botany

Wetland plants: Providing indigenous food for arthropods in the heart of summer

To keep ecosystems functioning well, it is important to provide indigenous food sources for beneficial insects throughout the entire year.

As a result, insects that thrive in late summer will have enough energy to continue their daily routines. These routines often include providing helpful services to your backyard garden by assisting with pollination, composting and aphid control.

The challenge is finding indigenous plants that can cope with the arduous and dry conditions of the Australian summer. Soaring temperatures from early summer, starting in November, can put pressure on plants to survive. Thankfully, Victorian plants have evolved traits to help them cope in the month of November. Red Box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), for example, possess leaves with a silvery shine. This colour allows the leaves to reflect more of the sun’s photon spectrum than a darker leaf colour does. In combination with a large leaf surface area, which helps maximise transpiration (the evaporation of water from plant leaves), trees such as Red Box can control their internal temperature range. Some Acacias such as Early Wattle (Acacia genistifolia) and Prickly Moses (Acacia verticillata) have waxy nodes (they don't have leaves), which help reduce water loss when opening their pores to photosynthesise.

From December onwards it becomes increasingly difficult to supply food sources in your garden for insects that provide valuable services such as pollination. Most indigenous wildflowers, shrubs, Acacias and eucalypt trees, which supply the bulk of indigenous nectar and pollen during late spring and early summer, have finished flowering by this time.  

So the burning question is: what plants flower and provide sustenance for insects from December to February? During the last two summers, I've been paying particular attention to this question. It is an important question, because this is the period when butterflies and native bees thrive. My observations have drawn me to the importance of wetlands and ephemeral water bodies in Victoria.

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

Plants in these ecosystems often have an abundance of water. The water they suck up through their roots eventually makes its way to the leaves. The water pumps up the leaves, making them vigorous and strong. Healthy leaves mean that there is more surface area to photosynthesise, and as a result, more energy to produce flowers. So while plants in dry forests have resorted to dying or hiding underground, wetland plants can flower en masse.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Slender Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens) are both easy to grow, and provide a lot of nectar and pollen for butterflies, day-flying moths, and bees. These species include the Common Blue Butterfly, the Ochre Skipper Butterfly and moths from the Agaristinae family. Additionally, Purple Loosestrife is a haven for Blue-banded, Resin, Chequered Cuckoo and Leafcutter Bees. These bees not only pollinate wetland plants, but will also pollinate other plants in the vicinity. In my backyard, Blue-banded Bees are visiting my wetland, herb garden (Catnip, Lemon-balm, Mint), and tomato plants - pollinating as they go.

A rather interesting observation I've noted is the amount of white flowering plants you see in wetlands - examples include Water Plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), Australian Gypsywort (Lycopus australis) and Willow Herb (Epilobium billardierianum). Some studies have shown that white and yellow flowers tend to be visited by a larger range of insects. Having white flowers in high summer, when flowering diversity is low, makes sense for an insect-plant relationship because many insects will happily feed from these plants.

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

With so much insect diversity around wetlands, it is no wonder predatory arthropods feel at home around these water bodies. St Andrews Cross Spiders make their webs between Carex leaves, waiting for insects to become trapped, while dragonflies and robber flies search the wetland zone for small insects, such as mosquitoes, to feast on.  

If you're interested in creating a wetland in your garden, there are many good examples online and in council booklets. Wetlands can be made from baths or depressions with a lining. If you're looking for a terrestrial plant that can handle dry soil in summer, then Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) is of great value. Their long, deep roots allow them to locate water in places other plants cannot reach. At times I've seen these trees teaming with bees, flies, butterflies and beetles. It comes as no surprise that this plant also has white flowers.


Michael Smith is a trained ecologist who currently works in bush regeneration, habitat engineering and environmental education. He is passionate about community engagement and teaching the importance of biodiversity.


Banner image of Alisma plantago-aquatica courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Vibrant flowering wattles mark the beginning of spring

This is a guest article by Wendy Cook. 

