Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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Swamp Skink

The Swamp Skink Lissolepis coventryi is one of my favourite animals but unfortunately is becoming increasingly threatened from human-induced changes to its wetland habitats as well as predation by foxes and cats. It is currently listed in Victoria as threatened under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (1988).

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Swamp Skink Lissolepis coventryi, Bass Coast, Vic

Swamp Skinks grow up to 250mm in length and have a distinctive colouration. It’s body is typically a light olive green colour with two prominent black stripes along its olive-brown back. Its sides are black with light olive spots and patches. It can be confused with other species, particularly the similar sized and patterned White’s Skink Liopholis whitii (see photo below).

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White’s Skink Liopholis whitii, Hernes Oak, Vic

The habitat of White’s Skink is typically drier and it doesn’t seem to prefer wetland areas. The two skinks, however, were previously lumped together in the genus Egernia but recent studies have separated both these species from genus.

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Swamp Skink

 

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The current distribution of the Swamp Skink is the coastal plains of Victoria with populations extending slightly into coastal South Australia and NSW. The majority of these populations are highly fragmented and subject to increasing pressures. Swamps, wet heathland, saltmarshes, sedgelands and watercourses are the preferred habitats for the species and many of these have been drained for development or agriculture. Many of the small isolated patches of habitat left are subjected to further pressures from disease, pollution, weather events, poor drainage, amongst others. Some areas though have been protected and have a relatively stable population but much more sites need protection through habitat restoration, pest animal and weed control, and minimizing disturbance to existing habitats.

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Swamp Skink ‘condo’, Bass Coast, Vic.

If you live along the coastal plain of far S/E Australia keep an eye out for this species and submit any sightings to relevant departments. A great platform for the general public to submit sightings is the Atlas of Living Australia.  This citizen science based website collects data on Australia’s flora and fauna from a wide range of sources and can be accessed for information on species as well.

A fantastic article to read in relation to their requirements and management is the Swamp Skink management guidelines for the Mornington Peninsula (Clemann and Robertson 2015).

 

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Wonthaggi Heathland

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Twiggy Daisy-bush Olearia ramulosa beginning to be taken over by tendrils of the native semi-parasite Downy Dodder-laurel Cassytha pubescens.

 

Wonthaggi Heathlands

Wonthaggi Heathland

 

 

Winter has definitely hit Victoria with a vengeance in the last few days with some snowfall on most of the peaks down to 500m. Even some of Wilson’s Promontory and the Strzelecki Ranges, including Tarra Bulga NP, have received a dusting. What better way to enjoy this than to get down on my hands and knees with a camera in Wonthaggi Heathlands in the icy 40km/hr winds last Thursday. Why you might ask? Well, I was on my lunch break from doing some contract work in the reserve and I was impressed how much there actually was flowering at this time of the year. What struck me though was the number of species flowering out of their usual period. We did have a reasonably dry and warm period in autumn to the start of winter which may have thrown some species out.

Wonthaggi Heathland and the adjoining coastal reserve contains over 800 hectares of fantastic remnant vegetation which was once widespread along Victoria’s coastal fringe. In spring this reserve explodes with a mind-blowing array of flowers but winter is generally subdued. That was until I took a closer look.

 

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Common Heath Epacris impressa is predominantly a winter flowering species and varies from deep pink-red to white.

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A young Showy Parrot-pea Dillwynia sericea flowering early. This species usually flowers late winter to early summer.

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Hibbertia species, possibly Silky Guinea-flower H. sericia. This genus usually flowers in spring so it was unusual to find some in flower.

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Black Sheoak Allocasuarina littoralis with red female flowers.

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Silver Banksia Banksia marginata finishing flowering.

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Sweet Wattle Acacia sauveolens, another species which flowers during the cooler months.

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Prickly Tea-tree Leptospermum continentale flowering way out of it’s usual mid spring to summer period.

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Sundew Drosera sp, possibly D. peltata. Although not flowering I thought I’d throw this in as they were everywhere in the low heathland.

Well, that was my lunch break. Meanwhile my hands had turned blue from the cold! It was worth it though.

