Jacarandas and Other Monsoonal Deciduous Trees
This is a wonderful time of year because there are so many trees in full flower and looking absolutely spectacular. Burke’s Backyard visited the town of Grafton in northern New South Wales at the peak of jacaranda time, and used a cherry picker for a fantastic bird’s-eye view of these glorious trees. Don refers to jacarandas as monsoonal deciduous – they lose their leaves during the dry season, and at the end of the dry season they flower, fruit and then come into leaf. The same is true of the Cape chestnut and a number of Australian natives such as the silky oak and the Illawarra flame tree. All these trees actually come into flower as the rain comes, to give their seeds the best possible chance of germinating.
Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia)
A native of the dry, high plains of Brazil and Argentina, jacarandas are so popular in Australia some people think they’re Australian natives. They grow to around 10-15 metres (30-45′) tall, and have lacy green foliage which turns yellow in autumn before falling. The lovely trumpet-shaped flowers appear before the leaves return, then drop to form a blue carpet underneath the tree. The flower colour varies from soft blue through to mauve/blue and almost purple. There is also a white flowered cultivar available called ‘White Christmas’. Jacarandas prefer a sunny position, rich well-drained soil and protection from wind and frost when young. One important thing to remember is that it’s better not to prune jacarandas. After pruning they send up lots of ugly vertical shoots which spoil the appearance of the tree. One of the best places to see a magnificent spring display of flowering jacarandas is Grafton, where the town’s founding fathers had the vision to line their streets with hundreds of these lovely trees. The world-renowned Jacaranda Festival is held yearly in Grafton. Inaugurated in 1935, this was the first of Australia’s folk festivals and is attended by international and interstate visitors. Old as it may be in tradition, this delightful festival is ushered in with fresh gusto every year. Jacarandas also grow well in most other areas of Australia, with the exception of the mountains and Hobart.
Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius)
Often used as a companion plant to the jacaranda and flowering at about the same time is the Illawarra flame tree, or flame kurrajong. It is native to the forests of eastern Australia, and grows to about 15 metres (45′) tall in cultivation. The leathery green leaves are big and maple-like, hence the name, but they vary – some have lobes, others don’t. Flowering is also variable – sometimes they flower on one side only, sometimes they never flower, or they may flower one year but not the next. However a good specimen in full flower is an unforgettable sight – a mass of bright, scarlet bells which rivals the display of the jacaranda. The Illawarra flame tree grows best in warm climates in a sunny spot, with well-drained fertile soil and protection from wind and frost. It is also worth a try in inland areas.
Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense)
A handsome evergreen tree to about 6-7 metres (20′) tall in cultivation, the Cape chestnut is native to South Africa. It has dark glossy green leaves dotted with translucent oil glands, and large heads of faintly perfumed, pale to dark pink flowers from November to January. The flowers are followed by woody capsules which split open when ripe, releasing large black glossy seeds. The seeds germinate easily, but seedling trees are very slow to flower. Grafted trees flower earlier and you know for certain what colour the blooms will be. Cape chestnut will grow in most areas of Australia, except for the mountains and Hobart. It prefers a sunny, sheltered position with protection from strong winds and frost.
Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta)
The silky oak comes from the rainforests of Queensland and New South Wales, and is the tallest of the grevilleas reaching 30 metres (100′) plus. It is a hardy, fast growing tree, with attractive silvery green, deeply divided leaves and spectacular golden flowers that attract native birds, especially honey eaters such as rainbow lorikeets. It likes a sunny position, fertile, well-drained soils and plenty of room to grow. Silky oaks grow everywhere in Australia but are most commonly seen along the east coast. In cold districts, such as mountain gardens, these plants need shelter when young as they can be affected by cold and frost.
Jacarandas are available from nurseries and garden centres in most areas. Plants in 200mm (8″) pots cost around $18. ‘White Christmas’ is not readily available – you may have to ask your local nursery to order it in for you.
Illawarra flame trees are readily available and cost about $18 for a 200mm (8″) pot.
Cape chestnuts may be difficult to obtain – check at your local nursery.
Silky oaks are available at most nurseries. Expect to pay $16 for 200mm (8″) pots.
Grafton Jacaranda Festival runs from October 30 to November 7. For more details and to book accommodation contact the Clarence River Tourist Association on (02) 6642 4677.