It’s cold, the middle of winter. On some mornings the ground is white, puddles are frozen with patterns of angular lines and leaves have a covering of tiny icicles. On other days it feels as if the wind is coming straight off the Southern Ocean, but in the bush, the hakeas have opened their curly white flowers. On the roadside, the first clematis blooms have appeared with long pale green petals and a tuft of stamens in the centre of each flower. The tree violets have branches laden with lime-green buds, waiting until it is time to open their tiny, creamy-yellow, bell-shaped flowers and release their perfume. By the creek, the silver wattles are preparing. Their grey branches end in white twigs with feathery grey-green leaves and stalks of tiny yellow balls; not open yet, but they will be soon. For me, wattle flowers are a sign that spring is coming.

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ) growing with a love creeper ( Comesperma volubile ).  Image: Owen Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia) growing with a love creeper (Comesperma volubile). Image: Owen Cook

Golden wattle ( Acacia pycnantha ).  Image: Kristen Cook

Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha). Image: Kristen Cook

Living close to the Brisbane Ranges, there are plenty of wattle species to be seen flowering here at this time of year. Some of the species found in the Ranges are widespread around Victoria, whilst a couple are less common in other areas of the state. One wattle already beginning to flower is the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha). With its bright gold clusters against green leaves, it is Australia’s floral emblem. However, wattle leaves and flowers aren’t always what they seem.

The feathery leaves of trees such as the silver and black wattles are true leaves. Young wattle seedlings have small feathery leaves, but soon begin to grow very different looking leaves. These later leaves are not truly leaves. They are flattened stems called phyllodes. They can be shaped like gum leaves, as in golden wattle, or be more sickle-shaped, round, triangular, needle-like or thorns. They still fulfil a leaf’s purpose of making food from sunlight, but they are tougher, allowing wattles to live in arid places. Having very small phyllodes or just thorns means the plant loses less water, but it also makes less food, so it will grow slowly. As well as phyllodes, some wattles have thorns to deter browsing animals, or contain chemicals which taste bitter. Wattle leaves and phyllodes have glands which secrete sugary compounds to attract ants. The ants protect the wattle from other insects, some ringbarking branches of neighbouring trees to stop them competing with their home tree.

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ).  Image: Wendy Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia). Image: Wendy Cook

Thin-leaf wattle ( Acacia aculeatissima ).  Image: Owen Cook

Thin-leaf wattle (Acacia aculeatissima). Image: Owen Cook

Most wattles are bushes or trees. One of our more unusual locals is the thin-leaf wattle (Acacia aculeatissima). It grows as a mat of tough stalks and short needle leaves, rarely reaching more than a few centimetres high. When it flowers in spring, it looks like someone has sprinkled a handful of tiny yellow pom-poms on the ground.

The flowers of wattles are also not quite what they seem. Each round yellow ball is made up of many tiny flowers. The fluff that we see is the stamens, tipped with anthers laden with pollen. The petals are so small that we don’t notice them. Some wattles have their flowers arranged in a cylindrical spike and their colours vary from pale creamy yellow to almost orange. The flowers are strongly scented, but do not produce nectar. Instead, insects eat some pollen, become covered in more, and spread it to other flowers. Birds chasing the insects may also act as pollinators. Wattle seeds with tough outer coats grow in pods. The pods split down the side to release the seeds, but may remain, brown and curly, on the plant long after they are empty.

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ).  Image: Owen Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia). Image: Owen Cook

Golden wattle ( Acacia pycnantha ).  Image: Kristen Cook

Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha). Image: Kristen Cook

Myrtle wattle ( Acacia myrtifolia ).  Image: Owen Cook

Myrtle wattle (Acacia myrtifolia). Image: Owen Cook

Wattles can grow in poor soils and are often among the first plants to grow in a disturbed area. They are assisted by bacteria called Rhizobium which invade their roots. The infection causes a lump or nodule on the root, in which the bacteria live. The bacteria can take nitrogen, which is necessary for plant growth, from pockets of air in the soil. The wattle uses the nitrogen and in return, provides the bacteria with sugars to make energy.

In the Brisbane Ranges, we have over 15 species of wattle, flowering at different times of the year. The latest is Mitchell’s wattle, a small bush displaying pale yellow flowers in the heat of summer. For now, while it’s still cold, you can go outside and enjoy the wattles and other flowers announcing the beginning of spring.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.


