Weird and wonderful

Having always driven past the Hunter Botanic Gardens at Raymond Terrace, always with the fleeting thought of ‘I must go there’… I finally did.

It holds many green wonders of forests and palms but I found the noise of the adjacent highway traffic too distracting to enjoy the bush.

I did marvel at the amazing sight of the purples and oranges and burgundies of the shedding bark of the Angophora costata trunks. This one was surrounded by the spent flower spears of Bottlebrush Grass plants, Xanthorrhoea macronema, as if on guard.

A friend had advised that the Cacti Garden was her favourite; ‘Oh, I don’t like cacti’, I’d said dismissively.

But the large Cacti Garden here was actually amazing! I was so ignorant of the diversity.

Look at these fat green roses, as cupped as any David Austin bloom…

These strange cannon balls were ribbed with prickles and sneakily expanding, yet some incongruously bore a soft yellow flower on top.

These helmeted and shielded warriors were ready for battle, on the alert and checking in all directions.

Yet this sort of vertical cacti looked gently harmless, furry towers, unlike their accompanying army of fierce little green friends.

And I found this the weirdest of all, a tall sculpture of beseeching groups of clasped hands.

I will never dismiss cacti again… and I am now unsure if they really are plants. Their world is weird indeed, but it is also wonderful.

By gentle waters

On leaving Gibraltar National Park, it is worth stopping just before rejoining the highway, and imbibing the gentle atmosphere of Dandahra Creek.

The path winds through banks of ferns taller than myself, and in many places the creek is as still as a mirror. Still incapacitated to some extent by my fall, I didn’t walk far, but enough to enjoy it.

While the heaths up here apparently blaze with a lot of Christmas Bells at the right time, I only saw an occasional one, always a bright and surprising splash of colour in this green world.

Rocks in shady places are festooned with mosses and lichen and small plants, speaking of stability, of longevity, of multi-purpose and interdependent life.

Even an old fencepost must do its duty in this web of life, hosting so much lichen I had trouble recognising what its original role had been.

High country survival

Gibraltar National Park is an easy drive inland from Glen Innes, on the Gwydir Highway. It is a high country of rocks of all shapes and sizes, so these tall granite columns, called The Needles, were the aim of the first walk I chose to do from where I was to camp for three nights at Mulligans Campground.

The view from the lookout was spectacular, but as always, my eye was drawn to detail, and there were several of these striking plants in flower. Commonly called Native fuschia, Epacris longiflora, I am informed.

The walk out to there goes through mostly rainforest, where the damp fosters fungi and I kept checking for hitchhiking leeches.

Back up on the heights, the regrowth of shrubs and trees was heartening amongst all the blackened trunks.

Not all the Xanthorrhoeas had survived, and many looked like amputees.

The walk was meant to be a two-and-a-half-hour one of medium difficulty; there were quite enough inclines for me, and some rocky scrambles where I feared to turn an ankle.

But up top, for long stretches, Dampiera purpurea formed an avenue beside the path, showing their pretty mauve flowers, the plants often as tall as myself.

I had missed the main flowering of the Gibraltar Range Waratah (Telopea aspera), but enough bright remnants remained on the tall stems to signal their past glory.

But this Park for me was less about flowers than lichened rocks and survivor trees, about blacks and greys and browns.

The lower storey of next generation greens was hopeful, but the tough oldies showed they were not to be taken lightly.

Unfortunately this oldie tripped and fell flat out when almost back at the campground, landing on my camera, which had been slung around my neck and shoulder.  Neither soft flesh nor fragile ribs are a match for such a hard object. So part of me was purple and black as an aubergine (only not as firm) and I could do no more long walks for the week. But I know I was lucky not to break a wrist or wrench a knee… so let’s say The Needles were worth it.

I did survive to wince and do tiny walks, and will return another time to do all those other walks.

Riverside life

At The Bluff campground in Mt. Boss State Forest the Wilson River audibly dominates, rushing over and around huge boulders.

There are very few places to walk except along the dirt road in, or risk twisting an ankle on the round riverside rocks.

But alongside that track I was delighted to see this Spangled Drongo darting about in the regrowth bush. 

I have always loved the name (!), and I am grateful for the distinctive mermaid tail that allows even me to identify it from a distance.

That track also offered several botanical treats, like these pink Stylidium, Trigger Plants, which snap to release pollen when an insect touches them.

One area was generously strewn with these Ground Lilies, Tripladenia cunninghamii, which I had only been shown recently, in Kattang Nature Reserve on the coast. These were perhaps a paler blue, but unmistakable.

And even more generously, this bank carried the daintily lacy Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum). always a sight that makes me smile. Why? Maybe because it is so gentle…

The Bluff itself runs steeply down into the river, with a spectacular wall of Xanthorrhoea on one face.

