My Grass Tree Romance – Hiking Mt French – Moogerah Peaks National Park

Dried flower spikes

 In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.

– Alice Walker

Christmas trees feature prominently at this time of year but since I’m writing about my visit to Mt French in Moogerah Peaks, I’m going to risk boring you with my continuing romance with the Australian native, Xanthorrhoea, commonly called Grass Tree.  In some ways the humble grass tree is quite symbolic of the Christmas season, when some cultures and religions focus on gift giving, as it is a species which has given  much to the  traditional Indigenous owners as well as the early European settlers. Grass trees are a common sight on my walks at Main Range National Park and Moogerah Peaks and I’m including a few photographs from these walks  to illustrate aspects of  one of my favourite trees.

Grass tree flowers

Flower spikes and a trunk with orchids growing on it at the east peak of Mt Mitchell.

I’ve been fond of this quirky tree since my childhood but until researching it for this blog, I had no idea just how incredibly useful it can be. Did you know that Australian troops in the Pacific during World War II ate food from tinned cans that were coated in a grass tree varnish designed to stop them rusting? Or that the resin was used in early gramophone making? And if you like a tipple you can soak the grass tree flower spikes in water for a few days and you’ll have an alcoholic drink. Just add a few “formic” ants for extra “bite”.  These are just a few of the many gifts that grass trees have given. Indigenous people have used them (and some still do today) for food, making tools and even to help them navigate through bushland as the flowers appear earlier on the warmer (northern) side of the long spike.

Butterfly on flower spike

Unfortunately, grass trees were not treated very kindly  by Europeans and vast areas of very old trees were destroyed. However, these days it is  protected by legislation and the invention of acrylics and plastic has replaced some of its uses.  Phytophthora is a microscopic organism in the soil which causes dieback and appears to be the biggest threat to grass trees now. In fact, this is the reason why I haven’t been back to Mt French as the walks have been closed due to the discovery of this organism which can be transferred by walkers’ shoes. The organism attacks the root system, impairing the plant’s water uptake. In severe cases, even large eucalyptus trees can be killed within days.

Phytophthora

My fondness for grass trees has  mainly been for aesthetic reasons. They remind me of  modern sculptures, with their stark unusual features. Some are tall, straight and symmetrical, while others have been bent or deformed from injury or environmental stress. Kind of like the people in my life really.

Twisted trunk

The twisted remnant of a grass tree trunk made out of the accumulation of leaf bases.

It’s interesting how we appreciate the remarkable diversity of flowers. We like the tiny ones, the huge ones, the delicate ones, the showy flamboyant ones, the spotty, the striped, and the many colours, textures and  shapes. We view  them as beautiful. It’s a shame we sometimes struggle to appreciate the diversity in human features just as much. We compare ourselves to some ideal in a culture instead of viewing ourselves as just another special kind of flower, different but still beautiful in our own way. I wish I could see myself that way more often. Grass trees can vary in their appearance. I love the twisted ones just as much as the straight ones, in the same way as I appreciate the many people in my life.

Mt French contains some of the oldest specimens of grass trees I’ve seen and since they only grow at an average rate of an inch (2.5cm) per year, once one tree dies it takes a long time to be replaced. Depending on the species, a 5 metre tree may be 200 to 600 years old. Some varieties grow less than 1 cm per year.

Large Grass Tree

Large specimen at Mt French. At about 3 metres, this one could be 300 years old.

 

Trunk

The remains of a grass tree trunk showing the accumulated leaf bases.

Before I assail you with more pictures of my beloved grass trees,  I should describe Mt French, where some of the  oldest specimens of grass trees I have seen still survive. Mt French  is about 100km west of Brisbane, near the township of Boonah. This peak is better known for its appeal to climbers but there are picnic grounds at the top which can be accessed via a winding sealed road. There used to be basic camping grounds and toilets  but on my last trip there in March these were being renovated and the walks were closed.

