Ginkgo biloba, autumn and anomalies

Ginkgo-0135I live on a continent without the visual cues for autumn that naturally occur on others. Sure, Australia has some deciduous trees but there aren’t many and the lack of a show from plants that marks autumn is one of its many anomalies. Anomalies like hopping animals with their young in pouches, montremes, swans that are black or megapodes – birds that bury their eggs in a carefully tended compost and there are many more. The lack of mountains, let alone glaciers, the absence of volcanoes and a climate that features drought, floods and vast arid river systems that lie dormant for years until the floods occur. t’s anomalies like these that generate in me, an awe and wonder, an endless fascination with what this land holds.

So my beacon for autumn is the Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), I have at my front door. I love the Ginkgo’s story, it is an anomaly amongst plants. Land plants that produce seeds can be split into angiosperms (flowering plants) and gymnosperms (non-flowering plants). There are estimated to be between 250,000 – 400,000 species of flowering plants but just 800 – 900 non-flowering. These 800 – 900, occur in four divisions, Pinophyta which includes Pine trees and our own Araucaria, Cycadophyta which includes the cycads we easily recognise, Gnetophyta (Gentales) of which they are perhaps 70 or so seriously weird plants, but none in Australia, and the Gingkophyta of which there is just one, Ginkgo biloba. I am intrigued by this anomaly, just one remaining species from China, in one genus, in one family making up one division of the gymnosperms. A division that’s as different as a cycad is to a pine.

In the fossil record, the Ginkgo left abundant traces of its distinctive leaf throughout geological time. These records tell us that there were Ginkgo, clearly relatives of our only species, 270 million years ago. The records also tell us that there were widespread Ginkgo forests containing perhaps 60 or more Ginkgo species. They also tell us that they commonly occurred in Australia throughout our geological past.

Ginkgo have been cultivated in Chinese monasteries for thousands of years and there has been some speculation that wild populations may have also been planted. But a recent study has shown that a south western chinese wild populations exist in glacial refugium, along with other species that are also commonly found together in the fossil record.

Ginkgo can grow to over 50 metres and live for 5 centuries or more. A 50 metre beacon of autumn in my local bushland is an anomaly I wouldn’t care for. I am going to keep mine in a pot, as a 1 metre bonsai, as an anomalous symbol of autumn in my Australian garden.


There is a great website on the Ginkgo by a Dutch School Teacher and she also has an interesting blog

An illuminating paper on Ginkgo in the Australian Fossil record is Steven McLoughlin’s ‘Ginkgo in Australia’  which can be accessed freely online

Female Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis)

FemaleGoldenWhistler-9910 I live in suburban Sydney close to the CBD and it’s usual that with monotonous regularity, aggressive birds dominate. Despite my proximity to bushland, it seems few species of birds are around. So, any change to this scene, such as a new visitor the Golden Whistler, I greet with joy.

I updated my Canon 5d Mark III this week with the new firmware which allows me to get an auto focus (AF) function with my 300mm and 2X extender along with clean HDMI out. I produce video.  The video capability is why I bought this camera and I am pleased with the clean HDMI, it is just that the stills capability has me more excited.

FemaleGoldenWhistler-9799This Golden Whistler has been around the patch of degraded urban bush below my house for a while. She seems to be a daily visitor, feeding on insects amongst a patch/thicket of Pittosporum (Pittosporum undulatum), Small Leaf Privet (Ligustrum sinense), Broad-leaf privet (Ligustrum lucidum) and Cheese tree (Glochidion ferdinandi) that has an understory of Fish-bone fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia).

I saw a flock of Grey Fantails there during the week and my neighbour says that small birds are more common since the death of his neighbour’s cat. One thing for sure is the importance that this degraded bushland represents as habitat for bird species that need a refuge from the more common, dominant and aggressive birds.

