17 March 2008

ALLOCASUARINAS – Members of the Casuarinaceae

I have been seduced by a denizen of the Australian bush!

I find myself drawn to him, I admire his stunning tall and handsome bronzed good looks. It’s true his wardrobe consists only of shades of brown, but he shines and gleams like burnished copper as he gently sways with the breezes and turns first this way and then that in the autumn sunshine. He may be wearing golden brown, rusty brown, or sometimes the thick gooey amber of thick, rich honey, but always, always - he attracts attention.

Most of the time the Casuarinas and Allocasuarinas take their place in the bush very modestly - without drawing attention to themselves at all – until they flower. And then surely it is “Look at me, look at me!”

The colour consists of hundreds and hundreds of skinny, long, male “flowers”, all swaying in the breeze, sending their pollen off on a journey, hoping they will land on a female “flower”.
The male flowers are actually stamens in spikes at tips of branches, but it’s easier to refer to them as flowers.

My interest in these small trees began long ago, before I had even heard of the Casuarinaceae, when I would drive my school aged children to the station along a road lined with Allocasuarina distyla, interspersed occasionally with the very attractive Allocasuarina torulosa. Every morning and afternoon in March and April, I would remark on how beautiful they were, and every time my children would look back at me and roll their eyes in disagreement - “But Mum they’re brown” was the chorus from the back seat. To them brown was not a colour to be admired. I never could persuade them otherwise.

And so it is with other people. People are often concerned for the health of my beautiful trees. They think the trees are dying and they allow a flicker of concern to curl around the tree as they speed past on their way to somewhere else. But if you take the time to stop, hop out of your car and inspect that glorious orange/brown coloured tree you will cease to be concerned and may be won over, as I am.

This photograph is Allocasuarina torulosa

Once all members of the Casuarinaceae family were Casuarinas but they have been reclassified due to some differences in the fruit, and we have gained the rather clumsy Allocasuarina, which are distinct from the Casuarina but still remain in the Casuarinaceae family. Ah, the mysterious ways of science.

All share the jointed cylindrical branchlets which remind people of a pine tree but there is no relationship at all. The Casuarinaceae are in a group all on their own and unlike the conifers which they resemble they are true flowering plants. The Casuarinaceae family is native to Australia, southeast Asia and islands of the Pacific.

My interest in these trees was rekindled a couple of years ago when I was in the bush searching for pretty flowers to photograph. I caught sight of the little red female flowers and was amazed. Amazed because I didn’t know about them. Amazed because I had never seen them before, amazed because they had never been drawn to my attention in any book I had read on native plants.

They are very small it is true but very attractive as they cluster in numbers along the branchlets.

I have discovered that there are always some flowers to be seen, though the greatest number occur now (March, April); at the same time as the males are flowering away brilliantly.

Sometimes the female flowers are a tawny shade of bronze to match the menfolk but more often they are red. They aren’t flowers so much as tiny brush-like clusters of reddish stigmas.

Some Allocasuarina trees have both male and female on the same tree which seems a much more sensible idea to me. Much less hit and miss with the fertilization technique.

In the case of Allocasuarina distyla the male and female flowers are on different trees, generally in close proximity. It is only when the male starts to flower that you can see the difference between the two.

Of course if you get out of your car and have a look you will see that all the female trees are clustered with cones at various stages of development, and so it becomes obvious which is which.

Even without the flowers I find the cones themselves attractive. The cones aren’t large, think thumbnail size.

When the time is right the cones split open and release the seed.

Farmers are not as enamoured as I of the casuarinas because nothing much will grow beneath the trees and some maintain that they somehow poison the ground. More study needs to be undertaken to figure out what is going on but for our purposes we will just acknowledge that they may be seriously defending their patch and continue to appreciate them for their beauty.

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