A forest of cycads

I admit not everybody will find a woodland understory of native cycads exciting but we were pretty taken with this natural phenomenon

I admit not everybody will find a woodland understory of native cycads exciting but we were pretty taken with this natural phenomenon

We drove through a cycad forest. It was so exciting – in a low-key sort of way. Most of us have gardens which are the botanical equivalent of the United Nations. While some of us may know in theory where at least some of the plants originate, to see them in their natural habitat can be a thrill.

Our New Zealand bush is thick, dense and verdant. Overseas visitors are frequently amazed by our ferns, particularly our tree ferns which we take for granted. Our dicksonias (the common pongas) are particularly highly prized overseas. When we had the garden open, I used to like shocking overseas visitors by commenting that they just seed down here and we chainsaw out those that are in the wrong place. Familiarity can breed contempt.

The Australian bush is different. It is much more open in character but it had never occurred to us to consider that of course their native cycad, Macrozamia communis, must have its natural habitat somewhere. At least one place is in the eucalyptus woodland heading inland from Bateman’s Bay on the coast south of Sydney.

We know the cycads as expensive, designer plants much favoured by Auckland landscapers in recent decades. Most are very slow growing plants and they show little seasonal change so they fit well into the near-static designer garden mode favoured by some. They have always been expensive because you are paying for the years of growth to get them to a large enough size to have visual impact.

Botanically, they are even more interesting, having undergone little evolutionary change down the centuries. These are ancient plants, traced 200 million years which takes them back considerably earlier than the dinosaur era. Individual plants can be long lived too – anything up to 1000 years. While they are often grouped with palms and there is a certain passing resemblance in form to some ferns, there is only a remote botanical connection to either at best.

Many cycads are rare and endangered around the world but not Macrozamia communis. It is common enough in New Zealand gardens because it is a species that can adapt to our cooler temperatures. We have several in our garden where they thrive.

In the wild, eucalypts and Macrozamia communis near the coast south of Sydney. Notice the lovely mottled bark on the gum tree

In the wild, eucalypts and Macrozamia communis near the coast south of Sydney. Notice the lovely mottled bark on the gum tree

But to see them in the wild was a different experience. They form the lower canopy beneath the spotted gum (what used to be known as Eucalytus maculata but has now been reclassified as Corymbia maculata) and there were hectares of them at various stages of maturity. They seed down and some had babies growing at their feet. One reason they have survived is that they are adapted to cope with bush fires sweeping through. Even if all the foliage is removed (either by fire or when cut off), the trunk and bulbous base are capable of pushing out fresh growth.

A carpet of bark, leaves and debris from the top layer of eucalypts creates conditions which discourage many other plants

A carpet of bark, leaves and debris from the top layer of eucalypts creates conditions which discourage many other plants

Being squeamish New Zealanders, we found the Aussie bush challenging. Even on the coast where we were staying in Vincentia, quiet strolls along well-trod paths by the scenic beaches took on new fears after we found the first ticks taking up residence on both humans and the two little dogs that were with us. Mark’s one brief foray off piste (to look at a native orchid in flower) resulted in a leach latching onto his foot. He was unaware of it until, replete, it fell off him on the kitchen floor. We missed seeing – by a matter of a minute – the red belly snake which freaked out another party. Truly our native bush and forest is benign compared to the natural hazards in Australia. So we were not going to go far off the track to explore the macrozamia wonderland but viewed it from the rough vehicle access. Their woodland lacks competition from a wide range of different plants. The top canopy of eucalypts drops vast amounts of foliage and bark which sits around taking a very long time to decompose. That, allied to the extremely dry soil conditions which result from the gums getting down on available moisture, creates inhospitable conditions. The macrozamias can coexist in this environment but not a lot else can.

I have a treasured memory of seeing natural bluebell woods in Scotland. Mark got all excited finding Helleborus niger and hepaticas growing wild in their homelands in Northern Italy. The cycad woodland of south eastern Australia ranks up with these experiences.

The macrozamia is equally popular as a garden plant

The macrozamia is equally popular as a garden plant

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission. 

 

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