 

 

 


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Leaf-curling Spider

During summer a common sight in southern and eastern Australia’s woodlands, open forests and urban gardens is an untidy and almost circular web strung between vegetation with a curled leaf seemingly caught in its centre.  This is usually the workings of the Leaf-curling Spider Phonognatha spp.

Leaf-curling Spider- Phonognatha sp. 10km west of Morwell, Vic.  In web on edge of Leptospermum swamp. 2-3-10

Leaf-curling Spider Phonognatha graeffei outside of its Eucalypt leaf shelter. Morwell, Vic.

There are currently 7 species of Phonognatha recognised wordwide with 4 in Australia. By far the most common and widespread in Australia is P. graeffei (pronounced greef-e-i) which is found in Tasmania and along the entire east coast of Australia to South Australia. Males reach a body length of about 6mm and females 10-12mm. They currently belong to the Orb-weaving family Araneidae but there is ongoing debate as to whether they should be in this family or not and in the past the genus has being placed in other families.

Leaf-curling Spider- Phonognatha sp. 10km west of Morwell, Vic. In web on edge of Leptospermum swamp. 2-3-10

Phonognatha graeffei

Leaf-curling Spiders, after constructing a web, will haul up a leaf from the ground at night using a silk line and attach it to the web. This is then curled up with more silk until it forms a shelter in which to hide. The top end is closed with silk and the base is open. I’ve noticed Eucalyptus leaves are favourites with this species in Victoria but I have seen them use Snowy Daisy-bush Olearia lirata and Hop Goodenia Goodenia ovata leaves as well. Occasionally other items such as paper or even an empty snail shell are used instead.

Leaf curling spider  'nest'. Berrys Creek, Vic. April 2014

Typical web design with the hub being a 3/4 circle with a curled leaf near the centre. This leaf I think is from a Snowy Daisy-bushBerry’s Creek, Vic

Once the leaf shelter is completed the male will shift in with a female or sometimes live close by. This is typically an immature female who lives in the top part of the leaf while the male guards the entrance from rival males and catches insects caught in the web.

Leaf-curling Spider consuming beetle. Dutson Downs, Vic. Open Banksia woodland. 20.3.2015

P. graeffei catching a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae).

As soon as the female reaches maturity the male mates with her, occasionally resulting in the male being eaten. This female then moves out and constructs her own leaf shelter amongst nearby vegetation where she will lay her eggs. As with most other ‘modern’ spiders (Araneomorphae) they have short lives and both the male and female Leaf-curling Spiders will die at the end of summer to be replaced by their children.

Once hatched, the spiderlings themselves will begin hoisting up small leaves as practice for when they are ready to shift out of home and begin the process all over again.

 

 

 

 


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Leafless Banksia

While walking through a section of coastal scrub west of Golden Beach in Victoria I found this unusual clump of six Banksia flowers on the ground.

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At first I thought it was a bunch of flower heads that were knocked off a tree as there were no obvious leaves in sight. Looking closer I noticed it was rooted in the ground and was actually sending up three small suckers from the ground. In the centre of the flowers was a stump which had been either broken or chewed off some time ago as it had sealed over and turned grey.

This turned out to be a Silver Banksia Banksia marginata which it seems has had a very stressful life, probably from constant deer browsing (Hog Deer are very common around here) resulting in it becoming extremely stunted. After the most recent damage to its main stem it must have refused to give up its fight and sent out more shoots.

So, no it wasn’t a new species of leafless Banksia but a very hardy Silver Banksia with a stubborn fighting spirit.

 


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Gippsland’s Reptiles Part 3- Dragons and Monitors

This is part 3 of a photo essay on Gippsland’s unique reptiles, this time to include dragon and monitor (goanna) lizards.

Although not highly diverse as much of the rest of Australia, particularly the arid parts of the continent, Gippsland’s dragon lizards (family Agamidae) include a handful of interesting species. Their distribution extends throughout the Gippsland region and each has specific habitat and diet requirements.

On the coastal plain of Gippsland you are likely to come across the well camouflaged Jacky Lizard Amphibolurus muricatus, particularly in the drier woodlands and coastal parts of the region where it can be found on the ground or perched on branches. It is found in the coast and ranges of SE Australia from South Australia to south east QLD.