Frog Buttress is a cliff face which juts out on the north-west face of Mt French and although it is small, it’s formed by vertical rhyolite columns which make for some very challenging climbs. About 400 routes have been established, ranging from 4 to 32 on the Ewbank Scale. I don’t really know what that means but apparently it’s impressive and well-liked by local climbers.  Since I retired from climbing many years ago (when I was a kid and fell out of a tree) my daughter and I just went for a look at the camping grounds and the lookout.

There are apparently two short lookout walks, North Cliff track  (class 1) and the Mee-bor-rum circuit (class 3) both less than 1km long each. When we went there a few years ago, the signage was poor and so I am unsure which path we actually took. More information about the walks can be found at the Moogerah Peaks National Parks site if you are visiting the area.

The initial walk takes you through tall straight gum trees and grass trees.

Mt French path

The  visit with my daughter coincided with the grass tree flowering season which can be quite distinct for different varieties and can be brought on by fire. The bare smooth part of the flower stalk is called the “scape”. The entire spike can be up to 4 metres long. During cloudy weather or in thick forest, Indigenous people could use the flowering spikes as a compass as the flowers on the warmer (usually the northern) side would open earlier.

Bee

Insect flying towards the southern side of a flower stalk at Mt Mitchell. Note that there are more flowers open on the warmer northern side.

 

As I wrote before, a sweet alcoholic drink could be made by soaking the nectar laden stalks in water for 4-5 days. The seeds produced could be ground up and used to make a damper-like bread. The sharp tough seed pods could be utilized as knives and fires could be lit by rubbing pieces of  dry flower stalks together. Carpenter bees  burrow into the soft flowering stalks, storing pockets of honey which Indigenous people also consumed. The succulent fleshy roots and the tender leaf bases could also be eaten but care had to be taken not to destroy the growing tip. Indigenous people could also tell by damage to the central part of the leaf crown whether there would be large edible grubs (larvae) in the soil near the base of the plant.

 Butterflies

Bee on Flowers

European settlers had many uses for the resin, including early gramophone record production, soap making, perfumes,  burning for scent in churches, the production of stove polish, protective metal coatings and in the making of varnishes for floors and furniture. Bowls, candlesticks and other objects are still made from the trunk base of some species today by woodturners. Here’s an example.

Indigenous people also used the long flower spikes for the base of spears. Resin from the leaves could be used to attach spear tips to the base and also to attach stone heads to wooden handles. The resin could also be used to patch coolamons (water storage containers) and also to patch canoes. It has been described as the original super glue. Being so useful this resin was important for trade. The resin flakes were collected from the base of the stalk. Once heated they could be rolled into balls for easy storage and transport.

The above ground “trunk” is actually made up of layers of old leaf bases and is hollow. Apparently this hollow trunk conceals aerial roots which run up inside of the cavity.

Hollow trunk

After death, when this trunk collapses it reminds me a little of the spikes of the native echidna with its different shades of colour.

Grass tree trunk

Collapsed trunk made out of accumulated leaf bases.

 

Grass tree trunk

Echidna romance

Echidnas romancing next to my bedroom at Roma in western Queensland.

 Some species of grass trees naturally branch out into several trunks while others only do so when the centre has been damaged. These pics show how grassy crowns can also have multiple flower spikes.

Branched grass trees

By the Mt Mitchell walking track.

Branched Trunks on edge

Grass trees are quite hardy and I often see trees growing out of the side of cliffs or on exposed rocky outcrops. This one was at Mt Mitchell.

Sometimes you’ll find other plants growing on grass trees such as this pink orchid at the top of Mt Mitchell.

Pink Orchids

Pink Orchid growing on a grass tree trunk on the east peak at Mt Mitchell.

Orchids growing on Grass Tree

Pink orchids growing on the trunk of a grass tree on the east peak of Mt Mitchell.

Back to the Mt French trail. After a short walk through the forest, the path at Mt French took us out to an open area where small streams of water ran down a rock covered slope. I have no idea what these dead plants were or the cause of their demise. I am assuming it was the result of a bushfire but perhaps not.

