Reaching Luino

After several long tunnels, our train from Milan emerges on a grey day to suddenly present us with this … Lake Maggiore. Steep forested hills dip their feet in the water, and tiny towns cling to its narrow edges.  Even grey, it is stunning.

We have arrived at Luino, to stay one night before heading into the mountains.

We get little chance to explore far along the promenade, as rain is threatening.

There is a great children’s park with a musical instrument installation, of drums to tap, and pipes of varying notes to strike like gongs.

Another golden Madonna watches over the port’s walled marina for small boats.

Familiar Erigeron plants (Seaside daisies) flourish in any crack in the walls.

But the weather defeats us; rain hunts us from our coffees and follows us up to our lodgings for the night.

This is small but well-planned, high up under the roof. I am taken by the new windows, well-made and clever, where the one operation opens and closes both the upper casement windows and the lower hopper one.

Next day dawns fair, the clouds are lifting and the outdoor cafés are again in use.

I am getting used to coffee and sweet pastry for breakfast, as that is the norm, with many varieties beyond croissants from which to choose.

I do admit to a hankering for avocado on toast with a dash of lemon, but even if we were self-catering, avocados are extremely expensive here. I also learnt that you must weigh your fruit and vegetables first and affix the product number and weight or the checkout person will reject them.

The lake beckons…

Farewell flashes

As I am about to head off for two months in Italy, I visited my nearest home nature spots to refresh my mind and memory.

First a walk to the long beach, often wild, today deceptively gentle and brilliantly blue. 

Only one other person is here, a mere speck a long way up the beach; fishing, I assume.

I doubt I will see such an empty beach in Italy.

Next, to the river, where a small group of pelicans have been checking out the low tide mudflats. Two take off, but the rest stay.

And what a treat to see my special solo seagull there as well; did he come to say ‘Arrivederci?’

He looks very small next to his big-beaked Big Bird mates. I missed him at the beach…

And at my actual home, my about-to-be-abandoned garden has exploded with prolific and beautiful farewell flowers on the various Schlumbergera truncata succulents. I had feared I’d miss them, and was about to ask my house minders to send me photos.

The next posts will be from Italy; I will be staying in the Emilia-Romagna region, although in the hills above the flood-ravaged area.

It does feel rather like going to visit the Northern Rivers after the Lismore etc. floods, but Nature’s payback has no concern for my travel timetable.

Autumn bush blooms

Not expecting to see many flowering plants on my latest Coast walk, these beauties surprised me: Epacris pulchella, or Coral Heath.

Unsurprisingly, ‘pulchella‘ means ‘beautiful’.

It’s a sandy walk where Flannel Flowers are massed like guards of honour in their season, but right now their greyish foliage is mere backdrop for this elegant Epacris.

And there were quite a few shrubs of this spiky-leaved wattle, Acacia ulicifolia, Prickly Moses or Juniper Wattle. Notably, it carried blooms  at all stages and colours, rather like the Banksias do.

However, the dominant flowers were not at eye or ground level, but high up, as these Melaleuca trees (quinquenervia, I think) are in massed bloom everywhere on the coast here.

Their scent is powerful and pervasive, although to me it smells like some deep-fried battered takeaway food! The Rainbow Lorikeets are going noisily crazy over the feasts on offer.

Not flowers, but the strikingly bright fruit on this small tree caught my eye. There were only a few bunches like this, so not really obvious.

The knowledgeable folk on the NSW Native Plants Identification Facebook group, who identified the first two flowers here for me, also tell me this is Elaeodendron australe, or Red olive berry.

It’s a group well worth joining if native plants are your passion!

Eye catchers

The things in Nature that catch my eye often do so because they are beautiful or unusual, be they very large or very small, occurring by nature or by nurture.

Early morning, after a rainstorm the night before, this humble garden begonia flower cluster was truly ethereal, backlit, and still holding a crystal drop or two.

But equally eye-catching was this lone fungus standing tall and proud, smack in the centre of a pile of cow manure.

It can be the shy ones like these Native Violets, smiling up at me as I step carefully though the shaded grass.

Or it can be the boldly coloured and unmissably large, like the fruit of this palm!

And some are simply extraordinary, like the fleeting blooms of this cactus plant. As pretty as proteas, they glow as if filled with captured sunlight.

The parent is as tall as a tree and inhospitably knobbly and spiny, and yet it produces such brief beauty, to catch the eye for an evening … and then fold up, and die. 

Aussie Autumn display

Banksias are inherently surreal plants and trees, and right now, in our Autumn, the coppery coloured new leaves, toothed and outstretched, and the huge variety of flower cones at different stages, like this baby one, are truly painterly.

Some of the new flower cones are as pure and slender as church candles.

Others have decided to limit development to hemispherical powderpuffs, albeit spiky ones, rather than the typical elongated cones.

Only one branch of this Angophora floribunda was flowering, but in such profusion that its heady scent — more butterscotch than honey, I thought — wafted farther than its close proximity. That branch was a long arm, arching far from the tree trunk, contorting in the manner of its family.

The Blueberry Ash trees (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) were festooned, not with flowers, but with hundreds of tiny blue berries like scraps of sky.

Some Lillipillis were showing off by displaying both flowers and fruit.

It being Autumn — Keats’ ‘season of mellow fruitfulness’ — the Pittosporums were laden.

And who needs flowers or fruit when you have such gorgeous spiralling growth itself? The low growing  Caustis flexuosa or Curly Wig is common in this reserve, and always remarkable.

Intentional food and beauty

The lucky inhabitants and visitors to this garden find plenty to eat, if they are partial to nectar or berries. The owners have planted native shrubs and small trees with the specific aim of attracting and providing for them.

It’s highly successful, as the frequent forays of honeyeaters in this blooming time mean the branches are rarely still, a bouncing and swaying leafy larder.

Grevilleas, Kangaroo Paws, Banksias, Bottlebrushes and Lilly-Pillies abound.

This dense shrub is a favourite with small birds, and its prolific flowers are an unusual and very pretty shade of pink.

But my favourite in the pink stakes is the Lilly-Pilly with beautifully drooping hands of pale pink new leaves, which fade as they age.

Its bunched berries are pink too: what’s not to like?

Or if pink does not appeal, there are many of these Lilly-Pillies with cream powder puff blossoms.

Their fruit is a darker pink, larger and in smaller bunches, and perhaps more appetising?

It would be a very choosy bird that did not find this garden both a haven and a rich food source.

As a human I find it both a haven and a rich source of visual beauty, with the sightings and sounds of the birds an extra treat.

I could probably eat the Lilly-Pillies, but I’m too busy eating raspberries off the vine…

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.