About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Considering the Lilies; part 4

At last - you may well be thinking - here is the last in this series on the lovely lilies. It started here, and followed from there.

In this last posting I want to introduce you to some beautiful members of a family whose name may well be unfamiliar to you. Hemerocallidaceae was first proposed by the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown in 1810 but was certainly not familiar to at least most Australian amateurs until very recent years when some familiar species from other families were shifted into it. Elsewhere in the world many people would go further and include the members of this family in the grass tree family Xanthorrhoeaceae, but here we prefer to give that wonderful group of quintessentially Australian plants their own family. You don't of course need to know any of this to enjoy the plants, but I thought I should mention it in passing to explain why the system I'm using here might seem strange to you. It might be too, but I didn't invent it!

One such subsumed family is (was) Phormiaceae, which includes the New Zealand flaxes Phormium spp. Though not a numerous family it is widely spread, due largely to the genus Dianella - referring to Diana, in her role of goddess of the woods. These are robust familiar herbs in this part of the world, where they are known as flax lilies.
Mountain Flax Lily Dianella tasmanica, Namadgi NP above Canberra.
Above can be seen the big strappy leaves and tall flower stem.
Below is a close-up of the lovely yellow-stamened blue flowers.

Following the flowers are almost equally attractive big glossy blue or purple berries.
Mountain Flax Lily berries were eaten by the Aboriginal people of the mountains, who also used the leaf fibres
(remember the flax part of the name) and pounded and roasted the roots.
This species is found in higher places from northern New South Wales to Tasmania.
The paler-flowered Dianella caerulea is found in near coastal and lower hinterland habitats,
often sandy, in much of eastern Australia.
Apart from Nodding Blue Lily (another formerly in Phormiaceae), the rest of the lilies to be showcased today were until recently in family Anthericaceae. 

Blue Grass Lily Caesia calliantha is another local lily with a wide eastern Australian distribution. It is found in grassy understoreys of open forests and woodlands. Other species are found in New Guinea and southern Africa.
Blue Grass Lily, Kama NR, Canberra.
Thelionema is a closely related and similar genus, containing just three species from eastern Australia.

Blue Tufted Lily Thelionema caespitosum, Tallong, New South Wales.
Yes, I know, an unfortunate name! White flowers get commoner at higher altitudes.
Stypandra is a very small genus, with one species in Western Australia only, the other, Nodding Blue Lily S. glauca, very widespread in eastern and southern Australia. It is flowering delightfully right now around here. The flowers are very similar to Dianella, but the plant is entirely different with tall leafy stems.
Nodding Blue Lily, above and below.
The plant can grow to a metre and a half high.

Johnsonia is a small genus of five lilies, all Western Australian. They have strange little sheathed flowers in a spike. The genus is named for Thomas Johnson, a 17th London physician and herb gardener who was also a serious field botanist and mountaineer. He had the honour of displaying the first bunch of bananas to be seen in England in his shop in 1639.
Pipe Lily Johnsonia pubescens, Yandin Lookout, north of Perth

Hooded Lily Johnsonia teretifolia, Shannon NP, south west Western Australia.
And finally for this series, a somewhat more conventional-looking lily. Yellow Rush Lily is found again widely in grassy areas in much of eastern and southern Australia, where it favours grassy areas and can stud such meadows with numerous flowers.
Yellow Rush Lily, above and below, Tidbinbilla NR, Australian Capital Territory.

I hope you've enjoyed meeting or re-meeting these lovely plants as much as I have enjoyed introducing them to you.

(I should mention perhaps that also in the huge order Asparagales are now included orchids, irises and grass trees, but I prefer to leave my definition of lilies short of them, and treat them as separate groups in due course.)

I'm currently in Ecuador, and this is as many posts as I had time to put up in advance before I left.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Considering the Lilies; part 3

This is the penultimate posting of this series on the delightful lilies; see here for the first posting and how we're defining lilies. The second posting follows that one, so will be easy for you to find if you so desire. I'm going to continue with big order Asparagales. As ever I'm using the Australian interpretation of the taxonomy, as defined by the authoritative Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria; this is a work in progress, but the lilies have certainly been covered by them. 

Quite a few Australian lily genera have recently been incorporated into the huge family Asparagaceae, which has recently been greatly expanded to include many smaller families, notably in Australia Anthericaceae, in itself relatively newly in wide use here. It's that family I want to share with you today, though my examples are limited to Australian ones; I'll be happy to read your account of your own local species in due course!

