Sunday, June 27, 2010

Granite Bottlebrush (Mellaleuca elliptica)

From Granite Bottlebrush
The Melaleuca elliptica is sometimes called Granite Honey Myrtle, but here in King's Park we call it Granite Bottlebrush. "Melaleuca" is a compound of latin terms “melan” meaning black and “leuca” which means white.

Several species here in Australia are named in a sort of strange way which reflects the utter confusion of the early european explorers. Fire is a predominant and necessary part of the landscape here but the europeans didn’t know that. What likely happened was that the first of the Melaleuca species to be described had been recently affected by fire which blackened the trunk on the lower regions while leaving the upper branches a white color in new growth areas. You can see an example of the white branches on the far right hand edge of this pic. White branches are more common here than you might think, but I don’t want to talk about them right now. There is a better example of that phenomenon to discuss later. Suffice it to say that the "white & black" name really isn't very descriptive of this plant.

The "flower" you see in this pic is actually more than a hundred flowers grouped together called a fluorescence. Individual flowers are made up of five very reduced petals which encircle a tight group of stamens. Grouping a hundred or so of these together gives the plant the characteristic bottlebrush look. Unlike the Verticordia that we recently discussed, the sepals of the Melaleuca do not play a part in the fluorescence display. The reduction of the petals is a strategy to help conserve water that is shared by other plants here in Australia. The normal function of the petals to attract pollinators has been taken over in large part by the colored stamens.

The plant from which I took this picture is about normal sized being a little over 6 ft high and about half as wide. It is a tall shrub and can be pruned into a hedge. It tolerates drought well after it is established. Like many of our plants it flowers a good part of the year, but its best show is during spring (Sept-Nov.)
From Granite Bottlebrush
This shrub is a type of “mallee” which means “multiple trunks” and there are so many Malees in a small region along the Southern coast of Western Australia that the region itself is referred to as the Mallee Region. Think of a crepe myrtle and you are thinking of a mallee. I’ll post a pic of the trunk of a mallee at some point so stay tuned.

The bottlebrush is pollinated by both insects and birds who love the nectar. The day I was taking the pic there was a bee on the flower the entire time. If you look closely you can pick him out. He isn’t a native bee, rather he is a common european honeybee. I am hopeful that one day I will get a pic of one of the 16 species of native stingless bees, but so far, no luck.

Notice too the small elliptical leaves and how tightly they grow to the stems. The leaves are where the “elliptica” part of the name comes from and the leaves are a dusty green color. The color is an adaptation to the intense sunlight here. Another thing I will discuss in later posts.

You can also see last season’s flower in this pic which is the spiky growth up and to the left of the flower. If the resolution on your screen is sufficient, you can zoom in on that part of the pic and see some seeds still hanging on.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos)

From Kangaroo Paw
The flower I should have started with is the Kangaroo Paw. I hope you enjoyed the Scarlet Featherflower sufficiently to forgive putting it ahead of the Kangaroo Paw, which is Western Australia’s state flower (they call it the state floral emblem here.) Specifically the Anigozanthos manglesii aka the Red and Green Kangaroo Paw is the state flower. The pic here is a mosaic at the entrance to the Botanic Garden that shows a representation of the Red and Green Kangaroo Paw.

For a flower to have red stems is unusual. For a flower to have green petals is very unusual. For a flower to have red stems and green flowers... well, you do the math.
From Kangaroo Paw
I mentioned before that touching leaves here is often a surprise, but touching the Kangaroo paw parts yields about what you would expect if you were here to see the plant. The stem is fuzzy with millions of tiny hairs up and down it’s length. My Pics probably don’t capture it, but just imagine a very thin version of a cat tail head and that’s about what the red stem of the red and green kangaroo paw feels like.

From Kangaroo Paw
The flower is pollinated by birds (of all things.) There are no bird pollinated plants in Europe, and the hummingbird is the only pollinating bird in the US. But here in Australia, about 17% of the plants are pollinated by birds ranging from the tiny honey eaters to the fairly large wattle bird.

The bird lands on the kangaroo paw stem and seeks nectar inside the tubular flower. When it does, the five stamens that make up the “paw” of the flower smack the bird on top of the head leaving pollen behind. When the bird visits the next flower.. well you get the picture. Interestingly, each species of Kangaroo Paw hits the bird in a slightly different place. This does not prevent cross pollination, as there are other characteristics that do that, but it does help conserve pollen by not wasting it where it cannot be utilized. These plants are pretty smart.

From Kangaroo Paw
There are at least 8 species of Anigozanthos that I know of. Here is a pic of the Yellow Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthus pulcherrimus.) Remember you can click on any pic to get a bigger version and be directed to my Picassa site where there is no telling what you might find. But there is also my favorite Kangaroo Paw, the Black Kangaroo Paw pictured below. Once again with green flowers, but a more pale green... and this time with BLACK STEMS. Whoever heard of a black stemmed flower?

From Kangaroo Paw
The Black Kangaroo Paw is not in the same genus as the rest, which means it is really not closely related to the other types. Charles Darwin never visited Western Australia, but if he had, and if he had modern DNA testing technology, at least some of the points of his theories would have been different. Darwin, in order to support his ideas about all life stemming from a single ancestor, said that it is extremely unlikely that two separate species would ever develop similar methods of adapting to a habitat. Well, that doesn’t turn out to be true as is exemplified by the Black Kangaroo Paw which is in the genus Macropidia (Macropidia fuliginosa) instead of Anigozanthos, like the rest of the Kangaroo Paws. Can’t really hold him too responsible for the issue though because it probably does take DNA testing to figure it out.

