PHOTO: Grass Trees Australia
Australians will be familiar with what we call “grass trees” or, to give it its proper name “Xanthorrhoea”. We used to call them “black boys” but now do not for obvious reasons.
Whatever we call them, these amazing prehistoric plants are like no other. They take hundreds of years to grow and tall ones can be ages old. They slowly increase, layer by layer and the old dry leaves form a grass like skirt beneath the new growth at the top. If you see one broken down, the trunk looks as though it has been made up of popsicle sticks dipped in treacle arranged in concentric circles with a hollow centre. The “leaves” are actually square in profile when you snap them and wicked children in Australia love to snap them off and hit their dear friends with them.
We have one in our back yard that was there hundreds of years before our humble abode. In the wild it would have had a long black stem with a bright green top, as bushfires regularly strip away the lower skirt. Ours had never been the victim of fire.
As these grass trees are now considered highly desirable as a sculptural feature in West Aussie gardens I have never wanted to move it but was keen to see it without the old dead skirt.
I love my sister dearly. She has just moved into a new home and purchased a small grass tree for her garden.
“You should just burn off the dead section she said”.
“Is that what they do?”
“Oh yes Timfy (she calls me Timfy). You just set it alight and the old fronds just burn and drop off.”
My children came to dinner and I mentioned the idea. Children it seems, love fire.
“You should definitely do it dad.” they said.
I got the hose ready and a lighter.
No sooner had I touched one of the tinder dry fronds with the flame the whole bush burst into flames.
A pillar of fire of biblical proportions shot up above the rooftop and emitted a plume of smoke that, in the still air, engulfed the neighborhood.
Neighbors poured from their houses and began rapping on our door, believing we were all being incinerated. I was doing my best to dampen down the surrounding area as great lumps of smouldering Xanthorrhoea fell into the garden bed and threatened to ignite my orange tree.
Being a land of regular devastating bush fires, the grass trees had adapted over the millennia to cope by sacrificing their foliage and form a blackened trunk. They do this, by producing a highly flammable resin which quickly ignites and burns the outer section with great ferocity.
My dear sister did not mention this before I set mine alight.
I expected the fire brigade to arrive any minute and, while vainly directing full jets of water over the tree I could already see the horrible headlines “Respected Teacher of prestigious boys school charged with arson” in my minds eye.
Water it seems, when you spray it on a burning grass tree, only makes the fire burn brighter and although the water was cascading over it, huge bursts of red flame keep emerging from the inundation.
“It’s coming out the back!” shouted one helpful child
“Its started again at the front!” shouted another.
By this stage “bits” were certainly dropping off but I was yet to see any majestic black stem emerge from the conflagration.
The neighbors, disappointed to find that no-one had died, left to take their well smoked laundry from their lines and we spent another two hours soaking the poor innocent grass tree until at last the final spirals of smoke stopped, leaving something that looks like a scene out of a unnecessarily graphic murder mystery where someone was not satisfied with their job with the axe and thought they would add a little petrol to finish off the grisly task.
The rest of the garden was trampled to hell and half of the orange tree was desiccated by the heat. What should have been a civilized family dinner turned out to be a smoke hazed travesty with us having to leap up between mouthfuls to douse another outbreak.
So if you have a sister who believes she understands Xanthorrhoea then I advise you to think twice before taking her advice. All I am left with is a two metre blackened pole covered in patches of what look like burnt satay sticks projecting from it and a lingering smell of dissapointment (and bushfires).