Wednesday, January 1, 2014

From Down Under: Wattles, Kurrajongs & Gum Trees

Eucalyptus at a Phoenix golf course
One of the curious things about Phoenix is that there are more species of plants in the urban area than there are in the immediately surrounding Sonoran Desert. This is because we have imported hundreds of plants from other parts of the world. One of the highest-ranking countries for floral immigrants is Australia, with over eighty species of trees and shrubs that are cultivated and sold in garden centers all over the southwest. Since the interior of Australia is a desert very similar to central and southern Arizona, the plants adapt quickly to our equally hot, arid and sunny climate. A walk around the block of suburban neighborhoods around Phoenix is bound to take you past many Aussie ex-pats, especially wattles, gum trees and kurrajongs.
What wattles are to Aussies are known as acacias in North America. They all belong to the pea, or legume, family, but Australian acacias lack the spines or thorns that serve as self-defense from browsing mammals in North American ones. In place of thorns, the leaves of wattles contain alkaloids that are toxic to most animals. Over nine hundred of the world's thirteen hundred Acacia species are native to Australia. The most popular ones used for landscaping around Phoenix are the slender-leaved Willow Acacia (A. salicina) and Shoestring Acacia (A. stenophylla), both of which fill the air with sweet perfume from the puffball-like flowers every fall.
Kurrajong is the Australian aboriginal name for the bottle tree, a stout tree named for the shape of its trunk. The hard brown seedpods look like little canoes and the speckled maroon and white flowers resemble tiny jester caps. Indigenous people still use the bark of the tree to make fishing line, which is what "kurrajong" means in a now extinct language once spoken near Sydney.
Perhaps best known of the Australian flora are gum trees, or Eucalyptus, famed home of the kookaburra, a type of giant kingfisher. Just fifty miles west to Phoenix near Tonopah, Australian Outback boasts that it is "the worlds most extensive Eucalyptus browse plantation," providing North American zoos with leaves for captive koalas, which feed almost exclusively on Eucalyptus. There are seven hundred species in the world, and all but fifteen are native only to Australia. Here in Phoenix, around forty species are available through the garden trade. gum trees are revered for their beauty, shade and as fast-growing trees that provide wind breaks and screening in agricultural and industrial areas. That is why rows of eucalyptus are commonly planted along our roads and freeways and other not-so-scenic parts of the city, which is just about everywhere! Gum trees also make excellent pulpwood; the soft fibers are especially useful for making tissue paper. You probably have rolls or boxes of eucalyptus-based papers in your bathroom! In your medicine cabinet too, you may have throat lozenges, toothpaste or other cosmetics that contain eucalyptus oil.

Although it would be difficult to support a population of koalas in Phoenix gum trees, many native birds and insects have adapted to using them for food and shelter. most notably, monarch butterflies will roost and feed on Eucalypts during their annual migration. This is especially prevalent along the coast of California, where hundreds of thousands of monarchs roost during the winter months. In the annals of evolutionary biology, rapid adaptive responses to recently introduced species are a unique crucible for speciation. On the other hand, some people view any non-native species as a pest that interferes with the natural order of things, so many eucalypt forests are targeted for destruction, especially since they are also fire and windfall prone trees.

However, a special Red Gum (E. camaldulensis), affectionately known as "Mr. Big," is well-guarded and cared for not far from Phoenix at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior. The giant is reputed to be the National Champion of its kind, running neck and neck with a specimen in California at over one hundred forty feet tall and over six feet in diameter. Equally notable is Mr. Big's stats as the State Champion of all trees for height in Arizona, topping the runner-up Ponderosa pine in height by over thirteen feet!