The Confessions of a Beachcomber, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter VI

In Praise of the Papaw

Properties varied and approaching the magical have been ascribed to one of the commonest plants of North Queensland; and yet how trivial and prosaic are the honours bestowed upon it. That which makes women beautiful for ever; which renews the strength of man; which is a sweet and excellent food, and which provides medicine for various ills, cannot be said to lack many of the attributes of the elixir of life, and is surely entitled to a special paean in a land languishing for population.

Distinctive and significant as the virtues possessed by the papaw are, yet because of its universality and because it yields its fruits with little labour, it gets but scant courtesy. It is tolerated merely; but if we had it not, if it were as far as that vast shore washed by the farthest sea, men would adventure for such merchandise — and adventure at the bidding of women. How few there are who recognise in the everyday papaw one of the most estimable gifts of kindly Nature?

Some who dwell in temperate climes claim for the apple and the onion superlative qualities. In the papaw the excellences of both are blended and combined. The onion may induce to slumber, but the sleep it produces is it not a trifle too balmy? The moral life and high standard of statesmanship of an American Senator are cited as examples of the refining influences of apples. For every day for thirty years he has, to the exclusion of all other food, lunched on that fruit. Possibly the papaw may be decadent in respect to morals and politics. The grape, lemon, orange, pomelo, and the strawberry, each in the estimation of special enthusiasts, is proclaimed the panacea for many of the ills of life. One writer cites cases in which maniacs have been restored to reason by the exclusive use of cherries. The apple, they say, too, gives to the face of the fair ruddiness, but the tint is it not too bold, compared with maiden blush which bepaints the cheek of the beauty who rightly understands the use of the vital principle of the papaw? Those who have complexions to retain or restore let them understand and be fair.

In North Queensland the plant grows everywhere. In the dry, buoyant climate west of the coast range, and in the steamy coastal tract, on cliff-like hill-sides, on sandy beaches a few feet above high-water mark, among rocks with but a few inches of soil, and where the decayed vegetation of generations has made fat mould many feet deep, the papaw flourishes. It asks foothold, heat, light and moisture, and given these conditions a plant within a few months of its first start in life will begin to provide food — entertaining, refreshing, salubrious — and will continue so to do for years. Its precociousness is so great and its productiveness so lavish, that by the time other trees flaunt their first blossoms, the papaw has worn itself out, and is dying of senile decay, leaving, however, numerous posterity. The fruit is delicate, too, and soon resolves itself into its original elements. Pears and peaches are said by the artistic to enjoy but a brief half hour of absolute perfection. The artist alone knows the interval between immaturity and deterioration. The refined and delicate perception of the exquisite and transient aroma and flavour of fruits deserves to be classed among the fine arts. Some people are endowed with nice discrimination. They are of the order of the genius. The higher the poetic instinct, generally the better qualified the individual to detect and enjoy the fugitive excellences which fruits possess. Can a gourmand ever properly appreciate rare and fragile flavours? Though he may be a great artist in edible discords — things rank and gross and startling — can he in the quantity of inconvenient food he consumes, be expected to pose as a critic of the most etherealised branch of epicureanism? The true eater of fruit is of a school apart, not to be classed with the individual who, because of the rites and observances of the table, accepts, in no exalted spirit, a portion of fruit at the nether end of a feast. He is one who has attained, or to whom has been vouchsafed, a poignant sense of all that does the least violence to the sense of taste and smell; but, moreover, who is capable of discovering edification in things as diverse as the loud jack fruit and the subtle mangosteen — who can appreciate each according to its special characteristics, just as a lover of music finds gratification of a varied nature in the grand harmonies of a Gregorian Chant and in the tender cadences of a song of Sullivan’s. Are those who have sensitive and correct palates for fruit not to be credited with art and exactitude, as well as critics of music and painting and statuary, and connoisseurs of wine?

As with many other fruits, so with the papaw. Only those who grow it themselves, who learn of the relative merits of the produce of different trees, and who can time their acceptance of it from the tree, so that it shall possess all its fleeting elements in the happy blending of full maturity, can know how good and great papaw really is. The fruit of some particular tree is of course not to be tolerated save as a vegetable, and then what a desirable vegetable it is? It has a precise and particular flavour, and texture most agreeable. And as a mere fruit there are many more rich and luscious, and highly-flavoured; many that provoke louder and more sincere acclamations of approval. But the papaw, delicate and grateful, is more than a mere fruit. If we give credence to all that scientific research has made known of it, we shall have to concede that the papaw possesses social influences more potent than many of the political devices of this socialistic age.

But there may be some who do not know that the humble papaw (CARICA PAPYA) belongs to the passion-fruit family (PASSIFLORA) a technical title bestowed on account of a fancied resemblance in the parts of the flower to the instruments of Christ’s sufferings and death. And it is said to have received its generic name on account of its foliage somewhat resembling that of the common fig. A great authority on the botany of India suggested that it was originally introduced from the district of Papaya, in Peru, and that “papaw” is merely a corruption of that name. The tree is, as a rule, unbranched, and somewhat palm-like in form. Its great leaves, often a foot and a half long, borne on smooth, cylindrical stalks, are curiously cut into seven lobes, and the stem is hollow and transversely partitioned with thin membranes.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the papaw is that it is polygamous — that is to say, there may be male and female and even hermaphrodite flowers on the same plant. Commonly the plants are classed as male and female. The males largely predominate. Many horticulturists have sought by the selection of seeds and by artificial fertilisation to control the sex of the plant so that the fruit-bearing females shall be the more numerous, but in vain. Some, on the theory that the female generally obtains a more vigorous initial start in life, and in very infancy presents a more robust appearance, heroically weed out weak and spindly seedlings with occasionally happy results. The mild Hindoo, however, who has cultivated the papaw (or papai to adopt the Anglo-Indian title) for centuries, and likewise wishes to avoid the cultivation of unprofitable male plants, seeks by ceremonies to counteract the bias of the plant in favour of masculine attributes. Without the instigation or knowledge of man or boy, a maiden, pure and undefiled, takes a ripe fruit from a tree at a certain phase of the moon, and plants the seed in accordance with more or less elaborate ritual. The belief prevails that these observances procure an overwhelming majority of the female element. The problem of sex, which bewilders the faithless European, is solved satisfactorily to the Hindoo by a virgin prayerful and pure.

