The season of adolescence or Bunuru is well underway – the days are still hot with temperatures in the mid-thirties, warm easterly winds and little or no rain. Bunuru is also the season of flowering gums, and the Marri trees (Corymbia calophylla) surrounding our tree hut are in full bloom now – a truly spectacular sight!
When French naturalist Jacques Labillardière visited New Holland (Australia) in 1792 under the command of Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, the foundations were laid for what became the most extensive collection of Australian flora of its day and age. Especially his collections from southwest Australia produced numerous new species amongst which the ones from the genus of Anigozanthos, better known as Kangaroo Paws. His discoveries are described in the Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, a masterpiece of botanical science and art. I clearly remember my own amazement when I first saw those wonderful plants with their tubular flowers, dense hairs and claw-like structures. No wonder the State Government named the striking Red and Green Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos manglesii) as WA’s floral emblem in 1960, after which it was incorporated in the State Coat of Arms. Although this species is the best known and most famous of all Kangaroo Paws, the tall Evergreen Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos flavidus) and the much smaller Cat’s Paw (Anigozanthos humilis) are equally remarkable and spectacular.
The Australian Christmas Tree (Nuytsia floribunda) or Moodjar is not exactly known for its lights or baubles, but for its spectacular display of golden flowers that appear in Birak or the ‘yellow season’. The succulent roots, nectar-rich flowers and nutritious sweet gum of the world’s largest mistletoe are prized by the Nyungar, however, as the tree is thought to be inhabited by the spirits of dead people it is better left alone when not in bloom. So we are lucky to have another kind of Christmas tree around our place – and therefore would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas while it’s in full glory!
Only one look at the flowering spike of the Bull Banksia (Banksia grandis) and you know why the Nyoongar season of Birak was sometimes called the ‘yellow season’. During the hot and dry summer months these Poolgarla spikes where collected for their nectar – either sucked directly from the flower or steeped into water to produce a sweet drink called mangite or mungitch. An account from famous botanist John Drummond (1839) states that ‘the natives, men, women and children live for five to six weeks particularly upon the honey which they suck from the flowers of this fine tree’. In the Diary of George Fletcher Moore (1884) the production of mangite was described as ‘this was done by lining a hole in the ground with paper-bark, filling it with the spikes, and then covering these with water and leaving them to soak’. Consumption of this slightly fermented drink in large quantities could eventually lead to intoxication – a possible explanation why during Birak there would be large gatherings of Nyoongar people participating in mangite drinking parties. On a walk through …
The season of Birak has started. Sometimes it’s called the first summer, characterised by easing rains, warm easterly winds and increasingly hot weather. The dry conditions transform the surrounding landscape – most wildflowers slowly wilt while certain trees as Banksia, Balga and Mudja are in full bloom. One of the smaller flowers showing its beautiful colours at the moment is the Rose-tipped Mulla Mulla or Pom Pom (Ptilotus manglesii) – easily found on the pea-gravelled paths of nearby Beelu National Park this fluffy flower is certainly one of my smaller highlights this time of the year.
Out of all plants the Quandong (Santalum acuminatum) is probably Australia’s most significant bush tucker. It was widely recognised as a source of food and medicine by Aborigines while the aromatic wood was used in their smoking ceremonies. Given the fact that it has adapted extremely well to the arid conditions of the country’s interior the Quandong has often been referred to as ‘Jewel of the Desert’ or ‘Desert Peach’ – one of the plant’s remarkable features is that it is semi-parasitic, with its roots cheekily attached to neighbouring plants for moisture and nutrition in order to survive. The ripe red fruit was a staple food for Aborigines and would be consumed raw or dried for later use – dried Quandongs can be perfectly reconstituted in water years later! The inside of the succulent fruit contains an edible oil-rich kernel with many uses such as skin moisturiser, ointment or ornamental bead. The best place to look for them is underneath the trees – but as emus are particularly fond of the sour tasting fruit the undigested …
Ever since watching Major Leslie James Hiddins’s (aka ‘The Bush Tucker Man’) television shows back in the 90’s I’m totally fascinated by whatever resources nature provides man to survive. I’ll never forget the Major driving around in his Perentie – talking with that Aussie twang about everything edible from underneath his trademark Akubra hat. The episode that stayed with me most is about Burke and Wills, the famous explorers who died of starvation in The Cooper surrounded by ample quantities of Nardoo or Desert Fern – used by local aborigines as an important food source and given to the explorers to eat. They first consumed it without a problem and soon after started to collect and prepare their own. Despite the consumption of substantial quantities they grew weaker and thinner and developed tremors of hands, feet and legs and a slowing pulse. By not following or observing the correct recipe – roasting the spore cases before grinding them into a fine powder – Burke and Wills developed a disease known as Beri-Beri or Thiamine (Vitamine B1) …
The last couple of weeks the weather has changed significantly with longer dry periods and temperatures rising in the thirties again. This time of the year is called Kambarang in the Nyungar calendar – the season of birth. The warming trend transforms nature around us with animals starting to show more activity while flowers explode in all sort of colours and shapes. In wildflower country a spectacular floral display erupts including Balgas, Banksias, Kangaroo Paws and Orchids. A very good place to witness this spectacle is Lesueur National Park, with over 900 plant species – of which many endemic to this region – one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots along with places like Sundaland in South East Asia, the tropical Andes in South America or the Cape Floristic region in South Africa. Important landmarks in this National Park are the laterite mesas that are called after members of the Hamelin’s Naturaliste expedition in 1801 – Mount Peron, Mount Micheaud and Mount Lesueur. The trails that surround those flat-topped mountains lead through the exceptionally diverse Kwongan heathland, home …
Common Donkey Orchids (Diuris corymbosa) are some of the easiest recognisable Australian orchids due to their large ‘Donkey ear-like’ petals. These orchids flower between August and October, and with the first specimens blooming on the sandy soils of the Darling scarp the first signs of spring have finally arrived. According to the Nyungar calendar this time of the year is called Djilba – the growing season during which a massive explosion of wild flowers in Australia’s South West is happening. In anticipation of this botanic spectacle it would be an understatement to say we are getting a little excited!
