Bottle Trees

Stanford University Campus, in California, is famous for its important collection of exotic trees. Among them are some iconic Queenslanders: bunya pines and bottle trees.

I first became aware of the Stanford trees when reading “The Overstory”, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by American writer Richard Powers.

In the novel, Neelay Mehta, a young master coder and online game designer, is working at Stanford University. While thinking of fresh images and surreal graphics for a new game, one evening he crosses the campus in search of vending machine snacks. Turning a corner into the central quadrangle he sees something that amazes him: a tree that is “bulbous and elephantine …the most mind-boggling organism he has ever seen… A living hallucination from a nearby star system at the other end of a wormhole in space.”

As he reads on a placard, it’s Brachychiton rupestris – familiar to us all as the Queensland bottle tree.

Finding a bottle tree, something I’ve regarded with delight since I was a child, in a dense, powerful American novel was startling. It was as if I’d suddenly come across an old friend from the mid-west of Queensland in this glamorous Californian campus.

Bottle tree, Stanford Central Quadrangle trees.stanford.edu

The writer of “The Overstory”, like my own children, would have grown up with “The Lorax”, by Dr Seuss. In the book the Lorax introduces himself: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Powers does that too: he speaks for the protection of trees.

Queensland has many wonderful and bizarre tree varieties, from desert country to tropical rainforest, that could provide inspiration for fantasy novels, movies, and games. Strangler figs slowly devouring neighbouring trees, their roots snaking out across the ground around them, or dangling towards the earth. Ancient eucalypts covered in burls.

Burls on an old eucalypt, Coomera Circuit, Binna Burra

The notorious stinging tree, the gympie-gympie, that hurts so much you want to die. The rough bark of hoop pines.

Bark on a hoop pine, Brisbane City Botanical Gardens

The long, twisted, prickly leaves of bunyas; and bottle trees, tall and commanding on the bare hillsides of the ranges, slim and gently curved, or fat as teapots.

Bottle tree like a teapot, Mitchell

There are beautiful trees in Queensland.

Scribbly gums.

Scribbly gum, J.C. Trotter Memorial Park, Burbank

Moreton bay figs. Paper barks and casuarinas.

Mangroves.

Mangroves in the Brisbane River, Bulimba

Tallowwood trees: rich red trunks, clusters of white flowers, and generous sprawling branches that provide more shade than most eucalypts.

Koalas like tallowwoods, too.

There’s a fine old tallowwood in Yeronga Park, Brisbane. When the evening light touches it, its trunk glows.

Tallowwood tree, Yeronga Park

Best of all, bottle trees. Born in Barcaldine, my mother grew up with bottle trees in the garden and across the countryside. As children, we’d look out for them on our many road trips. The younger ones can look like a tall white wine bottle; the old ones, anything from a port bottle to a malevolent goblin.

Gus and bottle tree, Queens Park, Toowoomba

Roma famously has made a feature of bottle trees.

Roma’s largest bottle tree

They’re used in the street plantings of many other regional towns as well: Mitchell, Blackall, Tambo, right across the central west, and further afield.

I like the young bottle trees of Taroom

Darling Downs, Rockhampton, even the suburbs of Brisbane.

A bottle tree goblin, one of three in a row in a Brisbane suburban street

Last year I planted a bottle tree in my garden, bought from a street-side trailer in Roma.

Bottle trees are notoriously slow growers, so I won’t live to see it look like a port bottle. Maybe one of those small, 250 ml wine bottles they sometimes serve in country pubs.

Online information about the trees of Stanford, over 43,000 of them, includes maps and many photos. Visitors can take guided tours of the campus trees. The university’s unofficial mascot is a tree, and students dress up as them.

Stanford students dressed as trees trees.stanford.edu

There is still a Queensland bottle tree in Stanford’s central quad; but the huge old tree described in “The Overstory” isn’t there anymore.

Perhaps it died of old age; or perhaps amidst the sumptuous Spanish Mission style architecture, arched sandstone colonnades and wonderful trees of Stanford it died of homesickness for the dry hills and plains of Queensland’s central west.  

