"A walk in a rainforest"

A stroll through a tropical rainforest gave me some ideas for Sydney gardens.
Sunday, 11 July 2010     

Broadwater State Forest

During my recent trip away, I spent a pleasant day in the Broadwater State Forest in North Queensland (near Ingham). We went for a walk in a 'wet tropical' rainforest there, and the vegetation was such a contrast to that I'd seen during my walk several months ago in the dry sclerophyll bushland in Yengo National Park in Sydney. Whilst I admire and enjoy our Sydney bushland and its plants, the rainforest seemed to offer me more ideas for my own garden.

Upon entering the rainforest, we were immediately enclosed by a lush canopy of towering trees, and the area was almost all in semi-shade. Most of the trees were huge soaring specimens such figs (such as Ficus macrophylla, ht 39m) with immense buttressed roots, majestic fan palms (Licuala ramsayi, ht to 15m) and black beans (Castanospermum australe, ht 40m) with their amazing woody seedpods, but they reminded me that many of the smaller native rainforest trees are actually very suitable for growing in our Sydney gardens. In general, these are sleek, evergreen, glossy-leaved trees often with striking, unusual-looking flowers and interesting seedpods or berries. Some have attractive bark; others have beautifully coloured new spring foliage growth. Often growing very tall and slim in their native rainforest environments, in an open garden setting where they do not have to compete for light and nutrients, they tend to be shorter (about a half to a third their natural size). Unless trained by the gardener to a single bare trunk, they are usually bushy to ground level, making them suitable as screens, hedges or windbreaks if preferred. They can be planted close together to form a cool, tranquil mini-rainforest plot, with a canopy of leaves, as they occur in their natural environment, to create a shady retreat for shade-loving smaller tropical plants.

These trees generally enjoy our Sydney climate, like humus-rich, well-drained and mildly acidic soil, prefer regular mulching, watering (especially in their early years) and fertilising - like most of the exotic plants which we grow in our gardens, so they mix quite well with these. Frost can be a problem for tropical rainforest trees, especially in their early years, so protection should be given to such specimens in very cold suburbs. Some need a little shade when young.

Examples of these trees which do well in Sydney gardens include the various lillypilly (Syzygium) species and varieties, with their distinctive new growth and striking berries; lemon-scented myrtle (Backhousia citriodora, ht 6-8m) which has leaves with a strong lemon scent when bruised and a profusion of fluffy cream flowers in spring and summer; blueberry ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus 8-9m) with racemes of dainty fringed, waxy, bell-shaped flowers pink or white from spring to early summer, followed by rounded dark blue fruit; native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum, ht 6-9m), with highly fragrant creamy flowers which age to deep yellow, in profuse clusters in late spring; and macadamia trees (such as Macadamia tetraphylla, ht 8-12m) with long hanging spikes of fragrant starry small pink or white flowers in spring and edible nuts ripening in late summer/autumn.

Another aspect of the rainforest that struck me was the way that the plants interacted with one another, which to me gave a feeling of vibrant dynamism. The plants do this in order to compete for light and nutrients. Native orchids as well as bird's nest ferns (Asplenium australasicum) and staghorn ferns (Platycerium superbum) grew in the crevices of trees; and we also encountered the mysterious 'wait-a-while' or lawyer plant (Calamus australis, ht to 25m), which looks like an innocent palm tree when young but develops strange long canes that viciously hook onto other plants (or unsuspecting people), using these to hoist itself upwards into the canopy. The mature canes of this plant are used for rattan furniture. Strangler figs (Ficus species) show one of the most aggressive forms of plant interaction in a rainforest, taking over and finally killing the host tree in which they begin their lives as ephiphytic seedlings high in the canopy.

It made me determined to grow more epiphytic plants (not strangler figs, though!) in my own garden: something I had already started to do in a tentative way by tying bromeliads, zygocactus and orchids (such as the native Dendrobium speciosum) onto branches of trees to create an intriguing vertical garden effect. I hope to write more about these once they become more established.

I was also fascinated by the variety of spectacular fungi that abounded on dead trees and on the forest floor, manifesting the endless cycle of growth and decay in the rainforest. In our own gardens, we don't often see the organisms that break down our dead plants to create compost to nourish other plants - in the rainforest that drama was everywhere!

 Reader Comments

1/4  Frances - 3941 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 12 July 2010

I agree, I find it fascinating to see fungus appear as if by magic in the most unexpected places, another benefit of mulch decomposing!

Thanks, Frances. I think they are fascinating. Deirdre

2/4  Therese - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Hi Deidre, I really enjoyed your walk trough the rainforest as its been over a year since we did the same north of Port Douglas.My garden is now sprouting many unusual types of funghi.I love to see where people are trailing their long grey moss - mine is decorating a tribal mask on a huge tree.

Thanks, Therese. I do love the Spanish moss and am starting to hang it round my garden. I like the idea of it on the mask! Deirdre

3/4  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Enjoyed the walk, through your eyes, of the rainforest. Will give some ideas to me, as Nicolas has commenced work on the house, and at the bottom of the garden there is room for a rainforest environment. Any suggestions most welcome!

That sounds great, Margaret. There are some good books around on rainforest plants - I think start with a framework of some of the trees, then add in some lower-growing plants and some epiphytes. I wouldn't just stick to Australian natives - there are many warm-climate plants from other places that meld in well with them. Deirdre

4/4  Dorothy - 4060 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Friday, 16 July 2010

Hello Deirdre, I have 3 of the trees from the pods on the left as I heard that they made good indoor plants. I think I will have to rethink this somewhat. Kind regards,Dorothy

I was given one once in a pot, with a label telling me it was a 'Magic Bean'! I think if you bonsai them by root pruning and keeping in a pot it could work. Deirdre

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