Jacky Dragon-Amphibolurus muricatus. Open Red Gum woodland, Fernbank,Vic. Sept 2013 (3)

Jacky Dragon. Fernbank, Vic.

 

 

Jacky Dragon- Amphibolurus muricatus. Dutson Downs, Vic. Heathy woodland. 16.9.2015 (1)

This species is relatively common in open woodlands and coastal scrub and can be easy to miss when walking through these areas as it blends in well with its surroundings. Growing to a total length of almost 400mm it is very similar to the much smaller Mountain Dragon Rankinia diemensis which also occurs in the region. Jacky Dragons can be identified from this species by the inside of their mouths being bright yellow as well as having no enlarged spines at the sides of the tail base. Mountain Dragon’s mouth is blue inside and they have small spines at the sides of the tail base.

Jacky Dragons have a peculiar way of communicating with each other which include complex movements such as head bobbing, arm waving, push ups, body rocking, tail flicks and colour changes. When disturbed they sometimes run upright on their strong back legs to escape at speed.

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The Mountain Dragon, as its name suggests, is typically found in high country but can also extend to the foothills and some parts of the nearby coastal plain.

Mountain Dragon- Rankinia diemensis. Mitchell River NP, Vic. Dry rainforest gully in leaf litter.  29-12-09

The Mountain Dragon showing its brilliant camouflage. Mitchell River NP, Vic.

As with the Jacky Dragon they are very well camouflaged and difficult to detect due to their ability to change their colour to their surroundings.  Mountain Dragons feed almost primarily on small insects found in leaf litter and low vegetation of dry woodlands. I have often seen them in the high country perched on the top of small termite mounds feeding on termites. This is a small dragon and can grow to a total length of up to 200mm.

Mountain Dragon- Rankinia diemensis. Near Ben Cruachan, N of Heyfield, Vic. 31-12-2011 (2)

Mountain Dragon feeding on termites. Note the way it changes colour to its surroundings.

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When travelling along rivers and large streams in Gippsland you are often aware of frequent splashes in the water. This is often due to the presence of the large Gippsland Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii howittii, a subspecies of the Eastern Water Dragon which is common along the east coast of Australia and is a semi-aquatic species.

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Male Gippsland Water Dragon. Yallourn, Vic

 

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  23-2-10 (7)

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  23-2-10 (13)

Female or juvenile Water Dragon. Yallourn, Vic

Gippsland Water Dragons inhabit rivers, streams and sometimes rocky intertidal areas of the coast. They frequently perch on rocks, logs and branches overhanging the water and will often use these for a quick access to the water to hunt or escape predators, similar to the freshwater turtle. They have a strong swimming ability and is reputed to be able to remain underwater for over an hour! It feeds on a variety of terrestrial and aquatic species which includes insects, aquatic organisms, small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and mice as well as fruits and berries.

Gippsland Water Dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. Yallourn, Vic.  5-2-10 (3)

Water Dragons look almost like a swimming snake when they take to the water.

Gippsland Water Dragon males can grow to almost 1m in length and weight up to 1kg. Males have a brilliant colour pattern in the breeding season which includes a bright orange and green blotched neck and green overall body colour with striping on the tail. The Eastern Water Dragon male typically has a reddish pattern on the neck and chest, a dark patch behind the eye and more prominent stripes and the tail and back. It also tends to lack the green body colour of the Gippsland subspecies. Several feral populations of the Eastern Water Dragon have been found in South Australia and Victoria, including Gippsland (Yallourn), presumably escapees from reptile breeders.

Gippsland water dragon- Physignathus lesueurii howittii. (male) Yallourn North along Latrobe River on willow. 18-3-10 (4)

An Eastern Water Dragon male showing red throat and belly and vivid patterns on the face and back. This is a member of a ‘feral’ population at Yallourn, Vic.

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The Lace Monitor Varanus varius is a large species of goanna found throughout Gippsland but is becoming increasingly rare in the western part of the region. As such it is listed as threatened in these parts. In central and eastern Gippsland, including the high country, Lace Monitors are still quite common in forest and woodland and will often hang around campsites or rest stops looking for scraps. Individual can have a large home range of up to 1-2 km² in summer but will remain almost dormant in winter. They are semi-arboreal and will often climb trees to raid nests of birds and mammals and will often use large hollows to shelter in.