Bottle trees where they belong Wikipedia

Brisbane’s Suburban Charm

“I hate Brisbane. It’s nothing but traffic, traffic lights, bitumen, powerlines and car yards. Everyone’s in a rush. It’s ugly. It’s impersonal. In the country, everyone knows everyone else. I can’t wait to get back home.”

That’s what people from Queensland’s farms and regional towns sometimes say, after a reluctant and fleeting visit. They’re right about the ugly side of the city; but that’s not the whole story. Brisbane is a beautiful place, once you turn off those main roads with their frantic traffic.

It’s a city of hills and creeks and gullies. David Malouf wrote, “Brisbane is hilly. Walk two hundred metres in almost any direction outside the central city and you get a view – a new view. It is all gullies and sudden vistas.”

The hills can be a challenge. David Malouf also wrote, “Brisbane is a city that tires the legs and demands a certain sort of breath.”

It’s because of its terrain that Brisbane has so much green space. The creeks and river rise up in heavy rain and flood the banks, and debris across parks and walkways marks just how far the water came up. You can’t build houses on these flood plains. Instead there are sports fields, playgrounds, plantings, fig trees, bushland and pathways.

A disc golf goal on a course beside the creek at Moorooka

Scattered along the pathways and suburban streets are cute little street libraries and honesty boxes of home-made jams and pickles.

Street Library in an old fridge, Kelvin Grove

You can go from the top of Mount Coot-tha to the river, and even to Moreton Bay, on walking tracks or cycle paths along the creeks. Without leaving the city, you can find an octopus on the sand at Redcliffe or explore the mangroves at Wynnum.

An octopus washed up on Suttons Beach, Redcliffe
Along the mangrove boardwalk, Wynnum

Some quiet suburban streets and cul de sacs are secret heavens. I walk down them on a typically beautiful Brisbane day, and think, “People here must feel smug – they’ve found a perfect place to live.” Down every gully there is a green and peaceful park, often lovingly nurtured and developed by a local Bush Care group, and in many, a flourishing community vegetable garden.

Community garden, Moorooka

Almost anything will grow in a Brisbane backyard, from avocado trees to cacti, and there are mango trees and bananas, lemon and lime trees and hedges of rosemary.

In the occasional yard there is nothing growing but grass, which must take dedicated mowing over years on the part of the owners, in a climate where wattles and eucalypts, African tulips and coral trees, cassias and camphor laurels will grow without encouragement on any empty piece of land.

There are quirky sights in the suburbs, such as on an otherwise boring, 1960s block of flats in West End, where a creative solution to clothes drying has full-sized rotary clothes hoists, as normally seen in back yards, planted on each balcony.

Creative clothes line solution at West End

There are gardens with old-fashioned flower beds, charming letterboxes and quaint creatures among the plants.

Cute front yard at Tarragindi
At Holland Park, a letter box that matches the house

There is a collection of old engines in a sprawling Sunnybank yard.

Old steam engine, part of a collection at Sunnybank

There’s a skeleton guarding a rooftop not far from Greenslopes Hospital.

Skeleton on a roof at Greenslopes

Last year, in that strange time of lockdowns and isolation, Con and I went exploring on foot, and we saw the suburbs of Brisbane in more detail than ever before.

There are trees flowering all year round, but they are most spectacular in Spring: jacarandas, silky oaks, flame trees and poinsettia, and the natives: sterculia, huge spreading tallow woods and gums.

Jacarandas in Norman Park
Sterculia in bloom, Mt Gravatt

I’ve begun a new Pandemic project: to collect all the colours of frangipani. They grow easily from a broken-off piece, left to dry in a dark place. Carrying a plastic bag to stop the sticky sap dripping, and seeking low branches hanging over front fences, I now have acquired pieces of red, yellow, apricot and deep pink-flowering trees. I’ll plant them in a row in a new stretch of garden beside the house. They’ll be a reminder of a challenging time, when I found comfort in walking the suburbs of a beautiful city.

Frangipani, Woolloongabba

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