”Really, what sort of man could go and name all the trees?’’
Murray Bail Eucalyptus
Summer has returned to Varuna, the writers’ house where I’m staying in the Blue Mountains. I’m outside in the sun taking photos when I spot the gardener. I run after him. I’ve been playing name that eucalyptus — and with over 100 species in the area to choose from — failing. I need help.
My first lesson is how to identify eucalypts and that’s by the flower over the cap, the operculum.
My gardener is a fast-talking man with a dry sense of humour, khaki green shorts and forearms sun-stained almost as dark as the black hair on them. He throws out latin and common names faster than I can scribble. Luckily for me he’s patient.
And he’s funny. Very funny.
As we walk through the bush, I catch a hint of I’ve been trying to locate.
”What’s that sweet smell?’’
”That’s probably me.’’
We’re now on the west side of the house with the enormous radiata pine (pinus radiata) an import from California and Mexico, a bush invader, a weed.
”But what defines a weed?’’ I ask.
”Basically, a plant out of place.’’
I am a weed, I think to myself.
He then points to the natives, three types of eucalypt, two of which look the same to me. The trunk of the black ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) looks European. As someone told me earlier: it’s not really an ash, it’s just foreigners trying to make themselves feel at home.
The next tree is struggling. The small stringy bark (E. oblique) with the epicormic shoot….
”With the what?’’
”The e-p-i-c-o-r-m-i-c shoot.’’ He spells it out for me.
Rough bark trees like the stringy bark have epicormic buds far beneath the bark. After a bush fire, the bud is stimulated and the tree pushes out epicormic shoots to regrow. Since there hasn’t been a bush fire through here recently, this shoot means the tree is stressed.
Interesting. I take a photo. I’m starting to feel a little bit smarter. Though I shouldn’t be congratulating myself. I’ve been here over a decade and should have known this.
We move on. Now this is my kind of tree. It is striking — the Halle Berry of the eucalypts. The blue mountain ash (E. oreades) with it’s straight tall trunk, long limbs and ribbons of peeling bark. I realize these are the trees I saw weeping at The Gully.
We meander past the hakea dactyloides which I will never be able to pick out again, through the old orchard with apricot, plum and apple trees, and past the beautiful Chinese weeping elm to the back of the house.
Now I’ve been here for days and I never realized there was a maple tree just behind my study. To be honest, until today I didn’t take the time to look at the trees or the foliage around me, whereas my gardener sees plants everywhere. He knows them, their needs and their likes, as I know my children.
We don’t know what kind of maple the four-trunked tree is or where it came from but it doesn’t matter, it’s a piece of my childhood, my land, in a faraway country.
Finally we come to My Tree, my muse in front of my study. It’s a scribbly gum (E. haemastoma) because of the scribbles, or zigzag marks made on it by the larvae of the scribbly gum moth.
Now, when I sit in my study at Varuna, writing until my neck tightens and my lumbar aches, I know I am watched over by the maple tree behind me and the scribbly gum in front. My past behind, my future in front. They both have roots in my soul.