On plants which have hitherto displayed only masculine characteristics, small, pale yellow, sweetly-scented flowers on long, loosely-branched axillary panicles, may appear partially or fully developed female organs which result in fructification, and such fruit is ostentatiously displayed. The male produces its fruit not as does the female, clinging closely and compact to the stem, but dangling dangerously from the end of the panicles — an example of witless paternal pride. This fruit of monstrous birth does not as a rule develop to average dimensions, and it is generally woodeny of texture and bitter as to flavour, but fully developed as to seeds.

The true fruit is round, or oval, or elongated, sometimes pear-shaped, and with flattened sides, due to mutual lateral pressure. As many as 250 individual fruits have been counted on a single tree at one and the same time. The heaviest fruit within the ken of the writer weighed 8 lb. 11 oz. They hug the stem closely in compact single rows in progressive stages, the lower tier ripe, the next uppermost nearly so, the development decreasing consistently to the rudiments of flower-buds in the crown of the tree. The leaves fall as the fruit grows, but there is always a crown or umbrella to ward off the rays of the sun. When ripe, the most approved variety is yellow. In the case of the female plant growing out of the way of a male, the fruit is smaller in size, and seedless or nearly so.

Another curious, if not unique point about this estimable plant is that sometimes within the cavity of a perfect specimen will be found one or two infant naked fruits, likewise apparently perfect. Occasionally these abnormal productions are crude, unfashioned and deformed.

Ripened in ample light, with abundance of water, and in high temperature, the fruit must not be torn from the tree “with forced fingers rude,” lest the abbreviated stalk pulls out a jagged plug, leaving a hole for the untimely air to enter. The stalk must be carefully cut, and the spice-exhaling fruit borne reverently and immediately to the table. The rite is to be performed in the cool of the morning, for the papaw is essentially a breakfast fruit, and then when the knife slides into the buff-coloured flesh of a cheesy consistency, minute colourless globules exude from the facets of the slices. These glistening beads are emblems of perfection. Plentiful dark seeds adhere to the anterior surface. Some take their papaw with the merest sensation of salt, some with sugar and a drop or two of lime or lemon juice; some with a few of the seeds, which have the flavour of nasturtium. The wise eat it with silent praise. In certain obvious respects it has no equal. It is so clean; it conveys a delicate perception of musk — sweet, not florid; soft, soothing and singularly persuasive. It does not cloy the palate, but rather seductively stimulates the appetite. Its effect is immediately comforting, for to the stomach it is pleasant, wholesome, and helpful. When you have eaten of a papaw in its prime, one that has grown without check or hindrance, and has been removed from the tree without bruise or blemish, you have within you pure, good and chaste food, and you should be thankful and of a gladsome mind. Moreover, no untoward effects arise from excess of appetite. If you be of the fair sex your eyes may brighten on such diet, and your complexion become more radiant. If a mere man you will be the manlier.

So much on account of the fruit. Sometimes the seeds are eaten as a relish, or macerated in vinegar as a condiment, when they resemble capers. The pale yellow male flowers, immersed in a solution of common salt, are also used to give zest to the soiled appetite, the combination of flavour being olive-like, piquant and grateful. The seeds used as a thirst-quencher form component parts of a drink welcome to fever patients. The papaw and the banana in conjunction form an absolutely perfect diet. What the one lacks in nutritive or assimilative qualities the other supplies. No other food, it is asserted is essential to maintain a man in perfect health and vigour. Our fictitious appetites may pine for wheaten bread, oatmeal, flesh, fish, eggs, and all manner of vegetables but given the papaw and the banana, the rest are superfluous. Where the banana grows the papaw flourishes. Each is singular from the fact that it represents wholesome food long before arrival at maturity.

Then as a medicine plant the papaw is of great renown. The peculiar properties of the milky juice which exudes from every part of the plant were noticed two hundred years ago. The active principle of the juice known as papain, said to be capable of digesting two hundred times its weight of fibrine, is used for many disorders and ailments, from dyspepsia to ringworm and ichthyosis or fish-skin disease.

By common repute the papaw tree has the power of rendering tough meat tender. Some say that it is but necessary to hang an old hen among the broad leaves to restore to it the youth and freshness of a chicken. In some parts of South America papaw juice is rubbed over meat, and is said to change “apparent leather to tender and juicy steak.” Other folks envelop the meat in the leaves and obtain a similar effect. Science, to ascertain the verity or otherwise of the popular belief applied certain tests, the results of which demonstrated that all the favourable allegations were founded on truth and fact. A commonplace experiment was tried. A small piece of beef wrapped up in a papaw leaf during twenty-four hours, after a short boiling became perfectly tender; a similar piece wrapped in paper submitted to exactly similar conditions and processes remained hard. Few facts are more firmly established than that the milky juice softens — in other words hastens the decomposition of — flesh. Further, the fruit in some countries is cooked as a vegetable with meat, and in soups; it forms an ingredient in a popular sauce, and is preserved in a variety of ways as a sweetmeat. Syrups and wines and cordials made from the ripe fruit are expectorant, sedative and tonic. Ropes are made from the bark of the tree. By its power of dissolving stains the papaw has acquired the name of the melon bleach; the leaves, and a portion of the fruit are steeped in water, and the treated water is used in washing coloured clothing, especially black, the colours being cleaned and held fast.

In the country in which it is supposed to be endemic it is believed that if male animals graze under the papaw tree they become BLASE; but science alleges that the roots and extracted juice possess aphrodisiac properties, and who among us would not rather place credence upon this particular fairy tale of science than the fairy tales of swarthy and illiterate and possibly biassed gentlemen.

