Recreating the Country blog
The phoenix rises from the ashes
It’s May 2016 and the end of a long dry summer. I’m enjoying the view over a native grassland that was already showing tinges of green after our first decent rainfall in fourteen months. It was as if overnight the rain had washed away the layers of sun-bleached dust that had hidden their vibrant green. Beyond the grassland was the soft whispering edge of a woodland of Drooping Sheoaks, Allocasuarina verticillata.
This woodland in Teesdale was described in 1853 by the Surveyor General A.J.Skene as ‘thickly wooded with sheoaks”. So you would be excused for thinking that not much had changed in 170 years.
The confronting truth is that every Drooping Sheoak along with the gums and wattles were cleared from this reserve after settlement. There was a need for building materials and fire wood so the sheoaks, eucalypts and larger acacias were in demand. Even as recently as the early 1980’s, aerial photos show the reserve had very few trees.
Two Council conducted cool burns in the 1980's and drought years of the 1990’s provided the perfect environment for a dry climate specialist like the Drooping Sheoak. An aerial photo taken at the end of this decade clearly shows clumps re-emerging.
Today the recovery is complete and the Teesdale Grassy Woodlands Reserve is at least as thickly wooded as it was in 1853.
Commonly pronounced - Allo*cas*u*rina vertic*u*lata.
The Wathaurong call the Drooping Sheoak ‘Ngarri’, which means hair tree. This beautifully describes the most recognisable feature of the tree which is its hair like foliage.
Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, was thinking along similar lines when he named the genus casuarina after the drooping feathers of the cassowary. He adapted the Malay word for a cassowary which is kasuari. More recently the Drooping Sheoak was reclassified and its botanical name changed from Casuarina to Allocasuarina. The Greek word 'Allos' - means 'different to'.
'verticillata' - refers to the vertical position of the scales (tiny leaves) on the weeping branchlets
Getting to know Drooping Sheoaks
A hardy small rounded tree to 7m that copes very well with dry and exposed sites. They have proven to be very adaptable to different soil types, as long as they are well drained. I have seen Drooping Sheoaks thriving on both heavy clay soils and well drained sandy loams. It's ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen also enables it to do very well on 'hungry' sandy soils.
Note: For revegetation work it’s always recommended to match soil types. That is, choose plants grown from a provenance that has a similar soil type to the planting site. These plants are more likely to thrive.
When they mature, branching usually starts at around 2m making them a useful small tree providing dappled shade for large gardens or a small paddock tree for the back paddock. Sheep also browse on the weeping ‘branchlets’ which provide useful drought fodder.
It's hard dense timber is a deep red. When quarter sawn, distinct medullary rays crossing the growth rings are a beautiful and unique feature. A popular craft wood that polishes well, for turning, for wood art like sculptures and for furniture.
Drooping Sheoaks are often seen as dense stands of trees on roadsides and in reserves. This is because they tend to dominate an area when they become established. Their dropped branchlets create a soft, thick carpet that prevents other tree seedlings from pushing through, though this takes decades to occur.
This was the case at the Ocean Grove Nature Reserve where after a long absence of fire, both the Drooping and the Black Sheoak (A. littoralis - commonly pronounced lit*or*a*lis. This name means coastal and indicates that it's found mostly along the east coast of Australia) dominated at the expense of the local eucalypt species and the other understorey and shrub species. Recent cool burns have allowed a diversity of other plant species to re-establish.
Historic records suggest that Drooping Sheoaks were a prominent tree throughout the southern part of Australia before white settlement. This is because they were cultivated for their many values by the Traditional Owners.
The timeless whispering of a soft breeze through their foliage adds a mysterious dimension to the tree. The Wathaurong word for this whispering sound is whit:ge:wherri, pronounced ‘witjweri’. To them this was the sound of their ancestor’s voices speaking to them - see the Dahl'wah story below.
The Wathaurong soaked the cones of casuarinas in their drinking water to give it a lemon flavour and to add vitamin C. At times when water was scarce, they chewed the needle-like stems. This made their saliva flow and decreased the need to drink on long walks.