Lace Monitor- Varanus varius. Avon-Mt Hedrick Scenic Reserve, N of Heyfield, Vic. Woodland. 29-12-2011.

Lace Monitors are very adept at climbing using their large claws. Heyfield, Vic.

Lace Monitors are one of the biggest goannas in Australia and males can grow to a total length of over 2m. Their name comes from the network of stripes on the body and neck which can vary in colour and pattern. The typical overall colour is dark grey with a complex series of creamy-yellow spots often merging into stripes. The neck and underparts are cream with dark grey stripes or blotches. Some individuals have a blue tinge to the body, especially the throat.

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Lace Monitor showing blue colouration to the throat and face. Buchan, Vic

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Another species, Gould’s Sand-Monitor Varanus gouldii, has historically been recorded from far east Gippsland but this hasn’t been seen for decades and it apparently wasn’t a common species in this area.

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Dragons and monitors probably evolved on the same lineage as snakes very early in reptile evolution in the Cretaceous period. In fact, monitors are the only lizard to share the forked tongue with snakes which they use to smell scents and it is thought that these two are closely related.

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Characteristic forked tongue of the monitor lizards

 

Although not as common as Gippsland’s skinks, the dragons and monitors of the region are always a pleasure to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The secret life of the paddock tree.

The majority of prime agricultural land in southern Australia was once densely vegetated with scrub, woodlands or forests, typically dominated by eucalypts. In Victoria’s Gippsland region, one of Australia’s most fertile areas, most of the land has been so highly modified from clearing it is often difficult to determine what the original vegetation communities were. The only way to do this is to observe the handful of remnant species remaining to work out the original EVC (ecological vegetation class) and this vegetation is often in the form of the paddock tree.

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This drastic change to the landscape is unfortunately typical of a lot of agricultural land in Australia. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century the clearing of vegetation in southern and eastern parts of the continent was on such a grand scale and in such a relatively short period of time that many species, both plant and animal, had no time to adapt to this change and an extraordinary amount of species became extinct or threatened. According to the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council VEAC Report 2011 it has been estimated that 30% of Victoria’s native fauna and 44% of native flora have become extinct or threatened with extinction.

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White-footed Tree-rat Conilurus albipes, a species once widespread in south-eastern Australia but now extinct, probably due to land clearing and predation by foxes and cats. (John Gould [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In Gippsland, the Strzelecki Ranges and nearby foothills originally consisted of mostly wet or damp forest which before European colonisation was seldom touched by fire, unlike the grasslands or drier forests and woodlands of the Gippsland plain which were periodically burnt by aboriginal people.

In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s these moist slopes were beginning to be transformed into bare rolling hills by the white settlers who were allocated small allotments. These had to be cleared of a certain percent of their vegetation in a short period of time, otherwise they forfeited their rights to occupy the land. At first this was done by axes and saws which must have been an enormous task but later was done by burning the forests to open them up and make them easier to manage and clear. Wet forests are less able to adapt to intense fires and much of the vegetation didn’t recover. These bare areas were then transformed into grassy paddocks where stock and crops were farmed.

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Wet forest typical of the Strzelecki Ranges. Gunyah, Vic

 

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Typical dairy farmland in the western Strzelecki Ranges, originally consisting of wet forests. Note the major landslip in the central left of the photo.

The expansion of rail lines into South Gippsland in the 1890’s created an exponential amount of settlement in the area and subsequent clearing of forests for towns, roads and agriculture. This has resulted in a patchwork of often isolated vegetation in the form of ‘island’ reserves, parks, roadside remnants and the topic of this blog, the paddock tree.

Native paddock trees, however isolated they are, are important in the ecosystem as they provide food, shelter and protection for a wide range of species. Bats will use tree hollows or loose bark for roosting and rearing young. Koalas and possums will often travel over open farmland to utilise isolated trees and many birds will use these to feed or nest in or as stepping stones when accessing other sites.

