Genus Banksia - West Wind Hardwood

As promised in Newsletter #80 – February 2019, the hankering to revisit all-things Australian has hit.  I mentioned I had bought the most fabulously illustrated book entitled Firewood Banksia by Philippa Nikulinsky; published by Freemantle Press.  I encourage you to visit Philippa’s website. She shares her thoughts, works, publications; decades of her passions. 

I reached out to Philippa and spoke with Angela Nikulinsky.  Philippa was on holiday but Angela was excited when I proposed using some of Philippa’s artwork from her book.  Drop-in for a visit to Studio N –  and learn about Angela.

The Art of the Banksia

The delicately meditative drawings of Philippa Nikulinsky inspired poet Fay Zwicky to write a haiku in their honour:

Dragonpods swell,
feathered birth,
armoured transience.

Fay Zwicky

“…I rejoice
In the worm drinking dew, the lift as the leaf
Bursts its bud, gaiety in grief…”

Excerpt from Survival Kit also by Fay Zwicky

Also known as the port wine banksia or the strawberry banksia, the firewood banksia is a flowering plant species in the genus, Banksia. It is actually either a gnarled up tree that stands 10 metres tall, or a shrub that spreads about 1 to 3 metres in the northern parts of its distribution range.

Murchison River – Kalbarri National Park
January 2019 – Photos by Jan T Nielsen

The Firewood Banksia is endemic to Western Australia. It is found from as far north as the Murchison River area to as far south as Perth.

Geraldton Sandplains
January 2019 – Photo by Jan T Nielsen

This plant grows on the Geraldton Sandplains and the Swan Coastal Plain, where there is deep sandy soil. It is uncommon south of Mandurah; which is where my daughter and family live and further explains the protected ecosystem behind their home. It plays an important role in the ecosystem, as it provides food for a wide array of vertebrates and invertebrates animals, especially birds like honeyeaters.

This plant is hardy, and commonly seen in nature strips, parks, and gardens in urban areas that have a Mediterranean style climate. The firewood banksia has more colour varieties than any other Banksia species. Its flower spikes can be either different tones of pink, chocolate, green, bronze, yellow and white. The flower of the Firewood Banksia is widely used in the cut flower industry both within Australian and around the world. Flowering occurs during the autumn and winter seasons, and peaks around May to July *** remember the seasons are reversed Downunder in Australia *** and the inflorescences (flower spikes) take about 8 months to develop, from the first microscopic changes in the late springtime. These are ovoid in shape, and they can be up to 8 cm wide and between 4 to 12 cm high.  These consist of individual flowers, and one field study just south of Perth recorded an average of a whopping 1043 per flower spike.

Ash and warm winds from an approaching fire are a death knell for many plants, but others have evolved to survive in fire-prone landscapes. Some of these, such as the beautiful flowering shrubs and trees of the genus Banksia, are adapted to even thrive in wildfires.  Many of the eighty Banksia species exhibit heat-sensitive serotiny, which means that the plant will not release its seeds unless it perceives a fire.  No fire? No seed release. But, when the plant senses the auspicious sign of a hot autumn fire, it will fill the air with thousands of winged seeds. Swept up in the hot winds, the seeds mingle with ash and blanket the blackened ground. 

It seems anti-productive, but to the serotinous plant, fire is an ally that will literally level the local competition. Trees that have a serotinous tenancy in North America include some species of conifers including pine, spruce, cypress and sequoia. Serotinous trees in the southern hemisphere include some angiosperms like eucalyptus in fire-prone parts of Australia and South Africa.

It is not without its risks—what if a fire does not come? Banksias would sooner perish than open their mature seed capsules in a cool environment, and, many do. What if a fire arrives too soon? Many Banksia species have a somewhat delayed life cycle—they require six years or more to flower, fruit, and seed. So if a wildfire sweeps through in the meantime, the seedless plant will likely die, the last of its lineage. 

Meanwhile, those Banksia that do manage to successfully schedule their birth, death, and seed release are growing where fierce fires can be found.  Being sensitive to dieback due to soil-borne water mould, they do not thrive in the humid summers of the East coast of Australia. I have mentioned the hill behind our daughter’s home with the small no-name protected park with a grove of banksia trees.  One evening we walked up to the top to collect a few.  Whilst on the hill we could hear this crack, pop; crack, pop and rustling in the leaves.  Then a banksia pod would drop; just missing our heads.  Looking up we saw at least a dozen Baudin’s (Black) cockatoos. Apparently, this is an iconic SW experience.  I do so wish I’d taken a video to record the sound of their feeding frenzy.

No-Name Park in Halls Head – Baudin’s (Black) Cockatoos
January 2019 – Photos by Jan T Nielsen

We have just placed an order with our supplier of WA timbers.  It will take some months to fill the order, organize the export documents and of course, allow for the ocean voyage.  Now would be the time to tell us if you have something special you’d like us to try and source.  And below is what started this entire journey.  In researching timber merchants, we found ourselves in Denmark, WA.  We paid the Tourist Information Centre a visit looking for directions and located the Woodturners Club immediately next door.  Whilst peering in the window, one of the members stopped by, brought us in for a little tour and presented us with a semi-turned banksia pod that we brought home.  It is now fully-finished and on display in our office.

Stay tuned for our arrival announcement.

2 Comments

  1. Hi, do you have many banksia pods in stock? My husband (looking for tupalo) and I are planning a trip to Sidney
    to shop in your wonderful store. I am a turner and my husband is a carver. . I am a.so looking for turning blocks.
    See you next week.

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