Some sheoaks develop hollows in their trunks which trap water. To have a drink the Wathaurong would find a hollow tube to use as a straw or soak the water up with a ball of crushed grass.
Drooping Sheoak wood is hard and ideal for making implements like spears, spear throwers, clubs, shields, digging sticks and clapping sticks. Returning boomerangs were carved from the roots, using the natural bends to advantage.
How Sheoaks came to be - a Dahl’wah story
As told by Frances Bodkin, a D’harawal woman from Sydney. Aunty Fran is also a keeper and teacher of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and a western trained scientist with degrees in environmental science, geomorphology and climatology
"Long ago men took responsibility for making string for hunting and fishing nets. They did this using plant fibres, twisted together by rubbing on their thighs. It was a difficult task, too difficult for women they claimed. But men were impatient, and felt they needed to do more important things like hunting and fishing. And besides, rubbing the fibres on their hairy legs was painful.
Note from Frances Bodkin : Sheoaks don’t drop branches haphazardly like many Eucalypts so you can camp there any time. You don’t get snakes under Sheoaks. The leaf scales on the branchlets get under the scales on the belly of a snake. So they stay away making it a safe place"
This may be the first month of autumn, but for Drooping Sheoaks it could be ‘spring’. As you drive past a group of these trees you may notice many are turning yellow on their weeping tips. These are the male tree’s catkin flowers and they’re about to cast their pollen to the four winds.
Using this shot-gun approach, male trees have to produce large amounts of pollen to chance on a female flower. And the competition for the males is pretty fierce. On my reckoning, there are usually about ten male trees for every one female. These aren’t good odds if you’re a male, keen for your DNA to be passed on to the next generation. Studies have shown that male pollen can amazingly travel up to 1km to pollinate a female flower.
The female trees are very easy to spot as they are the sheoaks with cones. Starting as very small red flowers in autumn, they become shiny bronze cones after twelve months. The Drooping Sheoak has the largest cones of the sheoak family, some reaching the size of a bantam’s egg or a small Easter egg (Happy Easter!! and well done for getting this far).
The seeds in the cones are relished by corellas and cockatoos. They are also an important food source for the endangered glossy black-cockatoo on Kangaroo Island. Small birds are often seen foraging for insects amongst the dense sheoak foliage.
An unexpected evolution
Puzzlingly, sheoaks were one of the new kids on the block in the Palaeocene, some 50 million years ago, but they were the luddites of the plant world. They mysteriously evolved using wind to pollinate their flowers, a method that was fast becoming old-fashioned. At that time most new plants were developing showy flowers to attract pollinating insects. This was a bit like the World Wide Web in plant evolution. This new flowering system tricked insects into doing all the hard pollination work for flowering plants, conveniently spreading their DNA over much greater distances.
Though being old fashioned has worked well for the sheoaks because over the next 50 million years the original wet-climate sheoaks adapted very well to a drying Australia, so that today they are the dry-climate specialists, often found in hot and arid places.
Seed collection and propagation
If you’re planning to collect the shiny cones for seed, they're not ready. I fell into this ‘trap’ on an early seed collecting expeditions and found the seed from these cones was pale and immature. The cones need to spend a few more months ripening on the tree until they finally turn a weathered grey. Yes, the grey colour of those outside lining boards that needed to get a coat of oil last spring.
These weathered cones will open when placed in a paper bag and the dark brown winged seeds will fall to the bottom. Now they’re ready to sow into a seedling tray or direct seed into the back paddock next spring. No seed treatment is needed.
If you’re concerned about the genetic diversity of your future sheoak plantation, collect cones from at least ten trees. Also collect from around the perimeter of each tree to allow for pollen blowing in from different directions. The male sheoaks will be so grateful you made this extra effort.
Next time you’re driving past some Drooping Sheoaks on the roadside, I hope you’ll notice their graceful beauty and think about their remarkable history.