And as to its beauty-bestowing attributes, an admirer’s word might be quoted as a final note of praise —

“The strange and beautiful races of the Antilles astonish the eyes of the traveller who sees them for the first time. It has been said that they have taken their black, brown, and olive and yellow skin tints from the satiny and bright-hued rinds of the fruit which surround them. If they are to be believed, the mystery of their clean, clear complexion and exquisite pulp-like flesh arises from the use of the papaw fruit as a cosmetic. A slice of ripe fruit is rubbed over the skin, and is said to dissolve spare flesh and remove every blemish. It is a toilet requisite in use by the young and old, producing the most beautiful specimens of the human race.”

The Conquering Tree

Inconsequent as Nature appears to be at times and given to whims, fancies and contradictions, only those who study with attention her moods may estimate how truthful and how sober she really is. She is honest in all her purposes, and though changeful and gay in apparel never cheap nor meretricious. A slim-shafted palm shooting through the leafy mantle, and swaying airily a profuse mass of fiery red seeds, distinctive in shape, may be the prototype of a flirt, but the flirtation which arrests attention and bewitches the beholder is also innoxious. There is nothing of the artificial about the display. The colours flaunted are true, perfect and pure, however cunningly, however boldly by their means admiration is challenged. The true lover knows too that in her least conspicuous moods, Nature is as consistent and as wonderful as when in her exuberance she carpets a continent with flowers, and when all the forests of a country, at her bidding, don a mantle of yellow.

To exaggerate any of her methods were needless. She is never ugly, for in her seemingly forbidding moods she wears a smiling face. The smiles may not be apparent to all, but they are there for those who expect and look for them.

Let a mangrove swamp be taken as an illustration of an untoward aspect of Nature, and see whether among the apparent confusion, and the mud and slime and the unpleasant odours, there are not many proofs of good humour, kindly disposition, real prettiness, and orderly and systematic purpose.

On the deltas and banks of all the rivers and creeks of North Queensland and on many of the more sheltered beaches, the mangrove flourishes, that ambitious tree which performs an important function in the scheme of Nature. Its botanical title reveals its special character — Rhizaphora. Very diverse indeed are the means by which plants are distributed. While some are borne, some fly and others float. The mangrove is maritime. While still pendant from the pear-shaped fruit of the parent tree, the seed, a spindle-shaped radicle, varying in length from a foot to 4 feet, germinates — ready to form a plant immediately upon arrival at a suitable locality. A sharp spike at the apex represents the embryo leaves ready to unfold, while the roots spring from the opposite and slightly heavier end. The weight is so nicely adjusted that the spindle floats perpendicularly or nearly so, when owning a separate existence from the parent tree, it drops into the water, and begins its remarkable career.

It has been suggested that the viviparity of the mangrove is a survival of a very remote period in the development of the earth — that a mangrove swamp represents an age when the earth was enveloped in clouds and mist; and that with the gradual decrease in tepid aqueous vapour the viviparous habit, then almost universal, was lost, except in the case of this plant. Other plants, however, exhibit the characteristic. Notably one of the handsomest of the local ferns (ASPLENIUM BULBIFERUM) which, with motherly solicitude, detains its offspring until they are not only fully developed but are strong and lusty. As the fronds die they incline earthwards, each weary with the burden of a new and virile generation — some of which float down stream to foreign parts, some create a colony round the parent. This fern demands conditions similar to the mangrove — water, heat and humidity — and might be quoted in support of the theory which gives unique interest to a mangrove swamp.

Whole battalions of living mangrove radicles fall into the rivers during February and March. Out at sea miles from the land you may cross the sinuous ranks of the marine invaders — a disorderly, planless venture at the mercy of the wind and waves. Myriads perish, hopeless, waterlogged derelicts, never finding foothold nor resting-place. But thousands of these scouts of vegetation live to fulfil the glorious purpose of winning new lands, of increasing the area of continents. This arrogant plant not only says to the ocean, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed” but unostentatiously wrests from it unwilling territory.

Plants like animals require “food convenient for them,” certain constituents of the soil, certain characteristics of environment, that they may flourish and fulfil their purpose. This delights in conditions that few tolerate — saline mud, ooze and frequent flooding by the salt sea. Drifting into shallow water the sharp end of the spindly radicle bores into the mud. At once slender but tough roots emerge in radiating grapples, leaves unfold at the other extremity, and the plan of conquest has begun. During the early period of its life there is nothing singular in the growth of the plant In a few months, however, it sends out arching adventitious roots, which on reaching the mud grasp it with strong finger-like rootlets. These arching roots, too, send out from their arches other roots that arch, and the arches of these similarly repeat themselves, and so on, until the tree is underpinned and supported and stayed by an elaborate and complicated system, which while offering no resistance to the sweep of the seas, upholds the tree as no solid trunk or stem could. Then from the plan of arches spring offshoots, in time to become trees as great as the parent. Aerial roots start a downward career from the overhanging branches, anchoring themselves in the mud. Some young seedling drops and the pointed end sticks deep in the mud, and grows forthwith, to possess arching and aerial roots of its own, and to make confusion worse confounded. The identity of the original founder of the grove is lost in the bewildering labyrinth of its own arches, offshoots, and aerial roots, and of independent trees to which it has given the mystery of life. One floating radicle with its pent-up energy, having after weeks of drifting and swaying this way and that to the slightest current and ripple, grapples Mother Earth and makes a law to the ocean. Among the interlacing roots seaweed, sodden driftwood and leaves lodge, sand collects, and as the level of the floor of the ocean is raised the sea retires, contributing by the flotsam and jetsam of each spring-tide to its own inevitable conquest.

Not to one plant alone is the victory to be ascribed. As in the army there are various and distinct branches of service, so in this ancient and incessant strife between land and water, the vegetable invaders are classified and have their appointed place and duties. Neither are all the constituents of a mangrove swamp mangroves. In the first rank will be found the hardiest and most highly specialised — RHIZOPHORA MURCRONATA, next, BRUGUIERA GYMNORRHIZA (a plant of slightly more lowly growth but prolific of arching and aerial roots); BRUGUIERA RHEEDI (red or orange mangrove.) Some of the roots of the latter spread over the surface and have vertical kinks. The roots and the accessories act as natural groynes, causing the waves to swirl and to precipitate mud and sand. BRUGUIERA PARVIFLORA and CERIOPS CANDOLLEANA assist in the general scheme, the former depending upon abutments for security instead of adventitious roots. Its radicles resemble pipe-stems, or as they lie stranded on the beach, slightly curved and with the brown tapering calyx tube attached, green snakes with pointed beads.