Nothing gentle about this, but certainly impressive.

Designed by Nature

On a cliff edge in Kattang Nature Reserve is a most amazing and unique sight. A colony of dome-shaped casuarinas, Casuarina glauca in a prostrate form endemic to this reserve. ‘Discovered ‘ here in 1998, several cultivars of it are now grown for use in garden rockeries especially. The Australian Botanic Garden at Mt Annan grows one called ‘Kattang Karpet’.

I first thought of creatures like the elusive Foo cartoon character of my childhood, then the hairier Iggles, like ‘puzzled coconuts’, that appeared everywhere, and then the Grug picture books of my children’s time.

I found it difficult to see these as inert, related to the Casuarina trees we know; they do sucker and spread, so these colonies may be just a few actual plants. I kept expecting one to get up and meander off, as Grug would.

These little plant creatures were the highlight of the walk, but not the only shape surprise.

At one lookout, a proper casuarina tree was pretending to be a steep hillside, but instead was hollow, its foliage growth pruned at that angle by the sea winds, as neatly and sharply as if by an obsessively operated hedge trimmer.

Away from the cliff sides, these beautifully simple mauve flowers on small and low plants proliferated along a protected part of the path: now called Tripladenia cunninghamii, it was formerly named Kreysigia, and is often called the Ground Lily. A first sighting for me, so a walk full of new experiences.

I value Kattang highly as such a special and ever-changing place with many different ecosystems ready to surprise me on every walk. 

Little Fella details

In the Big Fella Gum Forest Reserve, whose mighty trees I admired last post, I was also intrigued by many of its small details.

Like the beautifully delineated shield-like leaves of this young Prickly Supplejack (Ripogonum discolor) which starts out looking as if it’s a shrub then becomes a strong climber. The sailors/Jack Tars on early voyages called it Supple Jack because of its climbing ability, and many parts of the plant are useful.

The few bright new leaves of this tree, Maiden’s Blush, (Sloanea australis) caught my eye several times. The name refers to the colour of its heartwood as well as its young leaves.

Even brighter were these very, very tiny red fungi hiding amongst the deep leaf litter. The water-logged ground beneath was soft, especially near the creek, and I sank several times… but I only attracted one leech.

Other fungi were larger and in the less-noticeable shades of brown.

Although this shelf fungus was so large that it drew attention without vivid colouring except for its white underside.

The extended roots of the big Turpentine were mostly buried under leaves, but this noticeable hump in its progress is clearly being used as shelter.

Unusual shapes and patterns in Nature always fascinate me, as did this small ladder of bark mouths or kisses, the origin of which nobody knew.

And if one tree was puckering up, another was choosing to send its green passenger growing sideways.

This palm chose to cascade its moss from a slit in its decorative lichen-splotched trunk.

And as a final show, in the unbroken depths of this rainforest pocket, a fallen giant lay shrouded in rich green velvet, decaying in beauty while nourishing the earth beneath.

No wonder my spirit itself feels nourished after such an excursion, fed with new sights and understandings, enlightened by others who know so much about our flora.

Stony surprises

On a very stony headland the profusion of spring flowers is surprising. Flannel flowers en masse of course, as everywhere here on the mid north coast right now, but many others too.

These mini flannel flowers manage to survive, if not exactly thrive, on almost nothing but stones.

On Diamond Head, the sight of a single flowering Xanthorrhoea was heartening, rising tall and proud amongst the still very evident carnage from the bushfires that had raged through here.

Less dramatic were the dainty five-petalled purple blooms of Scaevola ramosissima, looking as fragile as ground orchids.

A double treat presented where the purple Dampiera was growing amongst the woolly pink-budded Xanthosia pilosa.

There were only a few of these straggly shrubs of Kunzea capitata with their fluffy pink blooms.

One I did recognise was this clump of cheery yellow paper daisies or everlastings. They at least seemed tough enough to cope with the stony seaside ground in which they were growing.

Resurrection reds

In many Australian trees and shrubs, new growth is heralded by reds, from pinkish red to orangey red.

Often these fresh leaves are more colourful or noticeable than the flowers, and are usually softer than the older leaves.

Red is even implied in the common name of this Bleeding Heart tree (Omalanthus). I loved that the small flower spikes were all curving as if posing for a Leunig cartoon.

In the areas devastated by bushfire two years ago, any new growth is welcome, but so is seeing the repurposing of trees burnt beyond resurrection as they host healthy fungi.

This one has become an arresting sculpture, while also nurturing small ferns in its hollow and a series of fungi steps on a limb.

Nature wastes nothing.

Discovering the new

I know well the glory of flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthi) in bloom, especially en masse, as they are here, forming a guard of honour, contrasting gaily with the greys and duller greens of the ti-tree bush, dead and alive.

But on this walk, I saw plenty that was new to me.