Banner image courtesy of Owen Cook.

Wattleseed: A Taste of the Outback

This is a guest article by Priya Mohandoss.

Wattle week is an opportunity for us to celebrate and reflect on all things wattle. While this striking native plant, with its gleam of green and gold, fittingly represents Australia as our national floral emblem, it is the wattleseed, in ground and extract form, that is more familiar to those in the world of Australian cuisine.

Although there is a plethora of acacia shrubs and trees spread throughout Australia, most species contain toxic compounds too potent for human intake. However, there are still a number of them that can be used in our diet. Among these species are elegant wattle (Acacia victoriae, also known as prickly acacia), coastal wattle (A. sophorae), wirilda (A. retinodes), dogwood (A. coriacea), colony wattle (A. murrayana) and mulga (A. aneura). Elegant wattle is the most popular derivative that is currently being grown, and is considered the benchmark for commercial wattleseed in the food industry.

All species of wattle, whether edible or not, have pods with a hardened outer coating that hang from the branches of the plant. The length of each pod can vary, but on average they are approximately 7.5cm long and appear in shades of brown or yellow. Each is comprised of 10-12 granules of wattleseed that are about 2-5mm in diameter. These granules can be sourced in either raw or ripened form. Furthermore, whether still dangling or left unopened on the ground, the pods can last for more than two decades and so can survive climatic conditions such as drought or heavy rainfall. It is only the severity of fire that causes them to open, allowing the wattleseeds to whirl into the air for further propagation once rainfall has swept past the area.

Wattleseed from a number of wattle species, such as elegant wattle, can be used in various recipes.  Image: CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wattleseed from a number of wattle species, such as elegant wattle, can be used in various recipes. Image: CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For thousands of years, wattleseed, found in abundance in the arid regions of Australia, has been proclaimed a primary ingredient in traditional food preparation for some Indigenous groups. While the process of extracting wattleseed from the pods of the acacia branches was an arduous task, those that had to provide meals for others would collect, clean and mill the wattleseed until it formed flour. Once this had been achieved, the powdery substance would be combined with water to make dough. The dough was then formed into a bun-like shape and baked in the amber coals of the fire to make damper or seed cakes. However, in its raw and green form, wattleseed could also be conveniently carried and eaten as a snack.

Wattleseed, being high in sustenance and with a low glycemic index due to the unsaturated fat-rich content found in the aril (the element that joins the seed to the pod), and its high amounts of protein and carbohydrates, is highly valued as a food source. It is versatile enough for both sweet and savoury dishes. In its roasted ground form, it can be used as a rub for fish and meat, such as in wattleseed crusted kangaroo fillets or combined with other spices to make blends of dukkah. As an extract, it can be used instead of other essences, such as vanilla, to add flavour into ice creams or cakes for that distinct nutty aroma. Wattleseed tiramisu and wattleseed chocolate cookies are some tasty examples. It has also been hailed as a caffeine-free alternative due to its intense mocha-like and hazelnut undertones, yet without having the bitterness that crushed coffee beans can sometimes produce. It can therefore be used to create wattlecinos

Despite this, wattleseed is still seen in the market as a specialty condiment. It can therefore be hard to find and is sold at a somewhat expensive price. However, with so much to offer, there is a need for wattleseed to pave its way into more of our dishes and see more regular use from professional chefs and amateurs alike.


 Priya Mohandoss is a Masters of Media and Communications student at Monash University. She currently reports for the Royal Society of Victoria and writes a column called “Environment Matters” for the Kinglake Ranges community news magazine, Mountain Monthly. She is an avid explorer of all aspects of nature.


Banner image courtesy of Ian Sutton - Flickr: Elegant Wattle, Prickly Wattle, Gundabluie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19601476

 

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'T'

‘Ahh, the trees’. Not the most common thought one has when reminiscing about the places they’ve been overseas. Unless, of course, one is a botanist or has had a series of unusual experiences involving trees.