Surprising features are possessed by the tree known as SONNERATIA ALBA. The roots send up a multitude of offshoots, resembling woodeny radishes, some being forked, growing wrong end up. All the base of each tree is set about with a confusion of points — a wonderful and perfect design for the arrest and retention of debris and mud. Some of these obtrusive roots are much developed, measuring 6 feet in height and about 4 in. diameter.

No less remarkable is the help that the white mangrove (AVICENNA OFFICINALIS) affords in the conquest with its system of strainers. Though different in many respects from the SONNERATIA, it too has erect, obtrusive, respiratory shoots from the roots, slender in comparison, resembling asparagus shoots or rake tines (called by some cobbler’s pegs) and which strain the sea, retaining light rubbish and assisting to hold and consolidate it all. Each of the plants mentioned is equipped in a more or less efficient manner for the special purpose of taking part in the reclamation of land. In some the roots descend from the branches to the mud where roots ought to grow; in others, roots ascend from the mud to the upper air, where, ordinarily, roots have no sort of business. Each possesses varying and distinct features well designed to aid and abet the general purpose.

Other species of marine plants have their duty too. That which is known as the river mangrove (AEGICERAS MAJUS)— which does not confine itself to rivers — comes to sweeten the noisome exhalation of the mud, and with its profuse white, orange-scented flowers, to invite the cheerful presence of bees and butterflies. The looking-glass tree (HERITIERA LITTORALIS), with its large, oval, glossy, silver-backed leaves and boat-shaped fruit, stands with the river mangrove along the margin farthest from the sea, not as a rearguard, but to perform the function of making the locality the more acceptable to the presence of plants which luxuriate in sweetness and solid earth. Another denizen of the partially reclaimed area of the mangrove swamp is the “milky mangrove,” or river poison tree, alias “blind-your-eyes” (EXCAECARIA AGALLOCHA). In India the sap of this tree is called tiger’s milk. It issues from the slightest incision of the bark, and is so volatile that no one, however careful, can obtain even a small quantity without being affected by it. There is an acrid, burning sensation in the throat, inflamed eyes and headache, while a single drop falling into the eyes will, it is believed, cause loss of sight. Yet a good caoutchouc may be prepared from it, and it is applied with good effect to ulcerate sores, and by the blacks of Queensland and New South Wales for the relief of certain ulcerous and chronic diseases; while in Fiji the patient is fumigated with the smoke of the burning wood. Several of the plants produce more or less valuable woods. BRUGUIERA RHEEDI frequently grows slender shafts, favoured by blacks for harpoon handles on account of their weight and toughness. White mangrove provides a light, white tough wood eminently adapted for the knees of boats. The seeds resemble broad beans, and after long immersion in the sea will germinate lying naked and uncovered on the scorching sand, stretching out rootlets in every direction in search of suitable food, and expanding their leathery primary leaves — even growing to the extent of several inches — while yet owing no attachment to the soil. If it were not capable of surviving and flourishing under conditions fatal to most plants it could not contribute its quota to the formation of humus favourable to the progress of the advancing hosts of tropical vegetation.

A weird and stealthy process is this invasion of the ocean, which leads to the alteration and amendment of the surface of the globe. Here, may be watched the very growth of land — land creeping silently, irresistibly upon the sea, yet with a movement which may be calculated and registered with exactitude. Having fulfilled its purpose, the mangrove suffers the fate of the primitive and aboriginal. Tyrannous trees of over-topping growth, which at first hesitatingly accepted its hospitality, crowd and shove, compelling the hardy and courageous plant to further efforts to win dominion from the ocean. So the pioneer advances, ever reclaiming extended areas as the usurping jungle presses on its rear.

Nor must it be imagined that mangrove swamps are unproductive. Fish traverse the intricacies of the arching roots, edible crabs burrow holes in the mud, and in them await your coming, and more often than not baffle your ingenuity to extricate them. Among other stalked-eyed crustaceans is that with one red, shielding claw, absurdly large, and which scuttles among the roots, making a defiant clicking noise — the fiddle or soldier crab (GELASIMUS VOCANS). Oysters seal themselves to the roots, and various sorts of shell-fish gather together — two or three varieties appear to browse upon the leaves and bark of the mangroves; some excavate galleries in the living trunks. The insidious cobra does not wear any calcareous covering beyond the frail tiny bivalves which guard the head — a scandalously small proportion of its naked length — but lines its tunnels with the materials whence shell is made, smooth and white as porcelain. How this delicate creature with less of substance than an oyster — a mere worm of semi-transparent, stiff slime — bores in hard wood along and across the grain, housing itself as it proceeds, and never by any chance breaking in upon its neighbours, though the whole of the trunk of the tree be honeycombed, savours of another wonder. Authorities consider the bivalve shell too delicate and frail to be employed in the capacity of a drill, and one investigator has come to the conclusion that the rough fleshy parts of the animal, probably the foot or mantle, acting as a rasp, forms the true boring instrument. Thus, the skill of a worm in excavating tunnels in wood puzzles scientists; and the cobra is certainly among the least conspicuous of the denizens of a mangrove swamp, and perhaps far from the most wonderful.

The most remarkable if not the strangest denizens of the spot are two species of the big-eyed walking and climbing fish (PERIOPHTHALMUS KOELREUTERI and P. AUSTRALIS) which ascend the roots of the mangrove by the use of ventral and pectoral fins, jump and skip on the mud and over the surface of the water and into their burrows with rabbit-like alertness. They delight, too, in watery recesses under stones and hollows in sodden wood. Inquisitive and most observant they might be likened to Lilliputian seals, as they cling, a row of them, to a partially submerged root, and peer at you, ready to whisk away at the least sign of interference. They climb along the arching roots, the better to reconnoitre your movements and to outwit attempts at capture. Their eyes — in life, reflecting gems — are so placed that they command a complete radius, and if you think to sneak upon them they dive from their vantage points and skip with hasty flips and flops to another arching root, which they ascend, and resume their observation. It must not be assumed that the climbing fish — which seems to be more at home on the surface of the water than below — climbs up among the branches. A foot or so is about the limit of its upper wanderings.