It was dark this morning and the (AF) function wasn’t really able to cope with the complexity of the scene and the low light. It is a joy to get the functionality of audio feedback for focus with the lens but I was disappointed with the technology. I am no expert, I am still learning how to use the 5D and perhaps it is the operator’s expectations rather than the firmware/camera.

Nonetheless, I got a few pictures I am pleased with of a bird that I haven’t been familiar with. The female Golden Whistler is a fairly plain bird particularly when compared to it’s male counterpart which I am yet to see. The sexual dimorphism that birds often exhibit is incredible. The sexual competition that makes males exhibit their fitness so wonderfully is one of the joys of life. I can’t wait to see and photograph the male, there has to be one around.




Getting to know plant families, Myrtaceae

Eucalyptus smithiiI have a theory. The reason a plant such as Agapanthus is so popular is that people are familiar with it and they know its name. Though I would love to see it in its native South African setting, I dislike the pervasiveness of the plant.

But, to explain the theory, at one point in time, I would visit a nursery and be bewildered by all the plants for sale and not know where to begin. The position of ignorance when faced with so much choice was daunting. Knowing the name of something even if it was Agapanthus can be reassuring.

So, I made a conscious decision about fifteen years ago to learn more about plants and their names. Although I am more interested in native plants, I like all plants. Where they are from? What other ones are they related to? Knowing what they are and what plant family they belong to helps.

Family → genus → species

I grow chilli and capiscum plants for example, they are part of an often poisonous plant family Solonaceae. I think of the heat of the chile as a form of plant defense like the poisons in other species such as Datura from that family. Within the family is an important genus, Solanum, which contains such species Solanum tuberosum – the potato, Solanum lycopersicum – tomato and Solanum melongena – eggplant all from the Americas and apparently quite closely related.

For me, this relationship is based on recognition and memory. I am not sure yet how to recognise any of the Solanum species except on remembering what the plant is, what the flower looks like and what family it is from. Fortunately, other plant families have distinctive attributes and are quite recognisable.

Leptosermum squarrosum
Leptospermum squarrosum

I learnt early on that plants in the Sydney Region are often dominated by a small a number of families including Myrtaceae. Myrtaceae contains our iconic gums or eucalypts.

An Angophora capsule

They are quite clearly recognisable by their leaf shape and also have a capsule, which is also a distinctive feature of many plants in the Myrtaceae family and which usually persists on the plant long after it has dropped the seeds contained inside it. So, Leptospermum – Tea-trees, Melaleuca – Paperbark, Callistemon – Bottle-brush all have this dry capsule containing the seeds. Some that we are familiar with such as Kunzea Ambigua – Tick Bush, don’t have a capsule that persists. However, Myrtaceae has another great identifying feature; the flowers have lots of stamens. It is the stamens that are giving Eucalypts their distinctive look. So, even Kunzea can be recognised, no capsule that lasts, but lots of stamens.

Myrtaceae-7804_1A species which I saw on the weekend at West Head in  Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, I wasn’t sure of was Darwinia fascicularis. It is a species in another genus, Darwinia, of the family Myrtaceae. However, the spikes aren’t stamens at all, the anthers are hidden and the protruding bits are the style, but they are very beautiful plants.

Which brings me back to Agapanthus. Why when we have so many great plants, over 20000 in Australia, do we have to have garden’s full of the South African species, Agapanthus? I have my theory and if people learn the name of a few plants they might not just not order the ones that know.


If you want to pursue an interest in plant identification, these are some excellent resources,

Robinson, L.  Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney, 3rd Ed, (2003). Kangaroo Press.

I have a large colour reference  from Fairley and Moore which I use to complement Robinson’s book and they have more recently bought out a field guide sized, reference in colour.

Fairley, A and Moore, P (2010) Native Plants of the Sydney Region.CSIRO Publishing.

PlantNet, an online reference to Plants of News South Wales

Clarke, I and Lee, H (2003) Name That Flower: The Identification of Flowering Plants,  Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2003 is fantastic for its descriptions of flowers and flower parts.