I don’t know if it’s spring or the big rains we had a while ago, but bamboo shoots from the neighbours’ giant hedge are popping up everywhere.  I say it’s the neighbours’ bamboo hedge but since it’s running bamboo, it’s ours as well.  It makes a frequent guest appearance amongst the native shrubs, pokes through cracks in the concrete driveway, squeezes its way around the foundations of the house. Regularly hacking it back is the only thing stopping our yard slowly transforming into panda paradise (in fact, every time I get out the saw the kids accuse me of species-threatening habitat destruction).

But rampant bamboo is actually fine.  In fact, it’s great, since I consider myself to be an artist whose natural medium is bamboo stakes and zip ties.  So far my oeuvre includes four gates, a 10 metre long enclosure for the vegetable garden, five trellises in a range of styles, a pergola, some windchimes and more bean tripods than you can shake a stick at.  Obviously, if you did shake a stick in my vicinity I’d probably grab it from you, attach zip ties to it and turn it into a trellis.

The wall of bamboo is a magical swaying whispering verdant thing.  Every year it manufactures the living fenceposts that keep our property’s ancient teetering side wall more or less upright.  And now it feeds us!  Okay, it feeds us with grass.  In fact, grass laden potentially fatal amounts of cyanide.  But it’s still food, even if you’re not a panda.

Bamboo shoots, I think, should be included in a new class of produce I’m calling “implausible vegetables”.  I’m not 100% sure how we define this category of foodstuffs.  One possible definition: “a vegetable that, in the process of preparation for human consumption, shrinks to a tiny fraction of its pre-preparation size.  The amount of the implausible vegetable that can actually be eaten is dramatically smaller than the quantity of peelings, husks, stems or leaves destined for the compost bin”.  Another possibility: “a vegetable which even rats refuse to eat”.

But is it simply implausible vegetables, or should it be implausible and dangerous vegetables?

The pics above were taken for our 7 year old’s class presentation: an explanation of a  simple procedure in the kitchen.  In her notes, she did stress that you needed to boyl the sliced shoots for at least 20 minits or you will be poysned.  Even so, if a wave of year twos with histotic hypoxia turn up at the local hospital, we will be keeping a low profile.

After three meals on the trot containing home-grown bamboo shoots, there has been some hypochondriacal consultation of Dr Google.  Hard to distinguish the early symptoms of toxicity, though, since weakness, confusion and headaches are, in my experience, a fairly normal consequence of a day at work.

Globe artichokes, of which I am a passionate admirer, are also clearly implausible, to wit:

But lethal?  Well, for a start, it’s clearly a mistake to allow anyone as unhygenic as I am near any kind of sterile procedure.  The throwaway line in my recipe that inclusion of raw garlic in the jar could induce botulism did not significantly reduce Home Canning Anxiety, either.  And to me, pickled veg and stuff in jars just scream deranged-scientist-in-subterranean-lab-full-of-body-parts-in-formaldehyde.  My own disturbing inaugural effort at artichoke hearts in oil was no exception.

But the more I think about it, the more all plant-based foods seem deeply implausible and highly likely to be dangerous.  You grow grass, pick the seeds, grind them into dust with rocks, add a single-celled micro-organism found on the human body, warm the mixture til it produces carbon dioxide, pummel it until the carbon dioxide diffuses, warm it again, pummel it again, heat it in a fire until you kill the eukaryotic microorganism, cool it and eat it.  What a lot of effort.  No wonder we all used to eat gruel.  And I’m not even factoring in the possibility that along the way the grain might have collected another fungus that causes hallucinations, convulsions, burning of the limbs and gangrene.   

But it’s not just modern, non-paleo foods.  You eat the tiny tiny flower buds? You eat the tiny tiny inverted flower buds?  You eat the stems of a plant traditionally giftwrapped before eating? You eat the extremely sour stems of a plant whose leaves are full of a toxic chemical used as a metal cleaner?  You eat the fruits of a carnivorous plant closely related to deadly nightshade? You grow and then systematically bury a plant closely related to deadly nightshade so you can eat its roots without them going green and prompting delerium, hypothermia and paralysis?