If some are showing signs of yellowing at the tips don’t be concerned, it’s just the males getting ready to spread some cheer around. Hopefully there is a fair wind blowing to carry their pollen to the nearest female trees. This is an age old process that has been happening in Australia for millions of years and should continue for countless years to come if we appreciate and look after this remarkable and resilient local tree.
To read more about Aboriginal culture and the Drooping Sheoak click below to read;
'The vegetation of the Barrabool Hills part 4 - Drooping Sheoaks adorned the hills in 1835'
‘As Parwon sat he could hear the music of his land, it was from the present and it was from the dreamtime. The music was a symphony, it was all around him and it was always there. The music was his home and it filled him with calm and a profound joy’. ‘Seeds the Chronicle’ unpublished
Listen to the symphony
If you stand quietly next to a big old tree you too can hear the symphony. Its woodwind instruments are the breeze through the leaves, the creaking of huge limbs provide the percussion and its chorus of birds are the string and brass instruments.
Indigenous Australians could hear the more subtle resonances of plants that enabled them to identify individual species from their unique sound. This remarkable skill was enhanced by their deep connection to the natural world and their ecological humility.
In our ancestral past we too had an ecological humility. We viewed all living things as equal beings that were part of our community. All life forms, no matter how small, were respected, protected and valued. This was the time of ‘animism’, a time before humans placed themselves at the pinnacle of creation and all other life forms became commodities that could be exploited.
Deep Ecologist John Seed argues that modern humans have created an illusion of separation and a belief that we can profit from the destruction of our own life support systems. He has developed practices to help people connect with nature. Click here to read about the philosophy of deep ecology
Adopting a position of humility and a willingness to put other thoughts from our minds is important if we want to hear the symphony in an old tree and connect more fully with nature. Our other senses also help us connect to the living environment.
A sense of awe - the sixth sense?
Standing under an ancient tree and looking up into its spreading branches can bring home its splendour.
It’s similar to the awe that you can feel looking at a star filled night sky. Yet the tree is a grounded universe to which we are all profoundly connected. It is home to a mysterious world of insects, birds and mammals that are constantly interacting and interdependent.
It’s something that we can touch, unlike the stars in the night sky
"The bushland has no spectacular beauty, no instant gratification - only an artless placement of colour, shape and shadow ... a purity of sound ... a fragrance of leaf and of earth ... and a quiet stillness. That is the true enchantment of the Australian bush. It reveals itself slowly to those who open their senses to it". Bush Seasons by Joan Semmens.
Touching a tree can also be a powerful experience. Matthew Silverstone in his book ‘Blinded by Science’ recommends hugging trees to absorb their unique vibrations. This physical connection increases our levels of hormones like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine that make us feel calmer and more optimistic.
My awkward admission is that I feel embarrassed when I hug a tree. I’m afraid that passers-by will think I’m a bit crazy. This embarrassed feeling is a symptom of my conditioning, living in a society that sees trees as inferior lifeforms. People who care about the natural environment are labelled by some as ‘tree hugging greenies’. This is a demeaning perspective that is still a very powerful social force. It’s an attitude that affects the health and survival of the whole of the natural world.
Imagine a modern society that incorporated aspects of animism. A society that valued all living things as part of their interconnected community. We could then express our appreciation of nature without the fear of ridicule? Then I could hug trees wherever and whenever I liked without feeling embarrassed.
Connecting to nature using our sense of smell is a delightful experience. We are lucky living in a country that has so many fragrant plants. The aromatic members of the Myrtaceae family are well known. The scent from a crushed leaf of a Lemon-scented Gum or a Lemon Myrtle is heavenly. Greg Trevena lists 28 species in his useful brochure ‘A guide to Australian Native Essential Oils’. Most of the oils that he lists are derived from the Myrtle family and includes ten distinct eucalyptus scents.
Our Mint bushes (Prostanthera sp.) are grown commercially for their remarkable and diverse scents. Calling them mint-bushes is a little unsatisfactory, because their scents are more complex than well-known mint herbs like spearmint and peppermint.
