A dinosaur was seen at Yallambie yesterday. Not the reptilian monster variety so favoured in the movies of Ray Harryhausen and Steven Spielberg, but a cone from a tree, largely unchanged since the Jurassic period.
The Bunya Bunya “Pine” or Araucaria bidwilli is a native of Queensland. The huge cones it produces erratically every few years contain edible seeds, a little like a potato or roasted chestnut. The tree in the garden at Yallambie that dropped the cone almost certainly pre dates the current Homestead. It was planted about 150 years ago by the early settlers from a seed reportedly supplied by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, colonial Government Botanist and the then director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, possibly to mark the event of the first Royal visit to Australia by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.
The Bunya is an Araucaria, a curious genus of evergreen coniferous trees in the family of Araucariaceae and a survivor from a time more than 100 million years ago when much of the land in the southern hemisphere was joined into a single super continent – Gondwanaland. Trees like the Bunya of Queensland, the Norfolk and New Caledonia “Pines” and the Monkey Puzzle of Chile, Araucarias all, are a clue to the original distribution of the species. Seen from a distance the Monkey Puzzle, so named because the task of climbing the sharp and interlocked branches are a puzzle even for the monkeys of South America, is a very similar tree in aspect to the Bunya. The Bunya is sometimes even referred to as the “False” Monkey Puzzle. The Bunya is however slightly more open in growth than the Monkey Puzzle, which is a handy thing when, like the monkeys of Chile, you need to climb one.
A few years ago, when our son was still quite young, Father Christmas brought him a radio controlled, model aeroplane of infinite possibility. In that time honoured tradition, I took our son outside on Christmas Day to educate him first hand in the finer arts of piloting a model aeroplane. After his initial test flight, I took the controls myself and managed to fly the plane on my first pass into the top most branches of the Bunya nearly 40m above our heads. The expression on my son’s face as I looked at him and he looked at me, tears welling in his eyes, resolved me immediately in my course of action. To the strains of “Don’t do it Daddy – I’d rather have a daddy than a plane,” and with a passing thought to those monkeys across the Pacific, I hoisted myself up into the sharp branches of the Bunya, pausing only once to wonder at a mummified possum, (an indicator perhaps to my possible fate) eventually climbing all the way to the top from where I was able to dislodge the plane to the ground. That done the only question remaining then was, “Now how do I get back down?”
By the time I stood once more safely on Terra Firma, having miraculously avoided that all too rapid descent, my clothes were in tatters and my arms cut to ribbons but I had the time honoured words ready, used by father to son for generations. “Don’t tell your mother.”
There are several other old Araucarias growing in the Yallambie Park reserve and one or two in the private properties neighbouring its boundaries, including at least one other Bunya. One old Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) was cut down in its prime in a private garden in Moola Close in recent times but the “Lone” Hoop Pine which is growing still so superbly on the river flat in Yallambie Park is a magnificent specimen. Standing alone, noble and tall and listed by the National Trust of Australia Register of Significant Trees, it is ranked of State significance. I collected a seed from a cone of this tree nearly 20 years ago and planted a seedling at the bottom of our garden adjacent to an old Pinus radiata that was at that time in sharp decline. The Pinus is long gone now but the Hoop Pine is growing nicely in its place and measures something now over 5m tall.
There are a few Bunyas growing in Heidelberg Gardens, probably planted there by fellow Heidelberg Shire Councillor of Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge, Peter Fanning in the 19th century. I remember running barefoot through Heidelberg Gardens as a child, my chief memory from then being of that “prickly park”. Araucaria’s are seen in many types of parkland but considering the size of its cones, it’s a wonder that the Bunya has been planted so extensively in public spaces. Summer nights in Yallambie are occasionally disturbed by Narnian “Dufflepud” thumping when the Bunya has a mind to drop its cones. It’s a bit like Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway” with his sleep disturbed by the coconuts falling around his camp. Years ago I travelled through some remote parts of the Pacific and the fear of falling coconuts is something you hear people talk about there but not with any great seriousness. Likewise, although unlikely,I imagine the damage would be pretty severe were a Bunya nut ever to nut your noggin.
As a fruit tree the Bunya provided the first Australians with an important source of indigenous bush tucker in Queensland. It was one of the few foods that they would harvest in excess of their immediate needs, taking the seeds away and burying them to eat the edible tubers at a later date. The trees were highly prized by the Queensland tribes who called them Gubbi Gubbi and held vast gatherings in the forests of the Bunya Mountains when the cones were ripe. Stories exist of the murder by Aboriginals of unfortunate Red Cedar cutters in the Bunya Mountains, retribution for the damage done to Bunyas during the extraction of their cedar logs. From 1842 Bunyas were protected by the colonial government of New South Wales in what became known as the “Bunya Proclamation”. Unfortunately, one of the first acts of the new government of Queensland upon separation in 1859 was to revoke this decree and proclaim new timber getting regulations, an early example of victory by loggers over conservation but by that time the Bunya tree and other Araucarias were being planted in homestead gardens across Australia, including the garden at Yallambie.
In the family of Araucariaceae there are three genera of which the Araucarias form one. They are “living fossils” of the forest and it is commonly believed that the long necks of sauropod dinosaurs may have evolved specifically to graze on the foliage of the tall trees. A third genus known as Wollemia was known only through fossil records and its only extant species went undiscovered until 1994 when the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis ) was found growing in an inaccessible canyon, 150km north west of Sydney. It’s a truly remarkable story and one I would suggest you read in detail elsewhere. I read a very informative book a few years ago by James Woodford on the subject but managed to leave it on the roof of my car one day so can’t lend it to you. I found the book later blowing up and down Lower Plenty Road in the rain but was at least able to salvage the last chapters describing the progress of the Wollemi Pine’s reintroduction into civilisation. Fewer than 100 trees are known to be growing in the wild, in three closely situated localities within Wollemi National Park. It is listed as critically endangered but a propagation programme is underway to sustain it in garden form. This might be meeting with some success. We were at a party last month and the Christmas tree in the home was an impressive living tree, standing more than two metres tall in a pot. Not a Norfolk Pine, the tree more usually used in Australia for such purposes, but a very fine looking Wollemi “Pine” that looked like it had stepped right out of Morticia’s garden room in the “The Addams Family”. It had lovely, fern like leaves which is a contrast to those of the Bunya which has sharp, prickly fronds well suited to ripping the motor out of a Victa lawn mower. The Wollemi would make a great landscape tree. I wonder whether Banyule Council could possibly be encouraged to plant one down in the Yallambie Park reserve?
As if in commentary to that farcical notion, my thoughts are suddenly interrupted here as the skies of Yallambie come alive with a flock of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos outside our window. They are wheeling and screeching around the neighbourhood to land in the upper branches of the Bunya where the model plane was once lodged. Don’t let it be said that native birds avoid exotic gardens. They know exactly where to come when doing the rounds. I dare say though that the cockies around here find the Bunya cones too tough even for their large beaks. It might explain the mess the pesky blighters have made recently of our other fruit trees. I caught them in our walnut earlier, stripping the branches leaf by leaf and dangling while they did so looking like they were hanging from a trapeze. They are sitting in the Bunya now looking at me as if to say, come and get me. They don’t know about that plane or the monkey in me. It’s said that if you’re looking for dinosaurs today, to look no further than to the birds of the sky. But just for a moment, look again at the trees they perch in. It might be that the herb you’re looking at is of a similar antediluvian origin.