Mt French path

Mt French path

I’m not sure which mountain this is was in the distance but a large stone seat faces this view and I can imagine it would be pleasant to camp overnight and watch the sun rise from this spot.

View from Mt French path

Here is another view from a rocky area on the path. It was obscured by trees but still provided a pretty view of the Fassifern Valley.

View of Fassifern Valley

View of the Fassifern Valley

I hope the spread of Phytophthora can be controlled as it would be disappointing to see these areas of very old grass trees disappear. They’ve provided nourishment and useful tools to many generations of Indigenous people and were extremely useful to early settlers. I’m quite fond of their quirky appearance. They are a little odd, like me…

I’d like to thank my family, friends and all the bloggers and followers who have encouraged and supported me since I started this mish-mash of dodgy stories recently.  You’ve made me feel very welcome and I’ve appreciated the contact immensely. I may take a break over the next few weeks although there could be a little hiking tale to tell before the new year that includes hundreds of little  hairy friends and a big rock! There may also be a post about the distant past, many years before I was born, featuring mystery photographs of people unknown…

 

Grass Trees on Mt Cordeaux

Solitary grass tree at Mt Cordeaux.

 

D'Aguilar National Park Grass Trees

D’Aguilar National Park grass trees.

 

Grass tree across the path

Grass tree growing horizontally across the path at Mt Mitchell.

Grass tree silhouette

36 thoughts on “My Grass Tree Romance – Hiking Mt French – Moogerah Peaks National Park

  1. What an amazing plant! You certainly did your research well, too! Great pictures to help tell the story. And the frosting on the cake was the Khalil Gibran quote! Thank you for the lovely post.

    • Thanks, Gunta! So glad you enjoyed the story, pics and the quote. I’ve enjoyed so many of your posts! It’s lovely to be able to find a quote that you regard as the frosting on the cake. I’ve been using Goodreads as you suggested. 🙂

    • Well I enjoy reading about the wildlife and trees in your part of the world that we don’t have here! I’m glad it was something new for you. I wasn’t sure how well known our grass trees were. Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it. I hope your work schedule allows for more outdoor solo pursuits soon. 🙂

    • Oh, your gully sounds lovely! I’d love to see them “cascading” down the sides. Another grass tree lover. We’ll have to start a club! Thanks for reading and commenting, Brian. I’m so glad you enjoyed the pics. 🙂

  2. Wow wow WOW. Who knew all that about the Grass Trees? Sad that they’re so endangered now. Thank you so much for that. You’re a fantastic writer, and your photos are beautiful!! Love that quote at the end too. I’m using that one! 😊

    • I can tell you I was really surprised as well to discover all their uses. I had no idea really! Aw…thanks so much for the lovely compliments. Really kind of you. I’m not very confident really so I always appreciate the encouragement. I’m glad you liked the quote too. It took me ages to find something I liked. 🙂

    • Hi John, thanks for reading and commenting. It’s not such a pretty plant, but it certainly is unusual. Happy Holidays to you too! I hope you are well. 🙂

    • I’ve been seeing these trees all my life but I still think they are pretty interesting! They sort of look more like people or creatures with interesting hairstyles than trees sometimes. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

  3. Your photography is outstanding here! I also got quite an education while I read along… I’m always fascinated by various regions of the world – how very different than my own native land! Thank you for such a lovely narration, and for most excellent photos to help us better visualize the adventure!

    • Thank you! I’ve taken 100s of photographs of grass trees over the years so it was much easier for me to find some nice shots for this post. I am a bit addicted to them actually which can be a little tiresome for hiking pals! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and could get something out of my strange passion. I really enjoy your lovely blog with all the wonderful creatures in their surroundings. 🙂

  4. Beautiful photos Jane! I with you on your love of grass trees, they are just so beautiful and striking.
    As for your stories, there is nothing dodgy about them! I am so glad i found your blog and I really enjoy reading all your posts, You are a very good story teller and you make me feel like I have been on these walks with you.
    I hope you have a restful and peaceful Christmas and I look forward to reading more of your posts next year.

