Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Casuarina cones

Casuarinas are quintessentially Australian to most Australians. Perhaps not to the same degree as eucalypts and acacias, but they are certainly a key component of the Australian flora and psyche. From the whispering river-oaks of inland water courses, to the beach-delimiting she-oaks of various kinds, to the inland bull-oaks or bulokes of the Murray-Darling.

River oaks, Casuarina cunninhamiana, along the Abercrombie River in central New South Wales.

Coastal she-oak, or beach casuarina, Casuarina equisetifolia ssp incana growing on beach sand on Lady Musgrave Island in the Great Barrier Reef (see Heron & Lady Musgrave Islands post).

Casuarinas belong to the Family Casuarinaceae. For a long time this family was considered to be fairly primitive within the dicotyledonous plants, and was placed pretty much out on its own, often being put in its own Order (major grouping of plants). But more recent work indicates it actually fits within the Order Fagales, which includes birches, aspens and hazels (Betulaceae), oaks and beeches (Fagaceae), the Gondwanan southern beeches (Nothofagaceae), walnuts, pecans and hickory (Juglandaceae) and a couple of other small related families). Casuarinaceae is thought to be most closely related to Betulaceae.

This placement might seem odd to the casual observer, (I was certainly rather surprised when I looked into it) but they are characterised by having separate male and female flowers, the male flowers often being in the form of catkins, and are wind-pollinated.

The silver birch, Betula pendula, doesn't bear any immediate resemblance to casuarinas!

The Casuarinaceae are distributed essentially throughout Malesia, Australia, and into the south-west Pacific, with a few outliers further afield. And there are a lot of introduced plantings around the globe, particularly in coastal situations. There are considered to be just under 100 species, with 65 occurring in Australia. Originally, all species were within the genus Casuarina, but they have recently been split amongst four genera, the majority in Allocasuarina (61 species) and Casuarina (17 species). But I doubt any one is likely to start using anything but casuarina as the common name for most members of the group (the other two genera are Gymnostoma and Ceuthostoma).

Apart from the immediately distinctive needle-like foliage (which isn’t actually foliage but photosynthetic branchlets – the leaves are reduced to whorls of tiny scale-like teeth), the fruits are also characteristic, being cone-like, and generally referred to as cones, although technically they are woody infructescences. While superficially all rather similar in form, the details of the cones do vary a fair bit. And so finally we get to what this post is about – basically just a gallery of photos of the cones of some of the local casuarina species.

River oak or River she-oak  Casuarina cunninghamiana
This is one of the most common of the casuarinas around Canberra and apart from occurring naturally along the local river courses, it is also planted extensively as a landscape tree.

Young developing cones with dried off styles of the withered 'flowers' still adhering

The flowers/cones frequently develop as terminal or sub-terminal clusters

Early stage cone of Casuarina cunninghamiana

Immature cones along a branchlet

A tight cluster of mature cones, but mostly not yet opened to release their seeds

Drooping She-oak  Allocasuarina verticillata (prev. C. stricta)
This is another species that occurs commonly in Canberra, but is generally more restricted to grassy woodlands and rocky hillsides. In contrast to the cones of C. cunninghamiana which are really quite small, the cones of A. verticillata are large and chunky.

Developing cone of the drooping she-oak Allocasuarina verticillata

The stalk or peduncle is often quite short, the cone sometimes appearing to grow straight out of the branch

Mature, partly opened cones of drooping she-oak

Old cones often persist on the tree for years - this one supporting lichen growth

Black she-oak  Allocasuarina littoralis
Although the specific name littoralis indicates a coastal distribution, the black she-oak also grows well inland. Nevertheless, the following photos were taken at Narooma on the New South Wales south coast.

Young developing cone of the black she-oak

Cluster of three developing black she-oak cones in early morning sunlight

Mature cones of black she-oak showing characteristic shape

Allocasuarina distyla
For some reason, this species doesn't have an accepted common name, despite it having by far the most attractive cones of the four species included in this post. It occurs in Sydney sandstone areas, particularly in heathland associations. These photos were taken at Currarong near Jervis Bay.