Koala. Berry's Creek, Vic. In Gippsland Blue-Gum. 23.11.2015 (4)

The Koala often has a wide home range and will travel over open paddocks to access isolated trees.

In agriculture remnant paddock trees can be important for productivity, particularly when farming livestock as these trees provide protection to stock from the elements (less stress=more productivity). So why don’t we put more effort into protecting these assets if they’re so important? Some farmers do a great job at protecting these remnants, often depending on how active or well-funded their local Landcare group is but others can be negligent or misinformed in their approaches.

The problem with many native farm trees which become isolated is that they are more susceptible to diseases, parasites (insects, mites, nematodes and some plants), insect damage, stress from the elements, browsing pressure, excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, drying out of soil, compaction of the ground and rubbing from livestock. A recent study by scientists from Deakin University looked at koala populations and their browsing pressure on Manna Gum Eucalyptus viminalis. It found an initial increase in density of Koala populations resulted in severe browsing of these trees within a small area. This in turn caused a catastrophic drop in Koala numbers due to starvation. Insects also can have a major effect on tree health due to lack of predators and can cause extreme defoliation, root or basal bark damage and are often attracted to an already stressed tree as this is when the tree’s defences are down.

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An insect borer is likely to have caused the death to this Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon.

 

All these above  factors can result in the slow death of the paddock tree with no recruitment of seedlings. Some farmers see their native trees are dying and plant exotic species such as Pines which are less prone to being attacked. But there are steps property owners can undertake to protect isolated native trees while still being productive both in an agricultural and ecological sense.

Remnant trees and other vegetation can be protected firstly by fencing off stock to avoid damage from soil compaction, browsing and rubbing, erecting the fence at least from the canopy-width out from the tree (ideally twice the width of the canopy). By allowing stock to still use the protection of the tree, but excluding them from compacting it’s roots, the farmer still benefits. Whether it’s an isolated patch of vegetation to be created or ideally a corridor the simple recipe for success is a diversity of species to be planted and adequate weed control. This includes trees, shrubs and larger hardy grasses, all of local province. Smaller shrubs, herbs and grasses can be added in the future once the canopy is relatively established and some minor weed control is continued.

Gully area in Jan 2010 for proposed reveg in May 2010 (1)

A neglected paddock with dead, borer- infested Blackwood trees

Gully area in Nov 2015 (2)

The same photo 5 years later after fencing and revegetation

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Due to the 5 year accumulation of leaf litter and dense canopy layer there is no more need for weed control and there is already a recruitment of species from self-seeding.

One mistake that many well-meaning landowners or groups do is lack diversity in their plantings. By having an array of nectar-producing plants, species like honeyeaters, bees, wasps and butterflies are attracted to feed on the flowers. Birds such as parrots and Silvereyes are attracted to fruiting plants and seed-producing plants like grasses attract native Bush Rats and Rosellas, among others. The leaves of different plants often have specialist insects which feed on them and this insect fauna attracts predators such as spiders, reptiles and a wide range of birds. Then there’s the protection from predators and nesting opportunities the plants provide.

All these factors protect any remnant isolated trees from damage and allows the tree to hopefully produce viable germinates and successive generations. Additional vegetation will protect the tree by also increasing the soil’s microbes, humus layer from leaf litter and protection from the elements. By attracting a diversity of fauna to a patch this in turn will protect the vegetation from pests as there will be more predators to keep them under control.

A common example of imbalance with isolated trees is the prevalence of the parasitic Australian mistletoe. The widespread Mistletoe Bird feeds on the fruits of the mistletoe and will often target isolated trees or trees on the edge of a remnant patch. The seeds of the fruit are excreted on the branches of the isolated tree where they grow and often infest the tree to the point of death. This is due to a lack of mistletoe predators in open areas such as some of the Jezebel butterflies Delias spp whose caterpillars feed primarily on mistletoe leaves and keep them relatively in check in healthy bushland.

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A tree heavily infested with Drooping Mistletoe Amyema pendulum.

Imperial White- Delias harpalyce. Emerged from chrysalis found on Blackwood, Fish Creek, Vic. 19.1.16 ©Craig Boase.JPG

Imperial Jezebel Delias harpalyce, Fish Creek, Vic. The caterpillars of this species help control mistletoe.

