Wild South East

a nature blog of south-east Victoria, mostly Gippsland


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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.

Crexa Moth- Genduara punctigera (2)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Camping along Ben Cruachan creek

After Christmas we decided on a camping trip for two nights up to one of our favourite spots in Victoria, Ben Cruachan creek in the high country of central Gippsland. This area we stumbled upon in 2011 after following a very steep track with several river crossings from the Avon-Mt Hedrick Scenic Reserve. At this time the very popular Hugget’s Crossing in the reserve was a sea of people and dirt bikes so that’s why we headed bush as far as we could.

So, 3 years later our family were back, this time with a few of the extended family in tow as well. After travelling nearly 1 hr north from Heyfield we reached the small but prominent mountain of Ben Cruachan. A short drive to the top and we were rewarded by a fantastic but very windy view to the north and east.

View from Ben Cruachan lookout

View from Ben Cruachan lookout

Next on to the Ben Cruachan Creek which runs to the north of the mountain. Here there are several creek crossings with a couple of small campsites. Our favourite campsite was close to a very deep hole on the creek beside a cliff of which we dived down several times but could not reach the bottom!

Deep hole on Ben Cruachan Creek

We tried fishing in this deep hole but no luck, although there were a few large Short-finned Eel Anguilla australis swimming around.

Creek opposite campsite

Creek opposite campsite

The creek and bush were alive with birds and insects as well as the most Red bellied Black Snakes Psuedechis porphyriacus I’ve ever seen in one place! In one spot we counted 6 within about 50 metres, most of which dived into the stream when we got near and swam to the other side. Our 7 year old daughter is still cleaning her pants out after one surprised her by bursting out of a small bush near her foot and ‘jumped’ in the water! She did the right thing by freezing but she did let out a muffled scream. We thought it might be best if we head back to camp at this point.

Red-belly swimming

Red-belly swimming

A big Red-belly

A big Red-belly

I did notice an interesting behaviour the next day with one Red-belly which was foraging along the rocky stream bank in the cool morning and turning over and rummaging around small rocks with its nose apparently looking for food, most likely frogs I’d gather.

Another reptile along the stream bank was the Yellow-bellied Water Skink Eulamprus heatwoleii which was even more common than the snakes and found along fallen logs.

Yellow-bellied Water Skink

Yellow-bellied Water Skink

These skinks are very inquisitive and if frightened will disappear only to emerge not long after in full view of a wanna-be photographer who is searching the ground at his feet for Red-bellies.

One Gippsland Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii howittii was seen on the bank but had the very smart idea to be on the opposite side to the snakes although it did scramble up the bank hysterically when I frightened a Red-belly into the water which headed directly toward the Water Dragon.

A single Lace Monitor Varanus varius was hawking around a recently abandoned campsite further upstream, most likely looking for scraps left behind.

Lace Monitor

Lace Monitor

Insects were abundant along the stream. The Arrowhead Rockmaster Diphlebia nymphoides with its striking blue male and golden female were the most common dragonfly seen and many were hunting up and down the stream for insects.

Arrowhead Rockmaster (male)

Arrowhead Rockmaster (male)

Arrowhead Rockmaster (female)

Arrowhead Rockmaster (female)

Other common insects were the Water Striders (Hemiptera:Geridae) which were abundant on the surface of the stream and many of these were mating.

Water Striders mating (smaller male on the back)

Of the Butterflies by far the most common were the Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi and mostly female Common Brown Heteronympha merope.

Australian Painted Lady on Leptospermum

Australian Painted Lady on Leptospermum

Birds were very common in this area and a pair of Sacred Kingfishers were hanging around the deep pool area looking frustrated at our family for disturbing their favourite fishing spot. Some of the birds around camp were Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Gang-gang Cockatoo, Olive-backed Oriole, Satin Flycatcher, Eastern Whipbird, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Splendid Fairy-wren, Spotted Pardalote, Eastern Yellow-robin, Crimson Rosella, Welcome Swallow, Silvereye, Pied Currawong, Laughing Kookaburra, Yellow-tufted and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Brown Thornbill, Grey Shrike-thrush and Grey Fantail. Southern Boobooks called every night and at one stage two were calling together. This was followed later by a pair courting and both making the unusual continuous ‘por-por-por…’