Like this pretty lilac-flowered small bush, likely Kunzea capitata.  I only saw two examples on the whole walk. And spot the ubiquitous pink boronia in the background on the upper right?

A sole orchid declared its presence with one red flower out and several in waiting above: the Large-tongued Orchid, or Duck-billed Orchid, Crystostylis subulata. I will have to return to see the cluster above when open. My first sighting of this orchid!

Not pretty, but certainly notable and new to me, was this young tree, bearing the toughtest, most leathery leaves I have ever felt. Their edges were very stiffly serrated.

I am told it is a common small rainforest tree, Veiny Wilkeia or Wilkiea huegeliana.

As always, I am agog at how much the NSW Native Plant Facebook group members know… and how much I have to learn!

Spring stunners

My second masked venture into sunshine and Spring, this time at coastal Kattang Nature Reserve. And look at this surprise!

Never seen before, and the only one visible to me on the walk.  It did look a bit like a grass tree or Xanthorrhoea, but the flower spike was too fluffy and there was no trunk. There are none of the common Xanthorrhoeas in the reserve, or none that I have seen.

But I am told by the always amazing Facebook group for NSW Plant Identification that this is Xanthorrhoea macronema, or bottlebrush grass plant, and the trunk is below the ground.

What a special solo Spring surprise!

Also new to me was this shrub, where the yellow flowers cluster at the ends of the branches, many with a green cone above their modestly folded golden skirts. The Facebook boffins tell me it’s Phyllota phylicoides, or Common Phyllota. Only it’s not common here, and amongst the thousands of other different yellow-pea-flowering bushes here, its other common name of Yellow Peabush has me laughing aloud.

Another less common shrub here, with most un-pea-like flowers, was partly familiar, as I could see it was an Isopogon, but which one? Could be anemonilfolius or petiolaris, the experts say. With so little information, I am always surprised any identification is possible.

Of course there were many other flowers out, as well as the masses of yellow pea shrubs like Dillwynias, but it seemed that whatever other shy flowers apeared, a pink boronia was nearby.

Their vivid deep pinks were in such profusion amongst all the greys of fallen timber and dead bracken that it was almost an embarrassment of boronias. Such beauty, freely offered…

Several clumps of our dainty Native Iris or Flag, a Patersonia, seemed to be preferring the sunnier open track edges, serenely showing their yellow centres from each three-petalled purple bloom.

And a boronia not far away…

Glory days

Having finally got out in the bush to catch up on Spring (nose duly covered by a mask), I have been treated to a glorious shower of yellow flowering shrubs, from lemon to orange-tinged.

This pale beauty is aptly named the Golden Glory Pea, or Gompholobium latifolia.

It grows on the prettiest arching shrub, very different from the stiffer majority.

And now that the wattles are done, the job of carrying the gold throughout this coastal bushland is being borne by a variety of pea-flowering shrubs, too many for me to suss out, like Dilwynias.

In lesser numbers, the Hop Bushes or Dodoneas are flaunting their bunches of soft green flowers.

But the winner for dominance is a shrub or small tree called Satinwood (Nematolepis squamea), whose starry white flowers formally stud its branches throughout the bush, at all different heights.

Spring hits

Confined as I am to my place, unable to see what is flowering in the bush, it is a great treat to have Spring come to me.

Some of these plants are having their first Spring as residents, so I am glad to see them not only survive their potted lives, but burst into bloom!

This is a native, Philoteca myoporoides, flowering above the Bacopa ground cover.

Planted at the same time last year, this Ruby Belle variant on the native climber, Pandorea pandorana, quickly climbed right up the lattice to the top floor and has proved really too vigorous for comfortable control, but it is pretty foliage anyway, so I won’t be pulling it out. These are the first flowers I have had on it.

In the back garden strip, inherited pots of orchids were put to shelter under a tree fern. Their current starry flowers are a surprise gift!

Not a flower, but green at least, and a symbol of why I am not out bushwalking. My personal mask has been my daily companion/jailor during my month’s radiation treatment, and I now have it at home.

I am told some people grow strawberries in theirs! But I will keep it as a sculptural memento of the time: of fighting down panic as it is placed over your face and clamped down firmly to the table beneath you.

I know it is so the radiation is targeting precisely the right spots on my nose/face each time, and I appreciate that.

But as your nostrils are plugged with wet cotton wool, you must breathe through your mouth. And stay calm…

The team at Port Macquarie Cancer Unit are great and do their very best to help, but it is a fact that radiation burns the good cells as well as the cancerous ones, so my burnt face must now undergo about 10 days of escalating side effects before it can begin to heal.

I only hope it has done the intended job, as that cannot be determined.

But the lesson I learnt there was that, as my Dad used to say, ‘There are always others worse off then you, Sha!’.