Then, too, in what is generally regarded as a noisome, dismal, mangrove swamp, birds of cheerful and pleasing character congregate. Several honey-eaters, the little blue turtle dove, the barred-shouldered dove, the tranquil dove, the nutmeg pigeon, the little bittern, the grey sandpiper, the sordid kingfisher, the spotless egret, the blue heron, the ibis — all and others frequent such places, and in their season, butterflies come and go. In most of its aspects a mangrove swamp is not only the scene of one of Natures most vigorous and determined processes, but to those who look aright, a theatre of many wonders, a museum teeming with objects of interest, a natural aviary of gladsome birds.

The Umbrella-Tree

Having paid, in passing, respects to the most gorgeous tree of the island, it would be sheer gracelessness to withhold a tribute to one of the commonest, though ever novel and remarkable — the umbrella-tree. Less conspicuous in its blooming than the flame-tree, it flourishes everywhere — on the beaches with its roots awash at high tide; on the rearguard of the mangroves, leaning on the white-flowered CALOPHYLLUMS; on the steep hill-sides; on the borders of the jungle, and gripping scorched rocks with naked roots.

While the flame-tree — few and confined to the beaches — flashes into bloom — an improvident blaze of colour, without a single atoning green leaf — the umbrella-tree charms for several months with a combination of graceful foliage and a unique corollary of singular flowers.

From the centre of whorls of shapely glossy leaves radiate simple racemes, 2 feet long, as thickly set with studs of dense heads of red flowers as Aaron’s rod with its magical buds. Crowned with several crowns of varying numbers of rays, rarely as few as four, frequently seven and nine and occasionally as many as twelve, each tree is a distillery of nectar of crystal purity and inviting flavour. On every ray there may be eighty red studs, each composed of twelve compact flowers, and every flower drips limpid sweetness. For months this unexcised distillation never ceases. For all the birds and dainty butterflies and sober bees there is free abundance, and every puff of wind scatters the surplusage with spendthrift profusion. Sparkling in the sunbeams, dazzling white, red, orange, green, violet, the swelling drops tremble from the red studs and fall in fragrant splashes as the wanton wind brushes past or eager birds hastily alight on the swaying rays. A rare baptism to stand beneath the tree for the cool sweet spray to fall upon the upturned face, a baptism as pure as it is unceremonious.

Red-collared lorikeets revel in the nectar, hustling the noisy honey-eaters and the querulous sun-birds. The radiant blue butterfly sips and is gone, or if it be his intent to pause, tightly folds his wings on the instant of settling, and is transformed from a piece of living jewellery to a brown mottled leaf caught edgeways among the red flowers. The green and gold butterflies are for ever fluttering and quivering. The complaining lorikeets peevishly nudge them off with red, nectar-dripping bills, the honey-eaters disperse them with inconsiderate wing sweeps; but the butterflies are not to be denied their share. After a moment’s airy flight they return to the feast, quivering with eagerness. And so the weeks pass, the patient tree generating food far beyond the daily needs of all who choose to take.

By a very moderate computation — such an orderly plan of bloom lends itself to simple statistics — the average production of a fairly crowned tree is over a gallon of nectar per day. Hundreds of trees so crowned brighten all parts of the island with their red rays. And where the nectar is, there will the sun-birds be gathered together — a sweeter notion, truly, than carcases and eagles.

And this nectar, clear as dew-drops, sweet with an aftertaste of some scented spice — a fragile pungency — was ever liqueur so purely compounded? Drawn from untainted soil; filtered and purified; passed from one delicate process to another, warmed during the day, cooled by night airs, chastened by breezes which have all the virtue of whole Pacific breadths; sublimated by the sun — all to what end, to be proffered to birds and butterflies in ruddy goblets full to the brim.

The Genuine Upas-Tree

Powerful as nutmeg pigeons are on the wing, some suffer lingering deaths in consequence of a singular characteristic of one of the trees of the jungle. Tall and graceful, with luxuriant glossy leaves, there is nothing uncanny about the tree. In style and appearance it is the very antithesis of “the upas-tree,” upon which legendary lore cast unmerited responsibility. Yet in certain respects it would be vain to enter upon its defence. It is no myth. There is no exaggeration in the statement that the character of the Queensland tree is actually murderous, and that it counts its victims by the thousand every season. Of the great host it destroys, all save a few may be very small and very feeble, and from the human standpoint some of its death-dealing is perfectly justifiable if not laudable. Not often, locally, is a bird destroyed, but the fact that occasionally one has the ill-luck to fall foul of it and to perish miserably in consequence, places the tree in the catalogue of the remarkable. Neither spike nor poison is used nor any sensational means of destruction but nevertheless the tree is sure and implacable in its methods.

The seed-vessels of the Queensland Upas-tree, “Ahm-moo” of the blacks (PISONIA BRUNONIANA), which are produced on spreading leafless panicles, exude a remarkably viscid substance, approaching bird-lime in consistency and evil effect. Sad is the fate of any bird which, blundering in its flight, happens to strike against any of the many traps which the tree in unconscious malignity hangs out on every side. In such event the seed clings to the feathers, the wings become fixed to the sides, the hapless bird falls to the ground, and as it struggles heedlessly gathers more of the seeds, to which leaves and twigs adhere, until by aggregation it is enclosed in a mass of vegetable debris as firmly as a mummy in its cloths. Small birds as well as lusty pigeons, spiders and all manner of insects; flies, bees, beetles, moths and mosquitoes, as well as the seeds of other trees are ensnared. Spiders are frequently seen sharing the fate of the flies, fast to seeds in the humiliating posture in which Br’er Fox found Br’er Rabbit on the occasion of the interview with the Tar Baby.