Strangely though, trees have been a continuous theme through many of my overseas exploits. There have been various times when travelling that I’ve been shocked to see trees from home in the places I least expected them. The first of these was when I was riding across a section of a Tanzanian mountain range and lo and behold, on the first day along a narrow dirt road there was a border of eucalypts planted by the roadside. I vaguely remembered at this point that eucalypts had been used around the world to help control road moisture issues as they absorb a lot of water. After the intense culture shock I’d experienced whilst travelling up to this point, the sight of these familiar trees was a pleasant reminder of home.

A eucalypt in flower in Uganda.  Image: Sarah Bond   
  
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A eucalypt in flower in Uganda. Image: Sarah Bond

Another time that I had such an experience was when driving through Spain. We were on a major highway heading towards Madrid and I just happened to glance out the window and see a stand of eucalypts beside the highway at an interchange. It was a moment that would likely have passed by without note for most people, except for myself who was experiencing a moment of homesickness. The trees elevated my spirits and gave me a much-needed feeling of belonging.

I’m told by fellow travellers that they’ve had similar feelings and it has made me empathise with those who move to other countries and want to keep a piece of home close by. Perhaps this feeling is at the crux of humanity’s capacity to disperse introduced species - wanting to make a new environment feel familiar and ‘homely’. Colonialism has resulted in one of the greatest expressions of this need, and now, wandering around different parks in Melbourne, you can find oaks and beeches that are well over 100 years old; botanical markers from those early settlers.

I've found that this same phenomenon applies to Australians going to other parts of the world. When I was adventuring around Johannesburg in South Africa, I found eucalypts that were well over 100 years old, planted by Australian gold miners. Eucalypts have since spread widely across the country. Unsurprisingly, there is much discussion regarding the potential effects this introduction has had on the South African environment (just as there is in Australia regarding our own introduced species).

A eucalypt tree (left) in the Knysna township, South Africa.  Image: Sarah Bond   
  
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A eucalypt tree (left) in the Knysna township, South Africa. Image: Sarah Bond

Whilst in South Africa, I had the most surreal and ironic experience when volunteering at a game reserve – we were asked to weed eucalypts (note: not an easy task). It felt quite wrong given that I expend great effort planting them at home to re-establish habitats. In this same reserve, I was happily greeted by monkeys in a stand of eucalypt trees near where I was staying. Watching them climbing and swinging through the very familiar trees, it became very clear that I wasn't in Australia.

Similarly, I went on a paddling trip on a lake in Uganda with another Australian friend. We both had a little giggle as we paddled in a canoe made of a hollowed eucalypt tree. The guide took great pride in telling us about eucalypts and how useful they are. We didn’t discuss the effects of their introduction; however, their damaging impacts on local environments have been widely acknowledged given their huge use of water in an otherwise water restricted continent.

Despite knowing this, all of my experiences with eucalypts overseas have been gratifying just as much as they are unexpected. Although they’re usually accompanied by a quick shot of homesickness, they also often give some quiet relief. Until travelling, I hadn’t thought about the effect that these trees have on me at home. They seem to lend a steadiness to a landscape and have become one of the most quintessentially Australian sights you can see.

A eucalypt canoe shadowed by a eucalypt tree on the banks of Lake Mutanda, Uganda.  Image: Sarah Bond   
  
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A eucalypt canoe shadowed by a eucalypt tree on the banks of Lake Mutanda, Uganda. Image: Sarah Bond

Even now, many of the trees I see every day are special. The Manna Gum beside a creek in Ferntree Gully that I pass on my way home from work. The Candlebark that stands like a ghost amongst the darker trunks of the box trees on a drive through Wonga Park. The beautiful majesty of the Mountain Ash forests in the Dandenongs that stand like spectators, watching those wending their way through the mountains.  

As a connection with place, trees can offer one of the strongest links. For the trees, it seems that they stand as silent witnesses to the passing of the world, not actively participating in the connection. For me, though, they provide some of the deepest ties to my overseas adventures. 


Sarah Bond

Sarah is a botanist who has also had a series of unusual experiences with trees. She works at an indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne and is the Education Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond


Banner image courtesy of Sarah Bond.