    • Thanks for your kind support and encouragement, Amanda! I’m very glad to have found your blog also and look forward to reading more Walks and Wine adventures. It has been lovely to have “met” such nice people through blogging. 🙂
      I hope you and your partner and little Harry also have a beautiful Christmas and a joy-filled 2015. Thank you. 🙂

    • I’m glad you find them interesting too! I’m delighted to know that you are enjoying a little part of my country. The feeling is mutual. I would love to visit your part of the world. Thank you for reading and kindly taking the time to comment. I appreciate the feedback. 🙂

  5. I appreciate this detailed introduction to the grass tree, which I confess I’d never heard of, but which is fascinating.

    I know what it’s like to have a passion for certain plants, and you’re right that most people won’t want to spend as much time with them as you or I would. That’s why nature photography is mostly a solitary pursuit.

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for the encouraging words! I’m glad you found our grass trees fascinating and appreciated the information. It makes me happy to know that others have enjoyed my offerings about a weird but kind of endearing plant. I’m sure there are plenty of plants from your own neck of the woods I would find interesting as well. I’ve never traveled outside of Australia but hope to make it to some other countries one day.

      Yes, I agree about nature photography being more of a solitary pursuit. It’s handy when a walking partner is another person who is in love with the camera as then there is no rush. I like to walk alone but unfortunately I don’t always feel safe as a woman in some places and family also express concern about something happening to me in isolated areas, so I haven’t gone solo as often as I’ve wanted to.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Steve! 🙂

  6. Wow! You have some stunning photos of the area there. They are just delightful.
    It’s so funny to me to hear people call these Grass Trees as when I was growing up they were always called black boys. Although this is now politically incorrect, our family still call them that and (oddly enough) so does the Garden Gnome’s family. lol

    • Hi Sue!
      Thanks for complimenting the photographs. They are probably some of my better ones as there were so many more to choose from than usual. My camera was working better back then as well (and my eyesight.)

      Yes, they were called black boys when I was a child too. While reading about them I came across some conflicting information. One article said that they were originally called black boys by Indigenous people, a reference to them looking like a boy holding a spear. Other sources said different things though – that it was a European thing. In the end I decided to just leave out the reference to them being called that as I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to cause pain to any of my Indigenous friends or relatives. But yes, it certainly was part of our language.

      I hope you have a lovely Christmas and a less stressful 2015 than this last year has been. 🙂

  7. A great study on these beautiful and unique plants. I never realised the uses they had.

    We are lucky enough to have one in our suburban back yard that our neighbour tells us was put there by request of the house’s previous owner when she saw the land behind us being cleared for new housing estates. The workers obliged and lifted one over the fence with a bobcat. It is about 2m tall not including the fronds and has two heads. I only wish she’d asked for more. 🙂

    • Hi Cameron,

      Yes, I was really surprised to find out all the uses for grass trees too!

      You have a 2m grass tree? Wow, it could be 100 – 200 years old! What a pity they didn’t save more trees! Such a shame. But at least you have one nice specimen.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Good luck with the calendar sales. It looks great. 🙂

  8. Hi Jane. I have enjoyed reading this post over a couple of days. Like the others who have commented, I also have great admiration for your photographs of the grass trees. I particularly liked the ones of the flowers with the bees, butterflies and orchids – what a feast!

    Grass trees are wonderful subjects for drawing.

    • Hi Margaret,
      Thank you for the lovely compliments! I don’t think my photographs have ever been called a “feast” before. You are kind. It’s easier to find some good photographs to share when I’ve taken hundreds of the same subject matter. I was lucky to get the insect shots. It’s funny but even though I’ve got so many albums of them already, I found myself taking more pictures of them recently… 🙂 I can imagine they would be very interesting to draw or paint actually. Thank you for reading and commenting, Margaret

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