Insectivorous plants am common enough in Australia; but the “Ahm-moo,” tree does not appear to make use of the carcases of its victims, though it kills on an exceptionally extensive scale.

On some of the islands where the tree is plentiful numbers of pigeons meet a dreary fate every season. The maturity of the seeds coincides with the hatching out of the young, and inexperienced birds pay dearly for their inexperience. The natural glutin is produced while the slim, fluted, inch-long seeds are green, but its virtue remains even after the whole panicle has withered and has fallen. So tenacious is it and prompt, that should a panicle as it whirls downward touch the leaves of lower branches of the parent, or of any neighbouring tree, it sticks and becomes a pendant swaying trap in a new position. At first glance it is not easy to identify the tree to which the obnoxious feature belongs.

The seeds occasion even dogs considerable distress, and might easily be the cause of death to them. As the dog endeavours to remove them from his feet and sides with his teeth, his muzzle is fouled, and he very soon exhibits confusion and alarm, and rolling about in frenzied attempts to free himself, gathers more and more of the seeds and accumulated rubbish.

One is led to ponder upon the purpose of this provision — to endeavour, if possible, to find its justification. Insects lured by the sweetness of the exudation are callously entrapped, and why so? Do the seeds require the presence of animal matter to ensure germination? In that case the tree is indirectly carnivorous, and therefore decidedly entitled to recognition among the curiosities of the island. Is the glutin secreted to secure the wide dispersal of the seeds? If so, the object is largely self-defeated, for seeds by the hundred cling as they fall to the branches of the parent tree, and to those of its lowly neighbours. Certainly some proportion of the seeds which reach the ground must be borne hither and thither by the agency of that eternal scratcher, the scrub fowl. But even a bird of such immensely proportionate strength may be seriously troubled by them. A case in point may be cited. A dog retrieving a scrub fowl, which had fallen in the vicinity of an “Ahm-moo” tree, emerged with it entirely enveloped with the seeds and adhering rubbish, and itself almost helpless from a similar cause. In this happy chance the seeds were eventually widely distributed. If the glutin is provided to prevent birds consuming the kernels, then the object is perfectly served; otherwise no very satisfactory reason is apparent why the tree should be invested with the means of destroying even humble forms of life. Is this one of the “lost chords” in the harmony of nature?

The Creeping Palm

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the jungle — that which takes fast hold, clings most tenaciously, and leaves the most irritating remembrances — is what is known as the lawyer cane or vine (CALAMUS). It is a vegetable of tortuous ambitions, that defies you, that embarrasses with attention, arrests your progress, occasionally envelops you in a net work of bewildering, slender, and cruelly-armed tentacles, that everywhere bristles with points, that curves back on itself, and makes loops and wriggles; that springs from a thin, sprawling and helpless beginning, and develops into almost miraculous lengths, and ramifies and twists and turns in “verdurous glooms,” ascends and descends, grovels in the moist earth and among mouldy leaves, clasps with aerial rootlets every possible support, and eventually clambers and climbs above the tallest tree, twirling its armed tentacles round airy nothings. It blossoms inconspicuously, and its fruit is as hard, tough and dry as an argument on torts. Ordinary mortals call it a vine. Botanists describe it as a prickly climbing palm, and no jungle is complete without it. There are several varieties of this interesting plant, all more or less of a grasping, clinging character, and each of vital importance in the republic of vegetation.

Sometimes when it is severed with a sharp knife there flows from the cane a fluid bright and limpid as a judge’s summing up; occasionally it is all as dry as dust and as sneezy, and its prickly leaf sheathes the abode of that vexing insect which causes the scrub itch.

This plant produces lengths of cane similar in every respect to the schoolmaster’s weapon — familiar but immortal — varying in diameter from a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half, and in length, as some assert, to no less than 500 and 600 feet. Certainly 300 feet is not uncommon, and one can readily concede an additional 100 feet, knowing the extravagance of the remarkable palm under ordinary circumstances. And the cane weaves and entangles the jungle, binds and links mighty trees together, and with the co-operation of other clinging, and creeping, and trailing plants — some massive as ship’s cables, and some thin and fine as fishing-lines — forms compact masses of vegetation to penetrate which tracks must be cut yard by yard. When this disorderly conglomeration of trees and saplings, vines, creepers, trailers and crawlers, complicated and confused, has to be cleared, as civilisation demands the use of the soil, sometimes a considerable area will remain upright, although every connection with Mother Earth is severed, so interlaced and interwoven and anchored are the vines with those clinging to trees yet uncut. Then, in a moment, as some leading strand gives way, the whole mass falls — smothered, bruised, and crushed — to be left for a month and more before the fires destroy the faded relics of the erstwhile gloriously rampant jungle. In all this the lawyer cane is the most aggressive and hostile. Not only are there prickles on the 10-feet thongs, but the leaves and leaf-sheaths are thickly beset. In one species the 6-feet-long leaves bear upon the margins and upper surface long, thin, needle-like points, black and glossy, and attaining a length Of 3 inches; the main rib bears stout re-curved prickles, while the sheaths which envelop the cane are densely covered with dark brown or black points 1 inch and more long.

One cannot cut jungle and escape bloodshed, for the long tentacles of the lawyer catch you unawares sooner or later, and then, for all are set with double rows of re-curved points, do not endeavour to escape by strife and resistance — it is no use pulling against those pricks — but by subtlety and diplomacy. The more you pull, the worse for your skin and clothes; but with tact you may become free, with naught but neat scratches and regular rows of splinters. The points of the hooks to which you have been attached anchor themselves deep in the skin, and tear their way out and rip and rend your clothes, and your condition of mind, body and estate, is all for the worse.

