One of the most fantastical trees, for me, has to be the brachychitonrupestris, Queensland bottle tree or kurrajoong and, luckily, it's one of the trees we can grow here.
Brachychitonis from the Greek brachymeaning short and chitona tunic which refers to the hairy, and extremely irritating, coat which lines the seedcases. Rupestris means growing among rocks. Itis a genus of 31 species, 30 being native to Australia and the last endemic to Papua New Guinea. The one we probably know best is b.populneuswhich is a popular street tree planting. It is tough but not, perhaps, the most exciting unlike another member of the family, b.acerifolius,more popularly known as the Illiwarra flame tree, with its magnificent scarlet flowering occasionally planted around here as a specimen tree. But the Queensland bottle tree, whilst more sombre, is equally striking in a sort of pre-historic way with its massively swollen trunk; fossils have been found dating back some 50 million years, so this is a real survivor of a plant and it does this by storing water in its trunk (known as a pachycaul) which, unlike most trees, is made up of a spongy fibre capable of absorbing s huge amount of water, swelling into its typical bottle-like form.
Found growing naturally in dry areas of central Queensland and New South Wales, it is tolerant of a wide range of conditions, supporting temperatures ranging between -10C and 50C. In times of extreme hardship, it may drop all its leaves to conserve water, re-leafing as conditions improve. It can grow to 18m high but, in cultivation, is much more commonly seen at 4m to 8m tall with a canopy spread of, perhaps, 6m. Clusters of creamy yellow or pale pink bell-shaped flowers with spotted throats are borne in clusters and followed by tough woody boat-shaped seed pods.
As feature trees, they are wonderful. They are very clean trees, their roots, surprisingly perhaps, are not aggressive and they will not 'steal' water from their neighbours as they have their own private supply! They will grow quickly to around 3m tall, forming that distinctive bottle shape during the first 5 years. Plenty of water, at this stage, will encourage quick growth. From then on, growth slows dramatically. They become totally drought tolerant, very wind resistant and are certainly hardy enough for our conditions. They can also be grown in pots, forming fantastical shapes, and are highly valued as bonsais.
But this tree isn't only famous for its fairy-tale appearance; Aborigines and early settlers used them to help survival. The roots, stems bark and, especially, the seeds have all been used as a source of food. The seed pods would be roasted whole to burn off the sharp hairs; the seeds were a high protein source. The fibrous bark was used to make rope. The common name kurrajongcomes from the Dhankword for fishing line as nets and lines were woven from the tree fibres. The Aborigines also carved holes into the soft bark to release the inner reservoir of water. Later settlers also learnt to recognise the tree – though here is the difference! Instead of 'farming' the tree for water like the indigenous people, they cut them down and peeled off the bark in huge chunks. Apparently a large tree could satisfy a large herd of cattle for many weeks!
Propagation is relatively simple from seed – though you'll have a long wait to get a substantial tree – simply plant them fresh in compost and keep moist. This is a tree, rather like yuccas and palms, that can be dug up large-sized and many years old and they transplant quite easily. They will survive out of the ground for, at least, 3 months and, in the past, many mature and semi-mature specimens were shipped out of Queensland all over the world. Nowadays they are a protected species in the wild.
We've got some great young trees in the garden centre, so if you want a rare and pre-historic beauty in your garden, please contact me.
Lorraine Cavanagh, a landscape gardener and writer, has lived in Spain for 27 years. Call and see her at ViverosFlorena, 2km from Cómpeta, (Malaga), down the Sayalonga Road, or 15km up from the coastal motorway – have a free coffee or tea in their tea-rooms.
Her book Lorraine Cavanagh's Mediterranean Garden Plantshas been nicknamed 'the bible'.
And her new book – Citrus, The Zest of Life – is now available.
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