The combination of ample winter rain and plenty of sunshine gets the first wildflowers blooming. Not even two weeks ago there were only a few Hovea’s to be seen, now the bush is full with them; Prickly Hovea’s (Hovea chorizemifolia), Tree Hovea’s (Hovea elliptica) and Devil’s Pins (Hovea pungens) – a royal purple spectacle.
The splendid firewood Banksia (Banksia menziesii) is a rather gnarly tree of the Proteaceae family that grows on the sandy coastal plains of Western Australia’s mid and central west regions. It flowers in autumn and winter after a lengthy process in which the inflorescence changes from a bare brown cone to a spectacle of more than thousand brightly coloured flowers.
As a profuse producer of nectar the Parrot Bush (Banksia sessilis) attracts many birds as for example Honeyeaters, Black Cockatoos and Ringneck or Twenty Eight Parrots. If the latter would eat the nectar the local Nyungar people knew it was safe to use the wood for message sticks and its spiky leafs for trapping fish. Nowadays this tree is highly valued for the beekeeping industry.
Unlike the South African bushveld the landscape in Australia grows more colourful in wintertime. After the first heavy rains of Makuru (the cold and wet season of the Nyungar calendar) many trees have started flowering, bringing a kind of new life to the otherwise dry bush. On one of our walks near Victoria Dam we stumbled upon this beautiful Silver Princess or Gungurru (Eucalyptus caesia), a rare Mallee of the Eucalyptus genus endemic to the central Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. It is named after the grey-white powder covering branches, leaves and flower buds. While most of its fruits where still closed this tree had just started to show some magnificent red flowers, inaugurating the first colours of winter.
The Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) is endemic to south-western Australia and can be found in almost any nature reserve. In Western Australia Grass Trees are commonly referred to as Blackboys, but are best known by its indigenous name, Balga. The plant has always been extremely important for aboriginals and early settlers. Its thin fronds provided thatching material for shelters, while the resin which oozes from the trunk was used both as a binding and tanning agent. Because the resin is also highly flammable aboriginals used it as a firelighter, but when settlers cut down great numbers for firewood it disappeared almost completely from certain areas. As Grass trees grow extremely slow (about one metre in 100 years) it will take them a long time to recover, however, through a resurgence of popularity in using native plants for landscaping it has started to make a comeback in urban areas.
A flowering Impala Lily (Adenium multiflorum) is a colourful beacon in the dry wintery landscape of southern Africa. The plant contains a highly toxic latex which is used for both hunting and medicinal purposes. Some species – amongst which the summer or Swazi Impala Lily – are harvested to such an extent that they are now listed as endangered. While commercial gathering for the horticultural and traditional medicine market, urbanisation and agriculture have almost wiped out the entire population in certain areas, the Kruger National Park forms a save heaven for this beautiful plant. It features abundantly in Skukuza, Letaba and Shingwedzi rest camps, where its stunning pink colour will certainly overwhelm you.
At Mission Rocks lookout point the wetlands of the St. Lucia estuary unfold in front of you, with sweeping views of evergreen forests, ancient coastal dunes and open savannah. Some specks in the far distance turn out to be grazing rhinos, but tiny as they are my attention is drawn to some flowering Natal creeping figs (Carpobrotus dimidiatus) that grow in the area abundantly. This succulent plant is indigenous to the coastal habitats of KwaZulu-Natal, thriving on sandy soils and therefore often used as a stabilizer near roads and railways. Even more fascinating is its traditional use as a remedy against dysentery, blue bottle stings and eczema. Because I took a few extra pictures of this wonderful flower we apparently missed out on a spectacular leopard sighting a bit further on, but hey, I’ve learned to be content with the little things in life, to slow down and experience nature in all its nuances. Besides that, in Africa the next big thing is never far away anyway!
“A woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart” – Hal Borland