But the uses of the lawyer cane are many and various. Blacks employ it as ropes, as stays for canoes, and, split into narrow threads and woven, for baskets and fish-traps; and white men find it handy for all sorts of purposes, from boat-painters and fenders to stock-whip and maul-handles. Suppose a tree that a black wishes to climb presents difficulties low down, he will procure a length of lawyer cane, partly biting and partly breaking it off, if he lacks a cutting implement. Then he will make a loop, so bruising and chewing the end that it becomes flexible and ties almost as readily and quite as securely as rope. Ascending a neighbouring tree, he will manoeuvre one end over a limb of that which he wishes to climb, and slip it through the loop, and run it up until it is fast. A cane 50 feet long, no thicker than one’s little finger, fastened to the upper branch of a tree, has on trial borne the weight of three fairly-sized men. Thus tested, the black has no hesitation or difficulty in rapidly ascending, and in lowering down young birds, or eggs (wrapped in leaves), or whatsoever his quest.

Another cane-producing plant (FLAGELLARIA), though innocent of the means of grappling, succeeds in overtopping tall trees and smothering them with a mass of interwoven leafage. Each of its narrow leaves ends in a spiral tendril, sensitive but tough, which entwines itself about other leaves and twigs. Feeling their respective ways, the tender tips of leaves of the one family touch and twist, and the grasp is for life. Though not of such extravagant character as the lawyer vine, the FLAGELLARIA seems to be endowed with perceptive faculty almost amounting to instinct in selecting the shortest way toward the support necessary for its plan of existence, which is to climb not to grovel. It spurns the ground. New shoots spring from old rhizomes in the clearings, and turn towards the nearest tree as though aware of its presence, as the tendrils of a grape vine instinctively grope for the artificial support provided for it. Progress along the ground is slow, but once within reach, the shoot rears its head, stretches out a delicate finger-tip, and clings with the grasp of desperation. A vigorous impulse thrills the whole plant. It has found its purpose in life. With the concentration of its energies, its development is rapid and merciless. Its host is rapidly enveloped in entangling embraces, smothered with innumerable clinging kisses.

Mauve, Green and Grey

An attempt to do justice by description to the rich and varied vegetation of Dunk Island in these unlearned pages would bespeak an idle, almost profane vanity. Yet the pleasure of revealing one or two of the more conspicuous features cannot be forgone. In the term conspicuous is included plants that attract general attention. Possibly the skilled botanist might disregard obvious and pleasing effects, and find classic joy in species and varieties unobtrusive if not obscure.

About 600 feet above sea-level, looking across the Family Group to the great bulk of Hinchinbrook, there is an irregular precipice, half concealed by the trees and plants that decorate its seams and crevices and spring up about its cool and ever gloomy base.

During the greater part of the year water trickles down the grey face of the rock in narrow gleaming bands, and wheresoever are the faintest footholds there is a flower — mauve in its modesty. It is not common enough to possess a familiar name, but botanists have called it BAEA HYGROSCOPICA, for it is always found near water, invariably pure, cool, fern-filtered mountain water. From the damp rock the roots of the plant, matted and interwoven, may be peeled off in a thin layer, for the plant is epiphytical, depending as much upon heat, moisture and light as on any constituents of the soil for sustenance. When the season is exceptionally dry, the thick, soft wrinkled leaves become parched and shrivelled; but a shower restores their vigour and lovely, tender green, and fresh flowers slightly resembling the violet, but borne on scapes 6 or 8 inches long, bloom within a few hours of the revivification of the plant. In moist seasons the plant, true to its hygrometic character, continuously blooms, and while it braves the hottest sun on the bare places of the burning rock as long as its roots find moist spots, it will also be found in the shade below, where the flowers are richer in colour, more of purple than mauve, and, rarely, pure white. Generally the plant depends upon others or cracks or crevices in rock for foothold. It shares the grasp the spongy moss may take on the slippery surface, or when the root, thin as whipcord, of a certain fig-tree has crept across the face of the grey rock forming a ridge or barricade against which decayed vegetation accumulates, there the BAEA flourishes, displaying an indeterminate line of mauve flowers above oval, crimpled leaves. Mauve, green and grey — the mauve of the Victorian age, the green of the cowslip, the grey of glistering, weathering granite.

The whole of the rock face is a study. Grasping with greedy white talons a piece of decaying wood is one of the prettiest of the more common orchids, DENDROBIUM SMILIAE which produces short spikes of waxy flowers, pink tipped with green; the creeping, sweet-scented, BULBOPHYLLUM BAILEYI, with greenish-yellow flowers spotted with purple, and the commonest of the dendrobiums (UNDULATUM) revel here.

The edge of the precipice looks over a tangle of jungle down upon the top of a giant milkwood tree (ALSTONIA SCHOLARIS), taken possession of by a colony of metallic starlings, whose hundreds of brown nests hang in clusters from the topmost branches. By the perpetual shrieks and calls of these most lively of birds a straight course may be steered through the gloomy jungle to the tree, and thence to the beach, as a ship gains her haven through a fog by the sound of unseen warning horns and bell-surmounted rocks. On the trunk of this great tree may still be seen the marks of stone tomahawks of the primitive inhabitants of the island. There is none now to disturb and plunder the hasty birds.

Stealthy Murderers

The fig-tree which aids the BAEA in its object of beautifying the precipice is one of a very numerously represented species, which assumes great variety of form, and produces fruit of varying quality. This particular variety (FICUS CUNNINGHAMII) begins life as a parasite. A thin slender shoot, tremulously weak, leans lightly on the base of some tall tree, and finding agreeable conditions, clings and grows. A harmless, tender, thong-like shoot it is — a helpless plant, that could not stand alone or exist but for the hospitality of another of strength and substance. Soon a second shoot, slight and frail, emerges near the root, but at a different angle from its aspiring brother, and others as delicate as the first follow, until the trunk of the host is sprawled over by naked running shoots, grey-green in colour, crafty and insidious. As they increase in age the shoots flatten on the under surface and cross and recross. Wheresoever they touch they coalesce. The trunk becomes enveloped in living lace — in a network, rather, living, ever growing and irregular — the meshes of which gradually decrease in dimension. All the while squeezing and causing decay, the meshes close up. The trunk of the host is completely enclosed; it is the dying core of a living cylinder, for the first shoots have long since crept up among the branches, have expanded their leaves, and are busy sapping the life-blood of the tree at all points. A greedy intractable, implacable foe, it gives no quarter, but flourishes upon its dead or dying friend, upon which in its youth it leaned delicately for support. Finally it weaves its slender shoots among the topmost leaves of its victim, and having outgrown its growth, flourishes on its decay.