One of the most delightful experiences I know is to walk through a field of the appropriately named Chocolate Lilies - the name is from the scent rather than taste (not that I can comment on the latter).
Chocolate Lily Arthropodium (formerly Dichopogon) fimbriatum, Bigga Cemetery, New South Wales.
To some people (including me) it does smell like dark chocolate, to others it more resembles vanilla.
There are two other members of the genus around here too; Vanilla Lily can be found in open areas around Canberra and high into the Snow Gum meadows. And I can't believe I don't have a newer, better photo of this abundant little plant!
Vanilla Lily Arthropodium milleflorum.This one does smell unequivocally of vanilla, but it was the edible tubers which
caught the attention of Aboriginal People.
The species name 'thousand flowers' does represent a touch of hyperbole!
Small Vanilla Lily Arthropodium minum.
This one is tiny, less than 30cm high with flowers only about 10mm across.
Chamaescilla is another genus of blue lilies, generally known as blue squills, squill being the name used for various European lilies, especially of the genus Scilla; don't ask me why though.
Chamaescilla spiralis, Esperance, Western Australia, growing, as so many western plants do, in pure sand.
As indicated below they can grow in huge colonies.
The spiralis refers to the twisted basal leaves, though they are not particularly obvious in these photos
(unlike the bud in the photo above).

Another small endemic Australian genus is Sowerbaea, named for highly regarded early 19th century English botanical artist James Sowerby. There are just six species, but found collectively in all Australian states.
Rush Lily Sowerbaea juncea, Ulladulla, New South Wales.
This one grows in near-coastal boggy heathland.

Purple Tassels Sowerbaea laxiflora, Perth.
Unusually, Western Australia doesn't have a monopoly on this genus!
An apparently atypical member is the Wombat Berry, the only member of the genus Eustrephus. Eustrephus latifolius is a quite robust climber with stems many metres long, found throughout eastern Australia in moister situations and on many Pacific islands.
Wombat Berry, Deua National Park, New South Wales.
The berries are edible, as are the tubers, as with many other members of this family.
The mat rushes - Lomandra spp. - comprise another lily group in this order which may not meet our expectations of what lilies should look like. At one stage they were incorporated into the Xanthorrhoea family then for some time given their own, Lomandraceae. Now however they have been included in the huge Asparagaceae. There are some 50 species of Lomandra, all Australian though a couple extend a little offshore. All are rush-like clumping plants, some of which can form important forest understoreys.
Lomandra longifolia Canberra.
Note that this is a planting (outside the National Portrait Gallery) - to my surprise my picture library lacked this species -
and for some reason the leaves had been slashed before flowering.
Probably my favourite genus in this family however - and indeed perhaps my favourite lily genus - is Thysanotus, the beautiful fringe lilies. Here Western Australia reasserts its claim to Australian wildflower supremacy, with 45 of the 50 known species living there. A few northern Australian species extend north into Asia too.

Here are a few of them.
Thysanotus manglesianus, Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia.
This one is a twiner, as is the next, common in early spring in Canberra dry forests (and well beyond).
Twining Fringe Lily Thysanotus patersonii, Canberra.
Another local fringe lily however is much more robust and stands erect.
Thysanotus tuberosus flowering post-fire, Morton NP, New South Wales.
As the name suggests it has an edible tuber, valued by Aboriginal People.
It has a huge distribution, from Victoria into the Queensland tropics and across the Torres Strait to New Guinea.
Naturally, this also means that it lives in a wide variety of habitats.
Thysanotus juncifolius, Mareeba, tropical Queensland.
This one has a similarly extensive distribution to the previous one, but isn't found in New Guinea.
The lovely lilies - and still one posting to go, on another large family.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Considering the Lilies: part 2

Last time I started an exploration of the wonderful world of lilies, including their complicated definition, which I finally settled upon, for the purposes of this blog, as plants which have in the past been included in the family Liliaceae - and there are very many of them! Not only has the giant pseudo-family been broken into 24 separate families, but this wealth of species is spread across two entire orders - it would be as though ducks and herons had recently been mixed in together, or carnivores with horses and rhinos. Last time we looked at some lilies which remain in the order Liliales; today I want to start looking at the larger order Asparagales.