And I’m not even considering the implausibility of cheese – stealing the breast milk of a lactating mammal, mixing it with the stomach lining of a ruminant until it curdles, straining it, pressing it, putting it in a cave until it gets mould on it and then eating it. Hard to imagine the weird circumstances that led to this culinary breakthrough – although I guess cow-keeping cave dwellers with an acute food shortage and limited access to the internet were less thin on the ground in the past.

My conclusion: hungry people will eat anything, even if it takes weeks to prepare it and if, at the end of all that effort, it may well kill them.  We’re just lucky we have so many things that will potentially kill us on our doorstep.

Do possums see in technicolour?

Tamarillos: what a great fruit for inept, part-time gardeners!  Stupendously quick to grow – to a couple of metres in not much over twelve months.  Producing a crop in less than two years and in a shady spot too, tucked in amongst monstera deliciosa, naranjillas and a dwarf Cavendish banana in the lee of the neighbour’s tall pine tree, with filtered light in summer and just a touch of winter sun.  The egg sized fruits are quite pleasant to eat: flesh with the texture of a honeydew melon and with an overtone of passionfruit.  I like the big bright green tropical leaves and the fact that fruit flies seem to leave them alone.  But best of all, Matimba (as our youngest named the baby tree when it went in) didn’t seem to be pestered by possums.  Since the fruits dangle  from slender pendulous branches I wondered at first if the critters couldn’t make it to where the action was.  Then I thought perhaps they hadn’t spotted them yet, remembering how my figs and beans went untouched for a year or two.

And then recently I spotted a green but nibbled fruit under the tree.  Obviously the contents weren’t to the liking of the thief – not quite ripe enough, perhaps.  It might well have been an optimistic bird that did the dirty work.  But given that tamarillo fruits quite distinctly change in colour as they ripen – gold in the case of Matimba and red in the case of her as yet non-fruiting little sister Molly – this evidence of mid-snack mind-change made me wonder: “Do possums have colour vision?


I realised only recently that primate colour vision is actually pretty unusual amongst mammals, whose ancestors swapped technicolour for better night vision while hiding amongst the shadows, waiting for dinosaurs to leave the party.  Humans, primates and monkeys have a kind of gerry-rigged third cone that gives us an in on the neat seed dispersal system fruit-bearing plants sorted out with birds and their dinosaurian tetrachromatic eyes.  Like parrots, we can spot a ripe fruit against a canopy of green leaves (although we don’t get to see the UV spectrum, which is disappointing).  Okay, there are other explanations for primate colour vision – like spotting tasty red-hued fresh leaves – but I’m sticking with this one for now.  Interestingly, colour-blind humans, primates and monkeys (particularly males) are still unusually common.  It seems that colour-blind individuals are great at seeing through camouflage, so a sprinkling of dichromatic members of the group serving as predator-spotters does a mob of monkeys or apes no harm at all.

Pulling out of the fascinating vortex of animal colour vision research and returning to my original question, what about possums?  With the ubiquity of brushtailed possums in suburban houses and gardens in Australia, surely someone would have a definitive answer on this one.

It turns out that marsupial colour vision has been a hotbed of academic research over the last fifteen years.  Until the early noughties it was assumed that marsupials, like most placental mammals, were dichromats, with pretty limited colour vision.  But then researchers identified that some marsupials, like the fat-tailed dunnart, the honey posssum and the quokka, were trichromats (as indeed were the ancestors of platypus and echidnas, the monotremes).  Some marsupials, like the poor old tammar wallaby, do seem to have the same rather average colour vision as the placentals.

Brush-tailed possum vision is so cutting edge that Lisa Vlahos’ PhD on it, completed in 2013, hasn’t even been published in science journals yet.  But, based on the annual reports at the Vision Centre at ANU (sadly I haven’t been able to access her endearingly named PhD thesis “Possum Magic”) it look like brushtails can see part of the UV spectrum, but can’t distinguish between white and green light: more like dogs than chickens, they’re red-green colour blind.

Which might explain my chewed and rejected green tamarillo fruit. Or not.  But it was fun finding out anyway!