Allocasuarina distyla - flower head developing into a cone

Cluster of three young developing Allocasuarina distyla cones

Developing Allocasuarina distyla cone

Rich colours of a develoiping Allocasuarina distyla cone.
The pointed end (due to sterile apical flowers) is fairly characteristic of this species.

Mature but unopened cone of Allocasuarina distyla

Allocasuarina distyla cone fully opened and seeds released

One final point on leaving – the name casuarina derives from a Malay word, kasuari, which means cassowary, in allusion to the supposed similarity between the tree’s foliage and the bird's plumage. And the equisetifolia part of the scientific name of the coastal she-oak Casuarina equisetifolia, comes from the Latin, equisetum, meaning horse hair, this time in reference to the resemblance of the drooping foliage to a horse's tail. Hmmm!

See earlier post -  Missy - for the story of this semi-tame cassowary

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blue Mountains Tree-top Birthday

6:23 am. The eastern sky was barely suffused with soft pink streaks of pre-sunrise when the Sooty Owl made its final bomb-drop call. Even the kookaburras had chortled their first refrain by then, and the Eastern Yellow Robins contributed their double-clicks and single chimes. Not long after, the lyrebirds kicked in with their varied repertoires, probably half a dozen of them up and down the valley. Standing on the tiny balcony in the slightly chill air, I could just make out the silhouettes of a pair of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos float over the treetops below me, their haunting calls echoing back and forth across the gully, accompanied by the faint double-trill of a Fan-tailed Cuckoo somewhere in the distance. 

Such was the dawn chorus on my birthday morning.

Dawn from the balcony of the tree-house
We were very comfortably ensconced in the most amazing tree-house you could ever wish to stay in. Secluded, and tucked into the steep hillside above the Bowen's Creek valley, a little north of Berambing in the Blue Mountains, about 100 km west of Sydney, the owner/builder has constructed his quirky, whimsical 'folly' around a living tree, about 12 metres above the ground. The slope is such that from the windows on one side of the tree-house you look straight into the tree trunks and rock scars of the Sydney Sandstone bushland, but from the other side you are treated to panoramic views over the immediate tree-tops and down the densely vegetated valley to the peaks of Mount Irvine and Mount Tootie in the distance. It is nothing short of spectacular.

The tree-house
The view from the back of the tree-house - classic Sydney sandstone bushland.
And the spectacular view down the Bowen valley from the balcony.

The tree-house itself is full of the most eccentric touches, all designed to fit with the unspoiled natural setting, but at the same time to titillate the adult-child in us. From the extensive use of natural branches for everything from supporting beams to cupboard handles, to the openly exhibitionist aspect of the 'shower with a view' and the longest 'drop dunny' you're ever likely to come across.

There is actually a tree growing right through the middle of the tree-house.
Pared branches provide roof support.
The bedroom window is very quirkily shaped.
The shower / spa is definitely not for the prudish.
The long-drop dunny is unique (wait for it ...)
And the front door says it all
(except you definitely have to be a grown-up to be able to afford to stay here.)

Despite the attraction of spending the majority of our time in this tree-top haven, we did get out to see some of the other local attractions and the magic that is the Blue Mountains. My rather ambitious plans to visit a range of sites around Blackheath on the Saturday were somewhat curtailed by both time and fitness levels, but we did do the Govett's Leap to Pulpit Rock walk.

On our way to Blackheath - the sandstone post office in the quaint and beautiful village of Mount Victoria.

The track from Govett's Leap to Pulpit Rock winds up and down and around the edge of the escarpment, crossing several small creeks that suddenly emerge from the sheer cliff edge as spectacular waterfalls, only to disappear again into the dense forest leading down to the Grose River. The views from the track are absolutely stunning, with one towering outcrop of rock after another receding into the distance and the blue eucalyptus oil haze that gives these mountains their name.

The Grose Valley, with our destination, Pulpit Rock, in the middle distance.
The Grose Valley is hemmed in on all sides by spectacular sandstone cliffs.
Waterfalls cascade down the escarpment at regular intervals.
Pulpit Rock gradually loomed closer as we made our way along the escarpment.
One of the creek crossings along the track to Pulpit Rock.
Horseshoe Falls.