A walk through the bush when the Black Wattle, Acacia mearnsii, is in flower adds another dimension to the wilderness experience through its aniseed scent. It’s strong fragrance creates a heady aura surrounding each tree. Famous worldwide is the perfume scent derived from the Silver Wattle, A. dealbata. Its aroma is described as ‘wonderful, soft, subtle, sweet floral, honey and woody’. Though this reads like the label on a wine bottle, it throws out a challenge to slow down and explore the complexity of acacia scents when next we’re passing a wattle tree in flower.
Knowing that each Australian native plant has a unique smell opens up many remarkable and diverse possibilities. Crushing a leaf of an unfamiliar plant has become a habit for me now. I’m constantly amazed and delighted by the unusual scents that I discover.
This is an opportunity for connection and discovery where we need to tread carefully because of the risk of toxicity. Indigenous Australians had a depth of knowledge of plant uses for food and medicine that was encyclopaedic. Sadly much of this knowledge has been lost or is carefully protected as cultural property.
However some Australian plants are becoming widely known for their edible fruit, nuts, flowers and leaves. I like to include some of these in my own garden for their culinary benefits. I’ve been enjoying my first Muntrie berries, Kunzea pomifera, this year for their spicy apple flavour. Other edible species in my garden are Mountain Pepper, Tasmannia lanceolata (edible leaf and berry), Lemon Myrtle, Backhousia citriodora,(edible leaves) Macadamia, Macadamia integrifolia, (edible nut) Coast Beard-heath, Leucopogon parviflorus, (edible fruit) Chocolate lily, Arthropodium strictum, (edible tuber) Myrnong, Microseris lanceolata, (edible tuber) and Warragul Greens, Tetragonia tetragonioides (edible leaves), Australian Pigface, Carpobrotus rossii, (edible fruit and leaves), Ruby Saltbush, Enchylaena tomentosa, (edible fruit).
Eating produce from native plants helps build an appreciation of how they continue to support life in Australia.
Appearance is most commonly used in modern society to recognise plants. Certainly it’s very practical to use our sense of sight to differentiate between species. This is where our modern society excels.
Our most recognisable genus, Eucalyptus, is so named because of the appearance of its fruit. It’s derived from the Greek words; eu "well" + kalyptos "covered". Eucalyptus fruit has a cap (operculum) that covers the developing flowers completely. When the flowers are fully developed the cap is pushed off revealing the beautiful and complex array of colourful stamen concealed underneath.
Our native plants are so diverse in their appearance that landscaping a new native garden is pure pleasure. The variety of leaf sizes, shapes and colours on offer, allows a designer to create endless contrasts and interest even in a small container garden. The flower colour and shape becomes a seasonal bonus for both the gardener and visiting wildlife.
In a visual sense the size of plants does matter because of its critical importance in the evolution of Australia’s unique ecologies. The vegetation layers that plants create in these ecologies is solely due to their range of sizes (and shapes) from small flowering herbs to breathtakingly tall canopy trees.
Clearing for agriculture has removed the middle layers leaving unnatural landscapes of mostly exotic grasslands and a diminishing few remnant paddock trees. They have become iconic on our farm landscapes and remarkable in their stoic adaption to the new open ecosystems that we have created.
Yet the power and beauty of these remaining old trees is undeniable. If you get close enough to touch the trunk and look into the canopy, do you feel impressed and perhaps humbled by its majesty?
A mindful meditation
That’s a perfect state of mind to close your eyes and quieten your thoughts as you listen to the tree’s orchestra tuning up - the woodwinds, the strings and the percussion.
Concentrate on the breath, slowly in and slowly out, recognising the soft floral scents that breathing conveys. In the quiet moments between breaths listen to the symphony and connect to a timeless experience.
Allow in a feeling of gratitude as you slowly open your eyes and appreciate the magnificence of the tree that you have been connecting too. Its then that you may appreciate the privilege of standing there in its shade and breathing in its purified and oxygenated air.
Other ways of connecting with nature can be explored in these blogs;
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.