Backyard Buddies

Photo: Litoria Moorei

B-mail January 2017

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Welcome to your January B-mail, the monthly newsletter of the Backyard Buddies program.

This month’s B-mail features a native plant makeover, some noisy frogs and a tree that will keep you clean.

Check out our Buddy of the month: Motorbike Frog

If you live in south-western Australia, you might wonder why there are so many motorbikes around in summer. But that annoying sound might actually be a frog – the Motorbike Frog.

In breeding season, the male sounds like a motorbike changing gears followed by growls and croaks. They are large frogs that live near waterways and are frequently found in garden ponds. Like all frogs, they are great buddies to have in your backyard as the adults eat insects and if they hatch in your pond, the tadpoles will eat all the algae.

Motorbike Frog

Also known as the Western Green Tree Frog, this frog actually lives mostly on the ground although it can climb up onto low branches or shrubs in search of food. Its colour depends on the weather – the colder it is, the darker the colour.

Motorbike Frogs are easily mistaken for the very similar Spotted-thighed Frog which looks and sounds almost the same but you can tell them apart by whether they have spots on their thighs or not.

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Green and Clean

If you find yourself wandering around the rainforest with very dirty hands, don’t panic – you just need to find a Soap Tree. Also called Red Ash and Leatherjacket, the leaves of the Soap Tree contain saponin and when crushed and rubbed together with some water will produce a green foam that will clean just as well as soap.

Indigenous people used the leaves and bark for washing, insect bites and stings, toothache, stomach ache, headache and sore eyes. It grows in the eucalypt forests and rainforests of New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia. It will grow in gardens in a sunny position in well-drained soils although it can get quite large so may not be the best choice for smaller backyards.

The Soap Tree hosts a whole range of native buddies. Many native birds, like cockatoos, feed on the dark fruits and also on all the insects it attracts, like looper moth caterpillars which feed on the leaves in large numbers. Flying foxes feed on the fruit and spread the seeds throughout eastern and northern Australia.

Butterflies are big fans of the Soap Tree, particularly the Green-Banded Blue, Blue Jewel, Indigo Flash and Fiery Jewel butterflies.

During November to March, clusters of small creamy flowers cover the whole tree. It is semi-deciduous and may drop its leaves, especially if it is a dry winter. New shoots are brown and hairy and when crushed, smell like sarsaparilla.

Alphitonia excelsa AKA Soap Tree leaves

Give Your Garden a Native Twist

If you have a lemon tree in your backyard, you are not alone. The quintessential Aussie garden has traditionally included a lemon tree but did you know Australia has a huge variety of edible native trees and plants?

They grow all over the country so there are bush tucker options for every garden. If you want a change from lemons, try the finger lime or desert lime. The desert lime has now adapted to grow in all climates and produces small intense flavoured fruits and has sharp thorns which evolved to protect the fruit from being eaten by kangaroos. Finger limes grow well in gardens and its thorny branches provide excellent habitat for small native birds.

Quandong fruit Photo: Jim Bendon

Native plums, like Illawarra, Kakadu and Davidsons produce bright purple fruits with very high anti-oxidant levels – more than 5 times that of blueberries. They are food sources for birds, possums and flying foxes, caterpillars, moths and beetles. Like most fruit plants, they are susceptible to fruit fly so get ready with your natural pest control methods. Native plums are not as sweet as other plums but make excellent jams and preserves.

Thyme Leaved Myrtle
Macadamia TreeFlowering

If you want to try some native herbs, there are many to choose from. There is a native variety of sage, basil, thyme, mint and parsley. Native basil grows well in coastal areas and can be used instead of regular sweet basil. Native thyme grows best in south-east Australia and can be planted as a low-growing fragrant hedge. Rivermint tastes like spearmint and grows wild around waterways and in moist forest areas. The delightfully named Sea Parsley, or Sea Celery, grows easily across southern coastal Australia and is very similar to European parsley. It tastes like a slightly salty combination of flat leaf parsley and celery with a touch of bitterness.

There is a native bush food plant to suit every garden – Bush tomato, Pepperberry, Saltbush, Warrigal Greens, Wattleseed and Lillypilly are just some of the most popular.

Native edible plants attract many native birds and animals and can be a great addition to your backyard. Many have traditional indigenous medicinal uses but they are also a treat for your taste buds. They are available from most native nurseries and most will readily grow from seed.

In our Big Backyard

Baby Long Neck Turtle. Photo: Ricky Spencer

Summer rains mean turtles are on the move. The Eastern Long-necked, or snake-necked, turtle hibernates during winter and in summer emerge to hunt for food. They eat fish, tadpoles, frogs and crayfish which they tear apart with their front claws – turtles do not have teeth. Long-necked turtles live in slow-moving water across eastern Australia and move around in groups: sometimes several dozen can be seen together. Long-necked turtles are extremely tough, sometimes living in some pretty unappealing places, such as polluted creeks and even sewage treatment plants. Like their distant relatives the crocodiles, they can also survive horrific injuries and infections, such as near-total loss of the shell, thanks to an unusual immune system.

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Thank you to everyone who entered our Backyard Buddy Penguin Toy competition. There were lots of great stories and photos and the winner will be featured in the February B-mail.