So what is this lanky, untidy shrub with large rough-textured leaves and clusters of glossy yellow fruits? I tried searching for yellow fruits and rough leaves in Google, then a search on the image itself refined by the words ‘fruit’, but with no luck. I got mostly mangoes and lemons. It’s surprising how often internet search engines do work for identifying plants, and the image search is great fun. You need to have a little botanical knowledge to sieve through the dross but an intelligent search and selection can get you close to your target. It’s a great addition to books, knowledge and experts.
In this case though I couldn’t get anywhere near an identification so it was over to experts (books seemed a bit like hard work, and I didn’t take a sample to dissect). From this photograph, my colleague Neville Walsh thought the rough leaves suggestive of the Boraginaceae, a family including the well known the vegetable/herb borage.
Our highly experienced horticultural botanist Roger Spencer said he’d mull it over. “I sort of recognise it”, he said,”and have unhappy memories of pressing the fruit.” But no name sprang to mind straight away so I left a photograph on the Herbarium tea-room table. Again no luck and that’s where I left it for the day. While everyone mulls, let me tell you about where I found these yellow fruits and rough leaves.
Last weekend Lynda and I visited yet another charming nineteenth-century botanic garden in Victoria. The 6.4 hectare St Kilda Botanical Gardens was established in 1859, by a council then only two years old. The layout today is pretty much true to Tilman Glystein’s original design.
As in most Victorian (Victorian) botanic gardens you can find stately trees contributed by the great Ferdinand Mueller: mostly conifers but also Moreton Bay Figs. Of the 810 mature trees, eight are listed on Victoria’s Significant Tree register, including the specimen pictured below that is reputedly the largest African Olive in Australia (although this is not something I would be proclaiming loudly anywhere near the Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan, where a million dollar eradication program is making headway at removing a patch of invasive African Olive about the size of St Kilda Botanical Gardens).
There are plenty of impressive modern additions as well, including a subtropical conservatory which was closed on the weekend. The Corey Thomas and Ken Arnold designed Rain Man fountain in the ornamental lake is very clever, and fun. It’s also very environmentally friendly, being powered by solar cells and pumping recycled water from the pond.
But back to my fruits and leaves. What is this very distinctive plant with these unusual clusters of yellow fruits? That evening, after lots of fruitless (sorry) web searches I tried ‘large sandpaper leaves small yellow fruits’ in my search engine. Three screens in I see something called the Huge Anacua – not in the image collection but a Youtube clip in the general web search. So I copy the botanical name – Ehretia anacua – into a new search. Not a match but oddly similar. So I try Ehretia on its own and bingo!
This is Ehretia dicksonii in the family Ehretiaceae. Yep, doesn’t mean much to me either! Ehretia is a genus of 40-75 species from tropical to subtropical parts of the world, named after the eighteenth-century German botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret. This species, from east Asia, is named after James Dickson, also honoured in the name of our common tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica. Ehretia dicksonii is rare in cultivation and as my source describes it, quite legitimately, a gawky large shrub.
I can’t find any common names. After all, it isn’t very common. I found one local blog recommending this species for Melbourne gardens and mentioning a specimen growing at Kew Gardens in 1989. It turns out we have Ehretia acuminata and Ehretia macrophylla growing in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
The other thing you’ll see if you track it down in the Royal Botanic Gardens census is that our experts consider it to be in the family Boraginaceae. I’ve come to respect the thoroughness and pragmatism of Rob Cross who edits this census, so that’s good enough for me. Neville Walsh, as if often the case, was correct.
Roger Spencer, I’m sure, would have tracked this name down soon enough. In fact the only record of this species included in the nation’s on-line herbarium (Australia’s Virtual Herbarium) is from St Kilda Botanical Gardens and identified by Dr Spencer himself, in 1991. Twenty-two years ago, and he still remembers what a pain it was to press for the herbarium!
It took me far too much time and too many web searches to get this name, but satisfying in the end. Maybe next time I should grab my hand lens, a microscope and my collection of floras and monographs, and key it out like a real botanist. Hopefully I would have got to the same point, eventually.