Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

A Jungle Flower

During September, the flowery month, and the early part of October many parts of the coast of North Queensland are decorated with a plant of remarkable beauty, which seems to have escaped general notice, though well deserving the admiration of all who take pleasure in purity, in simplicity of form, and in rich perfume.

It is the fate of most flowers that grow in deserts, where no man abides, to die uncommended; but this delightful shrub, sometimes developing into a small tree, is a denizen of country which is desert only in the poetic sense, for the soil is fertile, the rains frequent and abundant, and (as a consequence of stimulating natural conditions) given over to glorious vegetation, varied in character, refreshing to behold in the mass, and teeming with novelties which make appeal to all lovers of plants; and not without rarities to those who make even casual study of the science of botany. Though conspicuous by reason both of flowers and fruit, this desirable plant has no common or pet name. Botanists have termed it RANDIA FITZALANA. It belongs to the same family as the gardenias, and in common with several of its relatives is endowed with strong and pleasant perfume.

F. M. Bailey describes eight species of RANDIA native to Queensland, five of which are confined to the tropical North, ranging from Cape Upstart to the Gulf of Carpentaria, three being especially heavily scented. One of these three seems to prefer dry and barren hills. The word “seems” is used deliberately, for the stunted tree with its scant, creamy-white flowers has not the habit of a plant with a real love for soil and sun, though it bestows a blessing on its surroundings when refreshed with dew. Except in a botanical sense, there are no features of resemblance between this hairy-leaved endurer of the drought and the habitant of the jungle under notice, other than in its perfume.

Just now on this Isle are scores of specimens of the glossy-foliaged shrub on the very margin of the sea, flowering profusely. Many of the leaves are about six inches long, smooth and shining, the flowers of the purest white, and the scent that of the family in its quality of pervasiveness.

RANDIA FITZALANA seldom flourishes when fully exposed to the sun. Its place is rather under the shade of taller and sturdier vegetation, and it finds ideal conditions alike at the mouths of shrub-obstructed creeks and among boulders overhung with trees and screening vines, where the struggle for existence always seems tense and unnecessary. Is it a sort of conscious vanity which impels the graceful plant to occupy deeply-shadowed, if not gloomy, spots? There, at least, are its intensely-white starry flowers set off to the best advantage, and there they last longer and breathe out becoming odours which for the time being monopolize the attention of the passerby. Simple in form, the flowers are produced in loose, irregular groups, and are proportionately thick and leathery, with less tendency than others of the family to become brown when fading. Posies of the white flowers appear scattered among the glossy leaves, looking like patches of enamel, precisely cut; since there are few winds to disturb such sheltered, well-embowered scenes, the effect is that of formality and primness contrasted with the unkempt, disorderly luxuriance of the jungle.

Large, rotund fruit follows the flowers as a rule, but this season has been so gracious that some plants are displaying flowers and fruit simultaneously. The latter, however, may not ripen for months, and when it does so, though attractive by reason of its size — that of an average orange — and yellowish colour, it is inedible, being hot, insipid and astringent. Blacks confess that at times hunger has driven them to it, but many other vegetable products of repugnant appearance are preferred to this seductive-looking fruit. One cannot with easy mind complain against the laws of nature when a plant which gives pleasure to the eye with its big leaves and white flowers, and ravishes the sense of smell, yet fails in respect of edible fruit; but it may be quite within reason, and in no spirit of fault-finding, easy to imagine that in time to come some ingenious and patient horticulturist will set to work to improve the fruit — and so, peradventure, bestow on the world a novelty which, like the orange, will produce fine foliage, deliciously perfumed flowers and a something excellent to eat. When the crude forerunner of the orange is compared with one or other of the fine species of the day, evolved by restrictions upon natural laws, it does not seem to be impossible so to develop the fruit of RANDIA FITZALANA that the edible qualities not now easily recognized may become dominant.

The plant produces seeds abundantly, so that experiments might at least be made on an extensive scale. It belongs to the same family as the mangosteen, and that relationship is at least in its favour, though indefinite enough, when its possibilities are pondered. In the meantime, its fascinating qualities are conspicuous, and naught but gratitude is herein expressed for its presence under delightful conditions and under no restraint from the hand of man.

Though the plant affords abundant evidence of its preference for shade and comparative coolness, occasionally it is found among huge granite boulders scorching to the touch on blazing days, and within reach of sea-spray; but in such situations — with roots matted in the coarse crevices — it may be hardly recognizable. The leaves are small, scattered and dull, and the solitary flowers make appeal not for admiration but for pity. Stunted, burnt and scalded, the plant strives to fulfil the exacting laws of Nature, and in its extremity solicits sympathy and proffers a mere whiff of attenuated perfume.

It is a gracious plant, under all conditions and circumstances

. . . . nor loved the less

For flowering in the wilderness.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50