Monday, 25 February 2008

More about the Kangaroo Apple

Kerrie left a comment on my last blog, asking whether the Kangaroo Apples are edible, so I thought I'd answer here rather than there.

Kangaroo Apple is in the the Solanaceae family and other members of the family are vegetables (peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums), and potent extract producers such as tobacco and deadly night shade, as well as some Aussie bush tucker plants (desert tomato, desert raisin and kangaroo apple).

Apparently the aborigines around here treated the fruits of the kangaroo apple with respect, eating them only when they were very ripe. I've read that they can be a substitute for tomatoes in relish or chutney, and dried like dried tomatoes, used on pizza, but I'm a bit wary. As soon as I saw the word 'nightshade' in the same sentence as Kangaroo Apple I decided to leave it (eating the fruit) to the experts. It's a pity really, because they look quite tempting. Read more about it here -
and here -

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The apple that isn't an apple

Why is it called a Kangaroo Apple? Because its leaves look like the footprint of a kangaroo and the fruit looks like an apple. Supposedly. You might need to use a little imagination. The one growing in my garden grows naturally in the bush here as well, and is very common in some areas. Its scientific name is Solanum laciniatum, and can be distinguished from its very similar relative, Solanum aviculare (also confusingly called Kangaroo Apple), by the notch in the lobes of the flower. The lobes of S. aviculare don't have a notch and the fruit is more orange or scarlet. Kangaroo Apples aren't often planted in suburban gardens, but I like them. They grow very quickly and are a good screen plant.

Kangaroo Apple

Kangaroo Apple

Kangaroo Apple

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Learning more about the known

Hello, my loyal reader(s)

No, I haven't been sick. I haven't been working. I've just been busy, with no time to ckeck out what is happening in the natural world. And I thought that when I cut back my work hours this year I'd have a lot more free time. Silly me.

There has been time though to explore my copy of the new CD edition of Wild Plants of Victoria. It's very gratifying to see that the data I have submitted to the the Flora Information System (FIS), run by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), has been included. Occasionally I send in exact locations of specific plants that I have found, especially when the earlier edition of Wild Plants didn't have a record (black square) for that location in the distribution map for that plant. And because of the CD I've had to change the Family name of some of the plants on my list of Homerton plants - it's so annoying when they do that even though I understand why they do it.

I've also been reading with pleasure Anna Pavord's The Naming of Names:the search for order in the world of plants. She writes beautifully, and the illustrations are wonderful. I'm up to the year 1500 and we're just moving into the Renaissance, the enlightenment, when the light finally goes on, when the academics moved beyond looking at plants purely for their medicinal purpose and artists started to draw plants that could be identified. It's hard to imagine a world that didn't know about DNA, pollination, Darwin and Linnaeus. We complain about changes in the names or order of plants and animals but imagine what it must have been like when there was no order.

So, I haven't totally neglected the natural world. There is so much to learn about it in books.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

A rocky plant

There is a plant in my garden that has refused to die from neglect and drought. It flowers all year round, and has more or less stayed the same size for about 15 years. It's a Cockspur Plectranthus parviflorus. As it's name, parviflorus, indicates, its flowers are not very big, but they are pretty. And it has a distinctive smell - unsurprising really, because it's in the Lamiaceae family in company with the mints, salvias, prostantheras and westringias.

In Geelong it grows naturally in a few rocky areas along creeks and rivers, in particular at Buckley Falls on the Barwon River in Highton. At this location it is a threatened species. On a distribution map this little plant grows up the east coast of Australia and the occurance in Geelong is a little dot on its western limit.

Plectranthus parviflorus

Plectranthus parviflorus

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

They call my garden home

My garden must be home for any number of creatures because when I actually go looking I usually find something. The little green spider was hanging on its web suspended between two leaves on the Darwinia citriodora bush, and the tiny pale spider didn't appear to have a web (although I do see a bit of web-like stuff in the bottom right of the photo). It just hung around at the bottom of a clump of a fine-leafed Lomandra growing in a pot and I only saw it because it moved when I watered.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Life on Baw Baw is wild

Butterflies by the thousand, moths flying in the day time, skinks everywhere, ants of course, and grasshoppers - the Baw Baw plateau was alive.

The best butterfly, that we could identify, was a Macleay's Swallowtail. It was flying very strongly and rapidly, especially above the trees on the very top of Mt Baw Baw. Apparently that's what the males do, fly about on the top of hills. It's a very impressive butterfly when seen up close, but never sat still long enough to photograph.

