Saturday, 10 November 2007

Feather-heads and Pussy-tails

It is always a surprise to see the feathery heads standing above the vegetation on the volcanic plains. And I'm not talking about birds.

The flowering stems of Feather-heads Ptilotus macrocephalus are about 60 cm tall and the flowers look a bit like bottlebrush flowers from a distance, but up close they have a beautiful woolly appearance. The long leaves are wide and strappy. The genus name Ptilotus means 'feathered wings', and the specific name macrocephalus means 'large head'. The fabulous Jean Galbraith in her book Wildflowers of South-East Australia said:
All eastern species [of Ptilotus] have large (1-6") terminal flower clusters like fluffy cylindrical brushes. Narrow shining flower segments are just visible through a mist of long hairs growing beneath them. Texture of segments usually everlasting-like.

Ptilotus macrocaphalus

Ptilotus macrocephalus

We found the Feather-heads growing on open grassland when we were doing a plant survey on private property at Bannockburn yesterday. Grassland is a word used to mean an area with very few trees or shrubs. There were indeed many grasses – Kangaroo Grass, poas, spear grass and wallaby grasses - but we also found many species of herbs growing amongst the grasses – lilies, daisies, peas, orchids, pimeleas, goodenias, wahlenbergias. The grassland was looking very colourful.

After surveying the grassland we moved into an area classified as grassy woodland, and we found the Pussy-tails Ptilotus spathulatus. These are much harder to see because the leaves hug the ground and although the flower heads are vertical they are quite short. As their name indicates the leaves are spoon-shaped.

Ptilotus spathulatus

Ptilotus spathulatus

Galbraith's illustrator was Camilla Jakobson, and this is her drawing of the Ptilotus spathulatus.

Apparently both species of Ptilotus have huge taproots. I'll have to bow to the authorities in my reference books on this, because I haven't actually dug one up. But I have bought one. Today there was a Waterwise Expo at the Geelong Botanic Gardens, and the Friends had a plant sale. I couldn't walk past the Pussy-tails for sale. Now I have to decide which spot in my garden most replicates a 'grassy woodland'.

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