 

Unfortunately, paddock trees are a dying breed but without more education and funding available to farmers and other landowners we’ll keep losing more and more of them.

 

 


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Cherry Ballart

The Cherry Ballart Exocarpos cupressiformis is a unique tree but looking at it many people aren’t aware of its peculiar nature.

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Cherry Ballart Exocarpos cupressiformis growing in dry eucalypt woodland. Fernbank, Victoria

Known as a hemiparasite (or semi-parasite) it needs other plants, particularly Eucalypts and to a lesser extent Acacias, in it’s earlier stages of life. This is due to it parasitising the roots of these plants and obtaining nutrients and water from them. Once they become mature Cherry Ballarts can photosynthesize by themselves and therefore don’t need other plants as much. The stems, not the leaves, perform the majority of this photosynthesis as the leaves are reduced to scales, not unlike Sheoaks Allocasuarina spp.

Scientists are still perplexed on some of functions of this plant and one of these is how it germinates. Horticulturalists have found that propagating the seed with Kangaroo Grass Themeda triandra or the introduced Lucerne Medicago sativa, both of which have been passed through the stomach of hens, have produced some success. It has also been found that they are probably reliant on mychorrizal fungi so placing soil from it’s natural habitat in the propagation mix may be also beneficial. It does however regenerate very well from cut or damaged stumps and sends out multiple suckers.

The Cherry Ballart was first discovered in 1792 by the French naturalist Jacques-Julien Houton de Labillardière while exploring southern Tasmania as part of Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux’s command of the two ships Recherche and Esperence.  Labillardière named it Exocarpos, Exo meaning external, carpos meaning fruit. This is due to the fact that the actual fruit, a small inedible nut, is found at the end of a yellow to red succulent swollen pedicle or stalk. This swollen stem is often mistakenly referred to as the fruit and is very delicious but small in size.

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Orange-red ‘fruit’ of the Cherry Ballart with the hard green nut on the end

The Cherry Ballart with its very dense and light green canopy is a very prominent tree in a variety of wet to dry habitats, usually but not always in association with eucalypt woodlands or forest. Its distribution extends along the eastern parts of Australia from Qld to SA, including Tasmania. This plant can be a powerhouse in terms of providing protection and a food source for a massive variety of wildlife as well as herbs and grasses. Small birds in particular find this ideal protection to forage and build their nests. The fruit-eating birds in summer also have a plentiful supply of succulent berries on which to feast on. I have seen Silvereyes en masse as well as Satin Bowerbirds foraging on the fruit in summer. Insect-eating birds also feed on the often abundant insect and spider fauna associated with the plant.

Insects and other invertebrates also find this tree ideal habitat and there are some species which specialize in Cherry Ballarts such as the Crexa moth Genduara punctigera whose caterpillars feed only on the leaves of Cherry Ballarts.

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Crexa Moth Genduara punctigera. A Cherry Ballart specialist. Fernbank, Vic.

The brightly coloured Stink Bug Commius elegans also has a penchant for this plant and in mid summer the trees can be loaded with the bug and its newly hatched nymphs. Both the adults and the nymphs feed on the leaves and stems of the Cherry Ballart with the adults remaining near the young until they are older.

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Stink Bug Commius elegans nymph. Note the minute yellow flowers of the Cherry Ballart in the top left corner.

 

 

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Commius elegans on Cherry Ballart. The adult is on the top right.

 

 

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Cream-spotted Ichneumon wasp Echthromorpha intricatoria feeding on Cherry Ballart flowers. Giffard, Vic

 

I have also seen Ring-tail Possums using the dense foliage to build their dreys and on hot summer days it’s not uncommon to see a kangaroo or wallaby sheltering from the sun under the thick canopy of the tree.  Unfortunately deer, particularly Sambar and Red, also have a liking for this tree and will heavily browse the lower branches. Males frequently rub their antlers on the trunk in the rutting season and this damage has been found to reduce the density of Ballarts as well as other trees and shrubs in an area.

The Cherry Ballart is a unique and significant tree in the forests and woodland of eastern Australia and one which shows a great resilience to a wide range of soil and climatic conditions.