Backyard archaeology

Garden makeovers: love them.  Love hastily manufacturing a bespoke bamboo and zip-tie trellis in a frenzy of blunt rip saws and blisters.  Love labouring over a shovel to extract every last tuber of noxious, flourishing ginger lily.  Love spending all my discretionary money for the fortnight, and then some, on more plants that will feasibly fit in the boot of the car and planting them all in a rush, surveying them afterwards, faintly guilty but sated, with a hosepipe in my hand.

But sometimes there’s a hint that all these things – all the plans hatched on the backs of envelopes while nodding away to some background conversation, all the cruising of plant catalogues, all the impulse buys on a Sunday – have happened before.

A while back, with great effort, we moved some of the large barrels along the side of the granny flat a couple of metres down the hill into the sun, so we could plant them up with some figs – White Genoa and White Adriatic, since you are asking.  Where they had been, under a layer of soil and detritus, was a large tarpaulin, threaded through with roots and looking the worse for wear.  Shrugging, I pulled it up, tidied a bit and installed a trellis (an early “blue period” effort) along with a grafted Nellie Kelly black passionfruit vine.  The aim was to protect the granny flat, a fibro hotbox, from the westerly summer sun, and if the possums were slow on the uptake, get some fruit.

trellis 1Nellie swarmed up the trellis and onto the roof in no time, though I did start to notice some vigorous vines with  dull green leaves, three-lobed like the passionfruit, appearing amongst the mass of creepers over the garden wall nearby.  Did they look a little familiar?  Had I seen them before?  I pulled up a few and didn’t think too much about it.

Three years on, Nellie has done nothing fruit-wise and hasn’t even flowered much, which might say something about the cruelty to plants inflicted by a largely organic but also veggo gardener who has qualms about blood and bone.  That said, the dark-green vine hasn’t minded one bit, and has appeared everywhere in the garden, threading its way through the wallaby grass, swarming up the fig trees, and, during our tip away, anchoring the bamboo garden gate to the ground.  My “wait and see” weeding philosophy has spawned a tribe of voracious suckers from the root-stock passiflora caerula.  A beginners’ error, I have realised, after some research, especially on Hawkesbury sandstone.

Nellie’s got to go.  The plant and its Mr Hyde companion vine, almost as large, are summarily executed.  In a surprisingly short time, the contents of half a black passionfruit emptied into in a pot of seed-raising mix on the windowsill has germinated, despite predictions that it might take months.  Once the corpse of Nellie has been disposed of, one or two of these babies will replace her, and will hopefully survive the root rots to which the non-graft fruit are apparently prone.

I’ve clocked, of course, what that tarpaulin was all about.  Someone who lived here before, that person who we’ve often cursed for planting huge stands of reportable weeds and using only two screws in all the door hinges, made the same mistake.  Someone before me, on a whim, probably at Bunnings, bought one of Nellie’s clone sisters years ago, planted it in the very same spot, and then had to take drastic measures to keep the suckering hordes at bay.

One day (when my body is taken out of this place in a box)  maybe someone else will rip out my fruit trees, put a lawn across my asparagus and spray Round Up on the scurvy grass, kidney weed and native geranium that have crept back where the spider plants and trad used to run riot.  Maybe there’ll be a townhouse and a double-car garage where my mulberry tree is.  Perhaps the best I can hope is that someone will pull out my non-grafted passionfruit, muttering about root rot, and put in another Nellie Kelly.


Things are looking a bit Miss Havisham in the garden at the moment. A fallow season – my attempt at growing green manure an abject failure – hasn’t yet been chased away by the autumn seedlings.  There are scraps of sweet potato vine, regrown from last year’s tubers, heading towards the (rather peaky) citrus, and disorderly “Fat Bastard” asparagus and frazzled raspberry canes toppled over the pathways. The artichokes are proving their thistle heritage: seeds bursting out in a most non-food-like manner, though a couple of weeks ago they made really quite impressive display in a vase.  They make me think of other edible flowers and buds: nasturtiums, violets and borage; the spicy flowers of daikon radishes and bok choi; as well as the weirder ones – broccoli, capers, figs.

Better get out there and cut those giant thistles down to size.