First however, a couple of omissions from last time to rectify! I talked about some Australian members of the Liliales, but omitted a couple of rather lovely overseas members of the families discussed. Bear with me - they really are worth it.

Probably the best-known and most widespread member of the family Colchicaceae is the glorious Flame Lily (among many other names), also called, with some justifiable hyperbole, Gloriosa superba. It is found in much of Africa and Asia, and is the national flower of Zimbabwe. It is reputed in different places to cure almost every ill known to humankind, though it is highly toxic from top to bottom and is used as an arrow poison in West Africa.

Gloriosa superba near Masindi, Uganda.
Another family that we explored was the South American Alstromoeriaceae; again I left out a particularly lovely one that I ought not to have done! Luzuriaga has a classic Gondwanan distribution, the few species being found in Patagonia and New Zealand. L. polyphylla (Quilineja or Coral in Spanish - I'm not aware of an English name) is a beautiful climbing herb from the dripping wet temperate rainforests of the Lakes Region of northern Chilean Patagonia.
Quilineja seems to glow softly in the dark wet forests it inhabits.
Alerce Andino NP, near Puerto Montt, Chile.
So, to the order Asparagales. There are, as I've said, many families involved and today I'd like us to look at representatives of some of the smaller families.

Amaryllidaceae is probably best known for its cultivated members - daffodils and snowdrops for instance. However there are many beautiful ones to be found in the wild too of course. A couple of species occur in inland Australia, where they grow and flower, sometimes prolifically, as flood plains dry out. 
Darling Lily Crinum flaccidum, Lake Broadwater NP, Queensland.
They have a strong sweet scent in the evenings, suggesting they're pollinated by night-flying moths.
In Africa eight species of blood lilies, Scadoxus spp., are found widely. They are highly toxic with both leaves and bulbs containing potentially deadly alkoloids.
Scadoxus sp. (I think S. multiflorus - any clues anyone?), Mt Cameroon.
Asteliaceae is a largely Pacific family, most members of which are in the genus Astelia; New Zealand is its heartland, but there is one species in the far south of Patagonia, others scattered through the Pacific, and a couple in Australia.
Astelia alpina (above and below), Mount Field NP, Tasmania.
Known as Pineapple Grass though it is neither of course, but the name is appropriate!
It can dominate alpine understoreys in the south-eastern Australian alps.

Blandfordiaceae is a tiny family of just four species, all in the genus Blandfordia of eastern Australia. They are known as Christmas Bells for their mid-summer flowering and are much-loved. They grow generally in moist heathy areas.
Christmas Bells, Blandfordia nobilis, Morton NP, New South Wales.
Boryaceae is another small family, exclusively Australian, with most species in the genus Borya and in south-western Australia where they are especially found around great granite outcrops, drying out to apparent death and recovering dramatically when it rains. Unsurprisingly they are known as resurrection plants.
Borya sphaerocephala, Dingo Rock, south-west Western Australia.
Doryanthaceae is yet another tiny Australian endemic family, featuring just two giant species in the genus Doryanthes. Gymea Lily D. excelsa is found near the coast in rocky forests from Sydney to southern Queensland and is one of the most striking plants in Australia. In winter and early spring it puts up a massive flowering spike to four metres tall!
Gymea Lily, above and below, Royal National Park, Sydney.

Hypoxidaceae on the other hand is a near world-wide family, as is the large type genus with up to 150 species.
Yellow Star Hypoxis hygrometrica, Canberra.
The odd species name - it means 'water measuring' - refers to the curious fact that the plant's hairs
coil up when dry and extend when wet. To my knowledge this has never been explained!

Hypoxis sp., Ngaoundaba Ranch, central Cameroon.
And finally for today, family Asphodeliaceae, the aloes and asphodels. Some modern taxonomies subsume this one into the Xanthorrhoeas, which intuitively feels a bit odd, but this has not been accepted in Australia. Locally there are a couple of species of Bulbine Lily.
Bulbine bulbosa, Canberra.
In case you'd missed it, the name is trying to assure us that it has a bulb!
An edible one too apparently, well known to indigenous Australians.
This is a very common and cheerful spring flower in grassy areas locally.
Rock Lily Bulbine glauca, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
Unlike Bulbine Lily this one lacks an edible tuber; it replaces that species at higher altitudes.
And I think that will do us for today - you must be just about lilied out by now. We've not yet finished with the glorious lilies though; we'll wrap it up with a posting on each of two families, the next being the asparagus family!