So these are the Kangaroo Paws. You might see some similar species in the US called Cats Paws. Generally smaller than these, but similar looking.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Turner of Hearts

From Verticordia grandis
Sometimes I change my plans. Rarely I change my mind. But to change a heart is something unique and rare. Verticordia means “Changer of Hearts” in Latin and this plant is named Verticordia after the goddess Venus of whom it was said was so beautiful she could change a persons heart with a glance.

This particular flower is from Verticordia grandis which is the only Verticordia species that is blooming in the garden right now. There are several other species that are commonly referred to as “featherflower” and I’ll try to post some pics of them as they start to show off in the spring. The common name for V. grandis is “Scarlet Featherflower.”
Even without flowers, the scarlet featherflower would be a show piece. It is a shrub, normally about 4-5 ft high but can grow to 12 ft. It is endemic to a small area just north of Perth and up to Geraldton. In the wild it can be wiry, short and unimpressive, but here in the botanical garden where it is pampered it is always a point of interest.

From Verticordia grandis
The main stems are blood red when they are young and they provide support for hundreds of strangely pale green leaves attached directly without a separate leaf stem. There are two leaves at each connection and each connection is offset from its nearest neighbor by 90 degrees which gives the leaves the appearance of surrounding the stem in a continuous spiral. Each leaf is also edged by a blood red outline encircling the leaf.

Touching a leaf here is almost always surprising because what looks soft is often hard, and vice versa. These leaves are soft to the touch, not quite like velvet, but not like a normal shrub leaf either.

Despite the beauty of the stems and leaves, the flowers of the Verticordia grandis are the real attraction. It is called a featherflower because the calyx lobes are fringed. The Calyx of a flower is the group of sepals that support the petals from underneath. Normally in the US and most of the rest of the wold, the sepals are green, but here in Australia, all bets are off and in the scarlet featherflower they are the same red color as the petals. The five petals are inside the calyx and they are fused together to form a tube. Insects travel down this tube in search of nectar and they collect pollen along the way to be used to fertilize next flower they visit. On some flowers you can see a long thin red spike curving out from the calyx and that spike is the style that contains the stigma on its end.
From Verticordia grandis

The featherflowers, like all plants in WA are susceptible to fire. Many plants here require fire to multiply with their seeds laying dormant for years until the fires come. But for the featherflower seeds germinate normally without fire. When fire does come, the Verticordia regenerates by sprouting new stems from lignotubers just underground.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kings Park (Perth, Western Australia)

I have recently been certified to lead guided walks through Kings Park here in Perth and one of my friends said she might be interested to see some pics of the strange plants here and maybe read a little of the presentation we make in the park. Well, here goes.

Kings Park is the largest inner city park in the world. It is just under 1000 acres with 2/3 of it preserved as "native bushland." Seventeen acres are utilized as a botanical garden and the rest is playgrounds, cafes and expansive lawns for the public to use.

Perth itself is a city of about 2 million people, but the park land was set aside back in 1872 when the population of Perth was about 9,000 and there were less than 25,000 people in all of Western Australia. WA is five times the size of Texas and it is more than 1300 miles from Perth to the nearest city of more than 1 million people. Perth is the most isolated city in the world in terms of geographic distance to anything of consequence.

The park is on a high hill overlooking the Swan River Basin and Matilda Bay. Across the basin is a clear view of the Perth Hills aka The Darling Range, named after General Ralph Darling who put together the expedition of Captain James Stirling aboard the HMS Success that established the Swan River Colony (Perth.) The hill on which Kings Park sits is named Mt. Eliza after Darling's wife. No one ever accused Perth's early settlers of being anything short of politically astute. The park is actually on the most attractive land in all the Swan River Valley... just the sort of place I would have put my house if I had been Stirling. (No one ever accused me of being in the least, politically astute.)

The land in the Swan River Valley is very poor. Australia is a continent as opposed to an island. It used to be part of the ancient super continent Gondwana until it drifted South and West to its current location. There have been no "earth creating events" here for millions of years. No earthquakes, no volcanoes, nothing. The primary geologic player has been erosion with the rain, wind and sea working year after year to leach out and erase any remnant of nutrient in our "soil" and leaving only a layer of sand atop a limestone base. Not really ideal conditions for growing plants, much less food crops. This poor soil played a huge role in checking any population growth in the area until gold was discovered in 1892. That year Perth's population doubled and it was over 130,000 two years after that.

It rains only about 3 or 4 months and all in the winter months of the year (June-August) and the rest of the time the sun streams down unimpeded by clouds. We have a mild climate, but the sun is strong, even if not hot. The poor soil and oppressive sun of our area may seem like a detriment to botanical life, but instead it has provided a perfect laboratory for life to adapt. Being so remote to the rest of the world, the plants here, like the animals, have taken a path not shared by the rest of the world and as a consequence there are more than 4000 known species of plants in the southwest corner of WA, more than in any other similar sized area in the world, and over 80% of them occur nowhere else in the world.

A year ago when I arrived here, I took a series of bushwalks into the wild. On those walks it seemed like I couldn't go 10 yards without seeing some plant that looked different than anything I had seen before and I decided to try to learn a thing or two. That led me to the botanical garden and in turn, to the guides program.

Well, enough background. Just keep in mind the notes about the soil and sun. Those features will likely be a recurring theme in my discussions as I post pictures of the plants here.

Like any tour, this will work best with comments from the folks that read this. If I have your comments, I can gauge levels of interest and adjust what I post to the things that seem interesting to you. Otherwise, you can read what I write.. or not. I hope you enjoy it though, because I do.

I'll close out this post now and maybe tomorrow I'll post a bit about a flower here that is purported to be able to "turn hearts."

Welcome to Kings Park.

"Black Swan in Perth Water"