The Pioneer who Stole my Heart

When we started to remove the invasive weed species from our block and made efforts to improve the soil we noticed a number of plants popping up that I thought might be weeds. As I researched and identified them I frequently came across the term “pioneer species” in relation to the vigourous growers.

Just look at those leaves! This tree is so popular with insects that the leaves are constantly under attack.

It turns out that these “pioneer species” move into disturbed areas and grow quickly, creating shelter and improving the soil for more delicate species. These are the tough and resilient plants that arrive first when bushland is allowed to re-establish. I was happy enough with the acacias, but there was this other plant that appeared everywhere,  always had scraggly leaves and survived everything.  The saplings shot up quickly and shaded my citrus. What were these weedy, untidy specimens?! And then I researched and oh, what a wonderfully interesting gem of a tree! Now, I delight in the more mature specimens,  I tell all my visitors about them and I plan to plant some next to all my outdoor taps…

The bird/possum feeder where I put my old fruit hangs from the branches of this Soap Tree. The Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets spend a lot of time in its canopy which hangs over one of the bird baths.

So what is this tree with which I am so enamoured? It has various common names such as Soap Tree, Red Ash, Leatherjacket and Cooper’s Wood. The scientific name is Alphitonia excelsa and it’s distributed from the South Coast of New South Wales to the Kimberlies in Western Australia.  Its range is mostly along the coast but it’s also found in Brigalow forests inland.

The flowers of the Soap Tree are often called “insignificant” in botanical descriptions,  but the insects do not agree.

So why the delight? Well, when there’s a breeze the leaves are blown around to reveal the pearly white undersides and the rippling green and pearl is relaxing in a delightfully hypnotic way. Need some mindfulness? Stare at a Soap Tree on a breezy day! Once they get established and the trunk develops it’s like something out of a fairy story. I took a photo but they’re much better in person. They have a lovely shape and canopy and create lovely dappled shade without killing the grass. But it doesn’t stop with their physical characteristics, they are also a delight in conversation.

The trunk of the Soap Tree becomes more magical as it expands in girth and character simultaneously. Just look at the contrasting light and dark and the numerous knots! Enchanting!

I have had so many conversations in relation to this tree! Did you know that the leaves will create a lather if crushed in water? You can use this lather to wash with. Indigenous Australians used to lather them up in creeks and billabongs which would deoxygenate the water “stunning” fish. The fish would then float to the surface for harvest. The wood used to be used for wine barrels,  hence the common name of Cooper’s Wood. It has been used medicinally to relieve headaches and sore eyes. A few months ago I took some to my daughter’s school and she and her six year old friends had a ball lathering their hands with the leaves on a hot day.

Lathering up little hands with Soap Tree leaves on a hot day at school is lots of fun!

It is host to many beneficial insect species, including butterflies and bees. This, of course, results in the scraggly look I mentioned earlier,  but from a distance one barely notices the holes in the profusion of leaves.

A Green-banded Blue Butterfly which is hosted by the Soap Tree during the egg and caterpillar stages.

Alphitonia excelsa is a wonderful tree and a lovely addition to any garden that has enough room for it’s 18 metre tall trunk and its semi-deciduous nature. It’s beloved by bees, butterflies and birds. One of my favourites in so many ways!

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