There was plenty of wildlife along this track as well, making it necessary to divide my time almost equally between admiring the view; whipping the camera around for a scuttling skink, a darting dragonfly, or a furtive firetail; and actually watching where I was placing my feet so as not to end up somewhere I definitely was not supposed to be. (On Friday 13 March, just 6 days after we did the walk, a 25 year old American tourist slipped from this very track and fell 35 metres, breaking her ankle and several ribs, before finally being rescued by helicopter the following morning!)

Eastern Water Skinks (Eulamprus quoyii) were everywhere - and not necessarily close to water.
A Copper-tailed Skink (Ctenotus taeniolatus) reminded of my school days at Elanora Heights Primary School.
I still haven't worked out if this damselfly is a Common or Sydney Flatwing.
This Forest Darner (Austroaeschna pulchra) was a new species for me.
As was this Sydney Mountain Darner (Austroaeschna obscura).
Another Sydney Mountain Darner looking almost fossil-like against the sandstone.
Varied Sword-grass Browns (Tisiphone abeona abeona) were frequently seen fluttering in the shade along the track - and indeed at many of the places we visited.
And I was very pleasantly surprised by a shy but inquisitive Beautiful Firetail (Stagonopleura bella).
Lambertia formosa, or Mountain Devil, were common and were one of Karen's favourites. The common name comes from the shape of the fruit / seed capsule, which to me looks more like a fox's head. 

Saturday night, the eve of my birthday, I was treated to a fabulous dinner at an unassuming place in Bilpin called the Apple Bar. Bilpin is renowned for its apples so we started with an incredibly crisp, cold and flavourful Hillbilly apple cider which they had on tap. We shared a huge bowl of Eden black mussels in a perfectly balanced spicy tomato, white wine, basil and garlic broth, with a side of woodfired bread; and finished with woodfired pizza (double-smoked leg ham, wood roasted eggplant, tomato, garlic, Italian Mozzarella and Grana Padano) - yes, I did keepsake a copy of the menu!

The mussels alone would have been sufficient, so we took half the pizza and a couple of desserts away for later (the food and service had been so good we couldn't not try the desserts). Although accurate, I think they under-sell themselves with the monicker "woodfired grill and pizza".

Sunday morning itself was a luxurious, un-rushed affair in our tree-top lair.

We had come up to the Blue Mountains the back way from Canberra. That is, turning north from Goulburn and taking the back roads through Taralga, the Abercrombie River (where we stopped briefly for lunch), Black Springs and Oberon. It was a really nice, relaxed, quiet drive. The last time I had traveled that road, something like 25 years previously, most of it was rough dirt road which made it a rather long trip. Now it is sealed for its entire length.

The old wooden bridge at the Abercrombie River crossing where we'd stopped for lunch on our way up.

But we’d be returning to Canberra by the more easterly route, and before we endured the slow tedium of getting through western Sydney, and the constant boredom of the Hume Freeway, we needed some more green time in preparation. The Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens provided this beautifully.

I’d heard of the Gardens previously but had never been there. They are a perfect blend of collected diversity and recreational parkland with incredible views over the northern Blue Mountains/Wollemi/Yengo wilderness. I particularly liked the conifer section (including the plantings of the local and recently discovered relict Wollemi Pine Wollemia nobilis) and the rainforest section, which is a natural remnant along the creek, historically known as ‘the jungle’. The gardens added another six species to my bird list for the trip, including Crested Shrike-tit, Large-billed Scrubwren, Rufous Fantail, and an unexpected Red-whiskered Bulbul (an introduced bird, native to Asia, which somehow felt and sounded very natural in this environment). 

A Wollemi Pine at the Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens.
One of the many Proteas at the Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens.

An everlasting
The plaque commemorating the opening of the Fairfax Walk at "the Jungle" in 1929.

The gardens clearly were also a rallying point for what I assume was the Sydney Ferrari club. The famous Bell’s Line of Road, with its almost continuous unraveling of sharp twists and sweeping bends, is a favoured weekend destination for motorcyclists, and apparently sports car owners. And so it was along this magical road with its majestic scenery that, after finishing yesterday's pizza which was just as good cold, we headed home after a perfect weekend. Thank you Karen.

Natural sculpture - intricately weathered sandstone along the Pulpit Rock track.