Jennifer StackhouseMy Illawarra flame tree blooms!

I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of an Illawarra flame tree, with its brilliant red, bell flowers, and the lacy purple of the jacaranda. I had always wanted to have these two trees in my garden and when we moved to this house more than 10 years ago we realised it offered the perfect opportunity. The garden was thick with jacarandas and there was a tree-shaped space next to one of them.

Illawarra-flame-tree-with-jacaranda-Sydney1

Purple jacaranda with red Illawarra flame tree

Illawarra flame tree bark

Illawarra flame tree bark

We already had seedling flame trees growing in pots ready for planting. My husband Jim, who loves propagating plants, had grown them from seed I’d collected in Windsor (a nearby town).
So he planted the little tree and we began to look forward to the show of red and purple flowers in the garden in November.

Each year the tree grew as we battled dry times, storms and the annual visit of the kurrajong leaf tier. This is a hairy processionary caterpillar that brings all its friends and relations to skeletonise the leaves on our tree.

leaftier

Kurrajong leaf tier

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The years ticked by and Jim began to feel the tree would never flower, even though he knows that seed-grown plants can take seven or more years to bloom.

For weeks now we’ve been sweeping up the large leaves that have fallen from the tree leaving some bare branches on the otherwise leafy tree. A good sign as it turned out.

Flowers at last!

Flowers at last!

Then this morning came an excited whoop from outside and I heard the urgent call to “Come here quickly!”. Sure enough the tree was in bloom. Well, a couple of the upper most branches had flowers on them.

Flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius) are native Australian trees – kurrajongs – that tend to flower on bare wood – much like jacarandas. Sometimes you’ll see the entire tree covered in flowers and other times it is just an odd branch. There is breeding and selection work going on to develop more reliable flowering trees.

Illawarra flame tree in full flower

Illawarra flame tree in full flower

Facebook
When I posted the celebratory picture of our flowering on Facebook I received lots of comments including this one from Sydney-sider and gardener Wayne Carter who wrote:
“They are a wonder, seed-grown flame trees. Sometimes they flower only on one side. Other years a blaze of colour all over!”.

He then went on to recall the old Hazlewood’s nursery at Epping writing: “In their day, a jacaranda plant (seed grown) would never leave the nursery without a free Illawarra flame – all grown on in old jam tins. There was the ‘trio’ too, a silky oak! Today a walk over the Beecroft Road bridge at Epping spots them all in full bloom. Drive up Pennant Hills Road to Pearces Corner then down the Pacific Highway – what a show! Such wonderful trees and what a legacy! Then there are the oak trees (Quercus robur) – plants given out by the city store Anthony Horden’s.”

Thanks Wayne! I love the corners and paths that Facebook and social media lead you along. All that from a little picture of a few flowers on our tree.

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Jennifer Stackhouse

About Jennifer Stackhouse

Recently Jennifer Stackhouse made the big move from Kurmond in NSW to a Federation house in the little village of Barrington tucked beneath Mt Roland in northwest Tasmania. With high rainfall, rich, red deep soil and a mild climate she reckons she's won the gardening lottery. She's taken on an acre garden that's been lovingly planted and tended for the past 28 years by a pair of keen gardeners so she is discovering a garden full of horticultural treasures. Jennifer is the author of several gardening books including 'Garden', which won a Book Laurel for 2013, as well as ‘The Organic Guide to Edible Gardens’, ‘Planting Techniques’ and ‘My Gardening Year’, which she wrote with her mother Shirley. She was editor of ABC 'Gardening Australia' magazine and now edits the trade journal 'Greenworld' magazine and writes regularly for the Saturday magazine in 'The Mercury'. She is often heard on radio and at garden shows answering garden queries.

24 thoughts on “My Illawarra flame tree blooms!

  1. I used to live on the corner of Pennant Hills Road and Frith Avenue. Unfortunately, our beautiful old house was torn down and has made way to a nursing home/residence for the elderly. We had ninety-nine fruit trees growing in the garden! Everything from a mulberry tree to nectarines, to plums, apricots, and cherries. My grandmother was an avid gardener, may she rest in peace, as was my mother, may she also rest inpeace. I remember collecting the fruit and having it preserved by the ladies in our house. It was lots of fun spreading a sheet under the mulberry and having everyone shake the tree! Jacarandas grew in the empty lot next door, as did wattle trees. I don’t think we had Illawarra flame trees, but we had lots of everything else.

  2. …a downside or should that read “downslide” to growing Jacaranda and Brachychiton that branch over pathways is the slip factor. The fallen blooms plus the jellylike gum from flame tree pods is a hazard! Always plant these trees in an open garden area. The continuous shed of seasonal bloom, leaves and sap from flame tree pods is gladly taken in by the garden space below. That is if you have planted a wise understory! 🙂

  3. Hi Peter! I am so glad to read your comment! You are talking about what is now Bowden Brae. I am so happy to read your comment.
    I would love to hear more about your memories of that property. There are some old trees preserved – growing well in what is now known as “The Heritage Garden”. I know the site very well and would love to talk to you.

