“Oh the flame trees will blind the weary driver”.
These iconic lyrics by Cold Chisel refer to the equally iconic Brachychiton acerifolius or Illawarra Flame Tree, one of the better known rainforest trees from Eastern Australia.
The genus, Brachychiton, consists of 31 species of large shrubs and trees, all originating from Australia except one from New Guinea. Many species of Brachychiton are pachycauls, (trees with large or swollen trunks) with the most noticeable being B. rupestris or the Queensland Bottle Tree.
The leaf shapes in this genus are variable, with some species displaying mixed shapes simultaneously. Many are evergreen, though some are seasonally deciduous, dropping their leaves in the dry season just prior to bud burst. If the dry season has higher than average rain, foliage and flowers will occur at the same time.
While the Illawarra Flame Tree has the most distinctive and spectacular flower display of the genus, many others put on a pretty good show. B. australis has large clusters of white flowers during autumn and the little Kurrajong is covered in slightly hairy deep pink blooms in spring. My favourite, however is the Lacebark Kurrajong (B. discolour) which carpets the ground beneath its leafless branches with pink flowers during spring and early summer. These flowers appear to be made of candy and look good enough to place on a wedding cake. A great example of this tree can be found on the Montville-Palmwoods Rd near the Palmwoods Primary School.
The seeds for all Brachychiton develop in hard follicles, a boat shaped fruit which will remain on the plant for some time after the foliage has developed. They germinate readily. By soaking the seed in hot (not boiling) water for half a day, the yield of plants will be higher and more consistent. Some species have the seeds covered in stiff, fine hairs which can be very itchy if caught in clothing. It is a good idea to wear rubber gloves when handling these seeds.
All Brachychiton prefer to have a good wet season each year but due to their ability to store water in their trunks, can also endure substantial dry periods.
The main pest to affect Brachychiton plants is a cut leaf caterpillar which disfigures juvenile plants of some species. This is a part of their natural cycle. It may not look so good on your young feature tree but will not affect the overall growth and vigour of the plant. The caterpillar can be handpicked while the tree is small but avoid spraying with strong pesticides as you may kill off the local birds whose job it is to eat such grubs.
The traditional owners of this land made use of many aspects of Brachychiton plants. The bark could be turned into a rope or line for fishing known as a garrajun, which is the origin of its indigenous name Kurrajong. The soft wood of the swollen trunk was easily carved to provide a lightweight shield. The seeds can be roasted and added to baking or brewed as a coffee substitute. I have yet to try either of these culinary uses but next time I come across a seed laden Kurrajong, its bounty will shortly be on our table.
Planted in a rainforest setting or as a feature tree, any one of the Kurrajongs is sure to provide a stunning display. Just be aware that they are quite messy. If planted near a driveway, you may find yourself cleaning up underneath them regularly.