Author: Susan Parsons
The Kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus) holds an important place in Canberra as the area now known as Capital Hill, on which stands Parliament House, was previously named Kurrajong Hill.
It is appropriate that plantings of 247 kurrajongs have been made during 2010 and 2011 at the National Arboretum Canberra, echoing natural stands of trees in this region and some of Canberra’s earliest plantings. The trees were raised for the Arboretum at Greening Australia nursery at Aranda in the ACT.
There are about 31 species of Brachychiton and Elliot and Jones in “Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants suitable for cultivation” (1982) say they are all desirable subjects for cultivation and a few are extremely popular and well-known in many areas of the world.
Brachychiton comes from the Greek and means short tunic. This refers to the seed coat which is often hairy (and irritant) and rows of seeds are contained in large, woody follicles. Readers of May Gibbs’ ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie” will recall her bush characters sailing down a stream in the boat-shaped fruits of Kurrajong. Wear gloves when handling the seeds which are used, with cuttings, to raise new plants.
Kurrajong is the farmer’s friend as the foliage provides valuable fodder in times of drought and the trees regenerate after branches are lopped.
Brachychiton populneus is a versatile shelter and shade tree for home gardens, homesteads and parks.
In Canberra, Kurrajong has also been planted as a street tree and the DISMUT list (kindly supplied for this tree story) notes that there are 174 kurrajongs planted along Limestone Avenue in Ainslie, Braddon and Reid. These mature trees have benefited from rainfall in 2010 and look good, apart from those which have been heavily cut back on the footpath side of the trees. Kurrajongs line a number of streets in the suburb of Forrest with 39 in Dominion Circuit, 28 in Tasmania Circle, 14 in Ducane Street and 19 in Empire Circuit. In Wickham Crescent, Red Hill, there are 34 kurrajongs as street tree plantings and ten in Macquarie Street, Barton.
In Westbourne Woods, within the grounds of Royal Canberra Golf Club, seventeen specimens of Brachychiton populneus remain in the carpark near the Clubhouse from the original 1915 Weston plantings in the Arboretum. Originally there were also more than sixty kurrajongs planted alternately with pepper trees (Schinus molle) on the site.
Dr Robert Boden recorded in 2000 that he did some experimental grafting of kurrajongs in the 1960s in Canberra as a preliminary to selecting the best forms for vegetative propagation for street tree use and the grafts took well.
In Weston Park the aptly named Kurrajong Point jutting into Lake Burley Griffin is planted with nine mature kurrajongs and 21 young trees. Boden has said the original trees were transplanted to that site in the 1960s. The speckled cream flowers are often borne abundantly and the pollen and nectar are sought by bees.
In Queanbeyan, just across the ACT border, a large kurrajongs at the intersection of Crawford and Monaro Streets, was given special protection when the road was widened twenty years ago. The tree flourishes.
The hills of Canberra are crowned with kurrajongs. They grow among rocks atop Urambi Hills in Kambah and there are old stands and new plantings on Lanyon hill above the suburb of Gordon.
Mt Stromlo holds its own story. In 1996-7 Neil Cooper was Harvesting Manager with ACT Forests. Mt Stromlo had been cleared of vegetation and in the 1950s and ‘60s it was planted to pines as a commercial venture for their timber. The pine plantation was due for clear fall when thirty years old, with the timber to be used in the building industry and the logs were to be sent to local mills in Hume. However a harvest plan was drawn up beforehand and the team of three foresters, led by Cooper, identified a significant patch of kurrajongs which had grown up among the pine trees. They made a conscious decision that this was something they wanted to look after so they modified the harvest plan to ensure minimal damage to the area and that it would not be planted back to pine.
The wildfires which devastated Canberra on 18 January 2003 went through Mt Stromlo. Canberran Doreen Wilson visited the hill and took general views of the burnt kurrajongs, photographing the trees weekly from 8 February to 15 March 2003, showing young trees sprouting from the base and epicormic buds. In an article for Australia’s Open Garden Scheme national guide in 2003/4, Boden and this writer (Parsons) recorded that, “Kurrajongs, which appear in many lists of fire retardant plants, started to send out small green shoots from the trunk within a fortnight of being burnt on Mt Stromlo. By contrast, stands of radiata pine nearby showed no signs of recovery.”
Neil Cooper is now Manager Fire, Forest and Roads with Parks, Conservation and Lands. He says since 2003, there has been weed control, blackberry spraying and removal of pine regrowth at the site which is part of Stromlo Forest Park. The splendid kurrajongs have regenerated with vigour among wattles, hardenbergia and callitris.
Many Canberrans recall plantings of kurrajongs on Bullen ridge just upstream from the junction of the Murrumbidgee with the Cotter River. In 1919, Weston recorded that he had planted 1,327 kurrajongs and had sown seed of kurrajongs, acacia species and casuarinas below the ridge on that slope.
Tree records at Yarralumla Nursery show that seed of Sterculia diversifolia (as kurrajong was then known), from a private source and also from RMC Duntroon, was sown at Acton Nursery in 1913 in open beds with ‘splendid’ results and more than 2,000 were transplanted.
In 1915, TCG Weston, Officer-in-Charge Afforestation Branch, noted that 2,715 Sterculia were planted on Mt Stromlo though the result was very poor. In 1919 Weston reported that he had planted 1,327 currajongs at Bullen ridge (Murrumbidgee River banks) just upstream from the Murrumbidgee’s junction with the Cotter River and had sown seed of kurrajongs, acacia and casuarinas spp.
Canberran Dr John Gray OAM, whose thesis was on Weston, records that in 1919 Weston wrote a report on the reafforestation of Mt Majura called “Fodder-Tree Reserve”. He wanted the area to be beautiful and useful, planted with “mountain oak (Casuarina stricta) and Currajong (Sterculia diversifolia) for main slopes and ridges, elms and robinia for the lower slopes and gullies. The area, once cleared of rabbit and stock would, for the most part, be one of seed sowing, in situ, of mountain oak, kurrajong.”
The records at Yarralumla note that seed from Queanbeyan was sown in 1919 and 8,000 kurrajongs were sown on Mt Majura in July 1920.
Kim Wilson, Senior Ranger North District of ACT Parks & Conservation, has access to the summit of Mt Majura. In the nature reserve to the north and south of the tracking station healthy mature stands of kurrajongs grow among asuarinas. These trees can be accessed by foot from surrounding suburbs of Ainslie and Hackett.
Visitors to the National Arboretum Canberra will be able to admire the stands of Kurrajongs and reflect upon the history of these trees in the local district and, in the eye of many a farmer, in the paddocks across Australia from Queensland and the Northern Territory to New South Wales and Victoria. This is a tree to be planted for many reasons and all seasons.