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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After death, when this trunk collapses it reminds me a little of the spikes of the native echidna with its different shades of colour.
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.
Sometimes you’ll find other plants growing on grass trees such as this pink orchid at the top 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.
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.
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.
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…