  4. Hi Jennifer. I haven’t driven past the old police station at Windsor for a while because I go over the new bridge but there should be a jacaranda and a flame tree blooming there now. I agree with you about social media and facebook. I’ve just joined facebook with my nursery Town and Country Gardens, with your help, and it’s been really interesting opening up communication with fellow gardeners.

    Peta Trahar

    • Some seedling grown trees just take a long time to flower. Local conditions may also be hindering it from flowering – for example too much shade or damage from insects or possums. It may be too that it has flowered but you haven’t noticed as the flowering can be quite poor! I may have missed the ones on ours as they were way at the top of the branches and hard to see. Cheers Jennifer

  5. We have been avidly growing seeds and planting them all over the ugly Sydney suburb of Randwick to add a bit of colour to those flats and concrete high rise. Hope they all flower in five years!

  6. Yes years ago in Sydney they grew in backyards everywhere but I hadn’t seen one for years until recently when we were driving through a little town in the middle of nowhere and the whole LHS of someone’s front yard was one mass of Flame Trees… Someone’s labor of love had brightened that town in a spectacular display !

  7. I have a flame tree that would be 90 years old and this year it is wonderful the best it has event been , I just love it and keep on going outside to look at it.

    • Hi Russell – Illawarra flame tree has a fairly narrow crown for its height. When grown in the garden it usually gets to about 8m wide but also tends to develop a long trunk, with the lowest branches a long way up.

  8. We have a 20 years old Flame Tree (brachychiton acerifolius) but it never bloomed. We have it in Vienna Austria and try to replicate some kind of Australian climate, taking the tree in, in winter and then moving out, are we missing some specific condition/trigger
    we are at twitter @grd_com

  9. I am not sure that a potted Illawarra flame will flower and particularly in your cold climate. They have the habit of dropping leaves in the dry season (late winter to early spring) and then flowering on bare branches in late spring much like a jacaranda. Sometimes only one branch or half the tree flowers. Seed grown trees can also be slow to flower. It would be interesting to find out the coldest areas and highest latitudes where the tree has bloomed. Jennifer

  10. I have four seeds from a flame tree (collected from Queensland) and would like to try to grow them starting in pots. What sort of soil should I use? Do I have to soak the seeds?

  11. First carefully remove the seed from the pods – you’ll find they are surrounded by pricklly hairs that are highly irritant. Use gloves. Then sow seeds in a seed-raising mix, lightly buried. Alternatively use a 50/50 mix of washed river sand and coir peat. We used bottom heat and misting to encourage germination so perhaps use a covered propagation tray such as available at garden centres and hardware stores. Germination may be slower without bottom heat. Prick out into individual small pots. They grow quickly – it is just flowering that can be slow! Jennifer

  12. Bought a house in Northern suburb of Perth – huge block 900 sq metres ( modest house – but who cares -its double brick so it wont blow over – and im only interested in the garden !) Really interesting block its on 2 levels ( i find flat blocks boring ) – and up the back you get sea glimpses – and hear the roar of the waves at night

    I rented it for 4 years – only because you were allowed to keep a dog – and then the old spinster put it on the market and i bought it – the last month ive really blitzed the garden – to the tune of – 2 Hicks Fancy Mullberries a Loquat an Almond – 2 Olives – a pomegranate – a meyer lemon – 2 figs – 2 apricot storey – 2 nectarine fantasia – 2 dwarf peach and 2 Jacaranda – and theres many more trees im going to put in

    I put 1 Jacandra – right up the back corner – and i put 1 next to the letter box at the front . I googled evergreen trees in Perth – and a wholesaler had a picture of an illawarra flame tree which i liked – so i typed in that tree and i came to your site – and your magnificent picture of the flame tree next to a Jaccandra has inspired me to put a flame tree next to each Jacandra – truly a beautiful contrast

    So i thank you for that

  13. Judith Wright has written on the marvel of the Flame Tree in bloom:

    The Flame-tree Blooms

    It was you planted it;
    and it grew high and put on crops of leaves,
    extravagant fans; sheltered in it the spider weaves
    and birds move through it.
    For all it grew so well
    it never bloomed, though we watched patiently,
    having chosen its place where we could see
    it from our window-sill.
    Now, in its eighteenth spring,
    suddenly, wholly, ceremoniously
    it puts off every leaf and stands up nakedly,
    calling and gathering,
    every capacity in it, every power,
    drawing up from the very roots of being
    this pulse of total red that shocks my seeing
    into an agony of flower.
    It was you planted it;
    and I lean on the sill to see it stand
    in its dry shuffle of leaves, just as we planned,
    these past years feeding it.

    by Judith Wright

    source: Little Book of Trees. National Library of Australia, c2010

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