On the edge of Eastern Lawn at Melbourne Gardens there is a Queensland Bottle Tree, Brachychiton rupestris. It is reasonably short in stature with a broad swelling at the base of its trunk, literally bottle shaped, a pachycaul with a very thick trunk when compared to its height.
From some angles it looks like a prehistoric goddess sculpture squatting on the lawn, broad hipped and serene. It is not uncommon to see people ambling across the lawn stop to pat her hip as they pass.
I have seen a very small child run at the trunk, stretching her arms out as wide as she possibly could; she then rested her cheek against the trunk, closed her eyes and held on tight – it took her laughing mother sometime to peel her off her perch. Brachychiton rupestris could be Australia’s most huggable tree – they are certainly remarkable for a number of reasons.
The genus Brachychiton has approximately 40 species almost completely endemic to Australia with one species occurring in the wild in Papua New Guinea and another shared with PNG. The genus is also adapted to surviving very dry conditions with trunks and roots composed of a fleshy tissue that swells to absorb water when available. This succulence or water storage capacity can enable a plant to survive through extended dry periods.
There are some truly beautiful members of this genus, which have made it into our public and home gardens. There are some show stoppers for me within this genus. The Kurrajong, Brachychiton australis, it produces the most fabulous seedpods, black and boat shaped, full of seeds and terribly sharp little hairs when dried. Nevertheless, growing up with one on my front nature strip I delighted in turning these little boats into all sorts of things.
There is a tall Queensland Lacebark Tree, Brachychiton discolor in the Australian Forest Walk at Melbourne Gardens and in the summer it is covered in the most beautiful velvety pink flowers. The spectacular Illawarra Flame Tree, Brachychiton acerifolius, covered in masses of dark red bell-shaped blooms is another contender for favourite but then there is always the huggable Brachychiton rupestris.
At Cranbourne Gardens, in the Weird and Wonderful Garden, there is one very special Queensland Bottle Tree. This tree was originally planted in the late 1970s, as a seedling, by Mr. Noel Minifie next to the front verandah of his family home in Kialla Victoria. There it grew little by little until 2008 when the Goulburn River burst its banks. The flood waters brought on an astonishing growth spurt and its trunk began to swell lifting the footings of the Minifie’s verandah and pushing against the eaves of their home. It was time to decide if either the front of their house or their tree would go? Mr. Minifie offered their beloved Bottle Tree to Cranbourne Gardens for the new Australia Garden.
In order to transplant the tree some preparation work was required. In August of 2009 a specialist advanced tree transplanting company prepared the tree for moving by cutting all of the roots at about one metre from the trunk. This work was undertaken to encourage the growth of a thicker root ball closer to the trunk. In December when the horticultural team arrived for the “big move day” the canopy of the tree was thinned out by half to allow it to be loaded onto a semi-trailer. The tree was lifted out of the ground by a crane and after two hours of careful roping and netting the tree was enroute to Cranbourne 230kms away.
The Bottle Tree was kept for a time in a holding site at the edge of the first stage of the Australia Garden; it was then transplanted into its final home in early 2011. It was the first plant to go into the second stage of the Australian Garden and it sat there by itself for some time as the new garden was built around it. It looked rather forlorn to begin with and I know for a fact that it was given a few encouraging hugs by RBGV staff as they passed it by.
This Bottle Tree is now the biggest tree in the Weird and Wonderful Garden, growing well in a garden bed near the northern entrance. It could grow as big as 10 to 20 metres in height and if it reaches this size its canopy will spread to around 15 metres. The trunk is already showing the bottle shape for which this species is known and visitors are discovering the irresistible urge to walk across the garden bed to hug this enchanting tree. So much foot traffic in fact that our horticultural team are laying a path to its side. Why fight the inevitable?