Archive for the ‘Trees’ Category

Tree Liberation – Tales of the Mighty Brush Box 

 The brush box, Lophostemon confertus, is perhaps my favourite tree, not merely because of its beauty and strength, but because of the ways we got to know each other and the experiences we had together.

Our relationship began when I moved house at the age of 4 or 5. The tree at the front gate was easy to climb, its strong, smooth trunk curving over the sandstone wall at just the right height for clambering into. My sisters and I spent many important hours occupying its branches, our minds busy with games now forgotten. Christmas beetles, cicadas, bull ants and cupmoth caterpillars also inhabited that tree. These ‘hairy caterpillars’ are one of nature’s more bizarre creations, looking like a two-headed Chinese dragon in a colourful street festival. Their brightly patterned bodies with four bunches of orange stinging hairs at each end are a temptation to children, but a warning to wiser predators. ‘Don’t touch’ is the best invitation to a curious child, and so we were stung and became wary, but kept sharing the tree.

I don't have a pic of Brush Box just now, so here is the biggest tree of them all - the Great Banyan Tree, Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, India

There was another brush box, its trunk rising straight up from an old concrete slab that seemed to merge with the grey sandstone surrounds. We could not climb this tree, but its canopy was dense and its shade deep. It was always cool under there, for picnics, water fights, hand ball, bike riding, reading. Dad had a different relationship with these trees. They both grew up into the power lines that connected to the house.

Extension ladder in position, in his working bee overalls he would disappear into its dark greenery with various hand saws and pruners. Soon the branches came tumbling down, and our job was to drag them away. I had no idea then that this was a brush box. I had no idea then that it was planted under power lines all over Sydney and other Australian cities, where it was routinely mutilated by tree lopping teams. I had no idea then that it in its natural state it was a magnificent forest giant that yielded a superb smooth, pink timber which a few years later would spark controversy in the rainforests of NSW, spawning a debate and protest that ultimately led to World Heritage status for the rainforests of NSW.


I was 16 when I went to my first logging protest. It was at Terania Creek, a remote end-of-the-road location in a lush subtropical valley in northern NSW. I can’t remember how I ended up there, but suddenly I was camping in a paddock with a bunch of hippies. There were guitars and vegetarian food at a camp on the forest edge. The forest was rainforest, hung with vines and soft with the swaying elegance of Bangalow palms. Stands of brush box, the result of disturbance over a thousand years ago, led to a debate over what defined rainforest. The NSW Forestry Commission said rainforest did not contain hardwoods. The brush box is a hardwood, therefore this was not a rainforest and logging it should not be an issue. I stood on the freshly severed trunk of a tree that may have been 1,500 years old, surrounded by the devastation caused by its premature crash to earth, listening sadly to the chainsaws busy on another such tree of life. I knew then that the discussion about how to define a rainforest had little to do with reality, and that politics, whatever side you were on, was only a tool.


On my return to the city I made the connection between these forest giants and the crew-cut street trees which I had barely noticed before. These 35m trees were planted under power lines because they recovered well from pruning. Logical at some level I suppose, like the argument for logging them.

Some years later, as a horticulture student I made a study of rainforest regeneration. As a practical component I collected and propagated the seed of rainforest plants. The brush box was one, and as my forest of seedlings sprouted in the shade house there was no question about whether or not it was a rainforest species. It was in that year that the Wran Labour Government halted the logging of rainforests in NSW, nominating them for World Heritage listing. Terania Creek was part of that nomination, along with the surviving brush boxes, whose gorgeous timber had sparked the direct action movement that doggedly followed the log trucks and chainsaws until at last they were gone.

You can easily visit Protestor Falls in the Nightcap National Park, which includes Terania Ck. The sounds are of rushing water, bird song and the breeze in the canopy. But when I stand there, I still hear the chainsaws and the defiant songs of the activists whose courage is remembered in the naming of the waterfall, and who drew inspiration from the helplessness of the brush box, strongest of trees.


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The Bodhi Tree

I’m back from India again. Amidst the noise and drama of 1 billion + people, are  an infinity of sacred sites. The Bodhi Tree is one. This is the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and the current tree is a descendant of the original. It’s the centrepiece of the town of Bodh Gaya, a little place in the state of Bihar, which is renowned for deep poverty, corruption, banditry and general dodginess. I go to Bihar each year, in spite of these harsh judgments, and find amongst the darkness the most peaceful people in the world, yogis of vast wisdom. So, there’s more to Bihar than meets the eye.

The Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment

The Bodhi tree – Ficus religiosa – healthy, with spreading, generous branches, the most worshipped tree in the world. I am into tree worship – after all, they make this Earth habitable. So my pilgrimage was to the tree, more than the temple or the philosophies of Buddha in which it is now embedded. He sat under a tree, resolving not to budge until he attained the answers to the problem of human suffering.  Those answers came, and his brilliance became the most gentle major religion of the world.