But I did get a photo of these three grasshoppers. They must have very good eyesight because the first one didn't move from his spot when I moved in closer, but kept dodging around the stalk when I tried to get a side view of him. I have no idea what it is, nor the one on my boot, but the last (out of focus) photo is a Spotted Mountain Grasshopper or Southern Pyrgomorph Monistria concinna. The remarkable thing about this particular grasshopper species is that they have a type of anti-freeze chemical called sorbitol in their body fluid, which enables them to survive beneath the winter snows. The male is the smaller of the two.

Grasshopper_Baw Baw

Grasshopper_Baw Baw

Southern Pyrgomorph

The mother of all clouds

There were storms all around us this afternoon but nothing actually happened here apart from a few rumbles of thunder and about ten large drops of rain. But the clouds looked dramatic, and I was able to photograph this as I drove out to book club. (OK, I stopped the car to take the photo.) It's a mamma cloud I believe, breast-like formations (or udders of cloud as Pretor-Pinney describes them in his book The Cloudspotter's Guide) that can hang beneath a Cumulonimbus, and indicate high instability around the top of the cloud.
PS I pinched my heading from Pretor-Pinney as well.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The tall and the short of it

The tallest plant on the Baw Baw plateau is the Snow Gum, but it is still an open forest - lots of herbs and shrubs grow right up to the trunks of the trees.

Snow Gums_Baw Baw

One of the smallest is the Apine Ballart Exocarpus nanus. It is a ground-hugger, spreading to a metre diameter and rooting at the nodes. We were lucky, and very excited, to see it growing in a mossy, boggy area next to a track. And lucky to see it fruiting as well, because it is the fruit that is the most interesting thing about ballarts.

Alpine Ballart

As the name 'nanus' suggests, the plant is tiny, but the fruit looks exactly the same as those I am used to seeing on its big cousin the Cherry Ballart Exocarpus cupressiformis. The succulent red pedicel looks like fruit, and the nut sits on top of it. 'Exocarpus' means 'outside fruit'. Cherry Ballart is semi-parasitic but I don't know about the Alpine Ballart.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Ants in your pants

We had great troubles with ants on Baw Baw. Everytime we stopped to investigate something interesting we ended up performing the Ant Dance, a type of stomping and arm flapping rythym designed to rid the lower legs of a few dozen ants that had quickly moved onto boots and trousers.

E O Wilson knows a lot about ants. He's probably the world's expert. I've read a few things he has written but really their astonishing social life is still an enigma to me. An ant is an ant. I'm not going to get too close to study them. But this, on Mt Baw Baw, was a sight - a whole bush covered in winged ants that were moving frantically. Since coming home I've read (Australian Insects: a natural history by Bert Brunet) that 'during summer winged male and female ants, called alates, leave the nest and swarm in nuptial flights, after which they shed their wings and establish new colonies'.

Wilson once said that if he had his life over again he would study microbes (or some such thing), the minute life of the soil. At least they don't bite.

Snow Gentians and Sky Lilies


On every track at Baw Baw we saw Mueller's Snow Gentians Chionogentias muelleriana ssp. muelleriana - Ferdinand Mueller was the Victorian Government's first botanist - and they never failed to delight. What a beautiful plant. But we only saw one flowering patch of the beautiful Sky Lily Herpolirion novae-zelandiae. It grows in moist peaty soil which is where we found it, and is quite common, but the only plants flowering were in the shade under a picnic table near the village! Snow Gentians and Sky Lilies - poetry in their names and beauty in their appearance.

Sky Lily

A visit to Victoria's high country

Baw Baw Alpine Resort in summer is a fascinating place to visit. We were there for four days and walked on a lot of the tracks and ski trails within the village and beyond into the Baw Baw National Park. It is a sub-alpine, above 1220 metres, the most southerly on mainland Australia,

The only eucalypt growing there is the Snow Gum Eucalypt pauciflora and even though it is the flowering season for this eucalypt we didn't see any flowering so it lives up to its name. The Snow Gums on Baw Baw have a mallee growth habit in that they are multi-trunked from a lignotuber, and are taller than I have seen elsewhere. The trunks are smooth and white and glow beautifully in the late afternoon sun.

Baw Baw plateau

In winter the whole of the vegetation is covered in snow and it's amazing to see it flowering prolifically in the summer. We found over 90 species flowering and a further 30 species not in flower. Some of these plants only grow on this plateau. The heathland areas in the depressions and valleys are dominated by spagnum bogs and these are a significant feature of the vegetation on Baw Baw.