This vegetable usurper produces immense crops of small purple figs, the favourite food of many birds. So bountiful are its crops, and so much are they appreciated, that one perceives, almost without reflection, its due and proper place in the harmony of nature. To complete the cycle, birds frequently, after eating the fruit, “strop” their beaks on the bark of a neighbouring tree. Now and again a seed thus finds favourable conditions for its germination, and then the parasite sends exploring roots to the ground, forming as they descend intricate lace-work, while shoots repeat a similar process as they climb further up the trunk and among the branches. Then the fate of the host seems less cruel, for the end is speedier.

Delicious fruit is produced by a somewhat similar fig (VALIDINERVIS) growing in the locality and displaying, though not in such a cruel manner, parasitical tendencies. Passing from green to orange with deep red spots to rich purple, the fruit — about the size of an average grape — indicates arrival at maturity by the exudation of a drop of nectar. Clear as crystal, the nectar partially solidifies. Fragrant and luscious, pendant from the polished fruit, this exuberant insignia of perfection, this glittering drop of vital essence, attracts birds of all degree. It is a liqueur that none can resist, and which seems, so noisy and demonstrative do they all become, to have a highly exhilarating effect on their nerves. Birds ordinarily mute are vociferous, and the rowdy ones — the varied honey-eater as an example — losing all control of their tongues, call and whistle in ecstasy. The best of the fig-tree’s life is given for the intoxication of unreflecting birds.

Tree Grog

Few of the forest trees are more picturesque than the paper-bark or tea-tree (MELALEUCA LEUCADENDRON), the “Tee-doo” of the blacks. It is of free and stately growth, the bark white, compacted of numerous sheets as thin as tissue paper. When a great wind stripped the superficial layers, exposing the reddish-brown epidermis, the whole foreground was transfigured. All during the night alone in the house, I heard the great trees complaining against the molestation of the wind, groaning in strife and fright; but little had I thought that the violation they had endured had been so coarse and lawless. The chaste trees had been incontinently stripped of their decent white vestiture, leaving their limbs naked and bare. In the daylight they still moaned, throwing their almost leafless branches about despairingly, their flesh-tints — dingy red — giving to the scene a strangely unfamiliar glow. This outrage was one of the most uncivil of the wrong-doings of the storm wind “Leonta.” But within a week or so the trees assumed whiter than ever robes; pure and stainless, the breeze had merely removed soiled linen. The picture had been restored by the most ideal of all artists.

The blossoms of the melaleuca come in superabundance, pale yellow spikes, odorous to excess. When the trees thus adorn themselves — and they do so twice in the year in changeless fashion, in the fulness of the wet season — the air is saturated with the odour as of treacle slightly burnt. The island reeks of a vast sugar factory or distillery. Sips of the balsamic syrup are free to all, and birds and insects rejoice and are glad. A perpetual murmur and hum of satisfaction and industry haunt the neighbourhood of the trees as accompaniment to the varied notes of excitable birds. Chemists say that insects imprisoned in an atmosphere of melaleuca oil become intoxicated. Insects and birds certainly are boldly familiar and hilarious during the time that the trees offer their feast of spiced honey.

Every tree is a fair, and all behave accordingly, chirping and whistling, humming and buzzing, flitting and fluttering, in the unrestrained gaiety of holiday and feast-day humour. Always an impertinent, interfering rascal, the spangled drongo, under the exhilarating influence of melaleuca nectar, degenerates into a blusterer. He could not under any circumstances be a larrikin; but the grateful stimulant affects his naturally high spirits, and he is more frolicsome and boisterous than ever. The path between the coco-nuts to the beach passes close to two of the biggest trees, and from each as I strolled along, one sublime morning when the whole world was drenched with whiffs, strong, sweet and spirity, a drongo, flushed with excitement, flew down, bidding me begone in language that I am fully persuaded was meant to provoke a breach of the peace. The saucy bullies, the half-tipsy roysterers, tired of domineering over every participator of the feast, dared to publicly flout me, defiantly sweeping with their tails the air, as an Irishman, “blue mouldy for want of a bateing,” sweeps the floor with his coat, and chattered and scolded in every tone of elated bravado. The bibacious drongo can be as demure as any. When he comes to dart among the eddying insects, glorying in the first cool gleams of the sunshine, he will take his ease on a mango branch, make jerky bows and flick the fine feathers of his tail, and “cheep” in timorous accents. He is sober then, quite parsonified in demeanour; his speech “all in the set phrase of peace,” and would be scandalised by the mere mention of melaleuca nectar.

A professor of physiology asserts that rabbits are very curious when under the influence of liquor, and that a drunken kangaroo is brutally aggressive. The drongo is merely pugnacious and noisy. Having heard of the melancholy effects of over-indulgence in melaleuca nectar, I was not at all disposed to judge of the misbehaviour harshly or to take personal offence; for the drongo is a respectable bird, and the opportunities for excess come but twice a year. Are not the tenses of intoxication infinite?

This is not a prohibition district, and if the happy, unreflective bird chooses to partake even to excess of the free offering of Nature, the quintessence of the flowers of the tree distilled by sunshine, why should not he? Am I the only one to be “recompensed by the sweetness and satisfaction of this retreat”?

When the melaleuca blossoms, bees seem to work with quite feverish haste; but the honey gained is dark in colour and has a certain pungent, almost acid, flavour. Holding a frame of comb to the light, you see the clear gold of the bloodwood and the tawny tints of the melaleuca as erratically defined as geographical distinctions in a tinted map. Bees keep it apart to indulge in it, peradventure, at revolutionary epochs. Italian bees are docile, at least less pugnacious than other species. Does not the dark spirituous honey inspire them with that degree of courage which we English call Dutch?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32