I paid my respects to the Bodhi Tree. And I wondered why Buddhists of the world build temples and place statues of the Buddha in Bodh Gaya but don’t plant trees everywhere. This sacred place was so dusty that people have to breathe through face masks. Ponds of disgusting, stagnant water had no trees around them. Beggars with bodies unbelievably deformed from polio crawled about in those dusty streets. There may be answers to human suffering in philosophy and meditation, but being a practical girl, I felt that some more trees and some sabin vaccine would certainly help.

I digress. May the tree live long and be an inspiration for earth friendliness, which relieves the suffering of all sentient beings.

I’ll tell you more soon about encounters with other miraculous plants in India. Photos coming.

And I must report on my visit to a wild lily garden in Hobart, inhabited by a rare one who calls himself a ‘naturist’ and has lived his values quietly for a long life.

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Finally I am back, only to find that summer is over and the maple leaves are starting to colour up in spite of the unseasonally warm weather. I have been back into the Zucchinis with a Bad Attitude post and addded some more practical info plus photos showing male and female flowers and their attendant bees. From now on I’ll be including practical growing info to go with the stories. This was always my aim – to be useful as well as (hopefully) inspiring and entertaining. And now to the maples, and a story from a springtime past…

A Mug Full of Maples

Maple colours

Every so often I decide to go for a walk just after I’ve made a cup of tea. So I take the tea with me. Taking a cup of tea for a walk makes passers by smile. The empty cup is also the perfect container for bringing home the inevitable bits of plants I can’t help collecting.

The several groves of Japanese maple dotted around my garden started off as seedlings brought home in such a teacup.

There is a very fine park down the hill from where I live. A creek runs busily through it and great gums balance on the sandstone cliffs behind, as do brightly clad, long-limbed rock climbers. The park, however, is unashamedly non-native. In spring it is a glory of rhododendrons, pink blossom, dancing daffodils and youthfully-green birch buds. In summer, the soft grass somehow stays cool and damp in the dense shadow of great, thick conifers whose dark, wide branches swallow up children as they hide and play in the hidden belly of these long-haired trees. And in autumn, while the birches cast golden leaves from silver limbs, the Japanese maples take the main stage in the ceaseless beauty pageant that defines a well-planned garden.

Art of Nature

Their leaves, like stars reflecting a fiery sunset, stay and stay on the elegantly held branches, only letting go at the last minute, when winter is but a calendar page away. The seeds, however, have wings to fly. Once ripe, clinging to the twiggy tree will do them no good. Better to take their chance on the autumn breeze before coming to rest on the wide earth waiting quietly below. There they settle, soon lost to sight under fallen leaves and frost-bitten mornings when walking tea drinkers are less than few and far-between.

My walk must have been in the flower-studded spring. The lost seeds had not been lost after all. They had pushed up en-masse through the cool, wet soil and rotted leaves below the largest of the Japanese Maples.  A handful were easily pulled up, fitting snugly into my mug. I transplanted them first into pots and the following winter into the garden.

Somehow my garden, which is basically filled with native and food plants, would have to tolerate the vanity of a few groves of these exotic beauties. So far, we are surviving that struggle quite well, the garden and me.

Practical:  Acer palmatum Common Name: Japanese Maple

General: A small, highly ornamental, deciduous tree. There are literally 1000s of cultivars and sub species.

Climate: Prefers cooler climates and doesn’t cope well with extra hot weather or drying winds. The leaves will burn and desiccate under such conditions.

Sun: Full sun is okay in a cool climate but light shade is often preferred. If you are in an area with hot summers, then some shade is essential, especially in the afternoon.

Soil: The soil needs to be kind! Your maple will thank you for a soft, moist, well-structured, well-drained soil. Otherwise it will struggle.

Water: Regular and adequate.

Propagation: Seedlings are easily grown from seed collected in autumn, chilled through winter, and sown in spring. The results will be variable in terms of leaf size, autumn colour and how long the leaves are held. My seedlings have demonstrated this. If you are keen to have lots of seedling maples, here’s what to do: collect fresh seed in autumn; de-wing it; soak it for 24 hours in warm water; place in a ventilated (ie a few holes) plastic bag with some moist peat and refrigerate for 3 months. Ensure that they do not dry out. Some of the seeds may have sprouted by the time spring has come. Carefully relocate into a container of moist, slightly acid seed raising mix. You might need to use tweezers. A poly box or tubes work well. The container should have depth so that the roots can develop uninhibited.

Alternatively, pay an early spring visit to a tree in a cold shady spot and chances are it will have a thick crop of seedlings coming up through the ample leaf mulch it shed in autumn. This is much easier than doing it yourself!

Asexual reproduction is usually by grafting and tissue culture (commercially). Sorry, can’t go into all that just here. The Internet will be your friend and help you with such technical projects.

Management: Plant with love and care into a well-prepared hole in winter. If the roots have been pot bound then prune them back so that there are no bends. Cut back the top accordingly. Nurture lovingly when spring is in the air, never let it dry out, mulch the soil and keep it free of competition. Once established the Jap maple is hardy in a cool climate but will never like hot dry winds or extreme heat days. Pruning is only needed if you want a certain shape.

Uses: A superb small tree to beautify the garden, the courtyard, the anywhere.

Nature's Random Beauty

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