In family Pittosporaceae. Common name Cheesewood, Tallow-wood. Species name “bicolor” meaning two-coloured. Its distribution extends from the south coast and southern tablelands of NSW, through eastern Victoria to the Otway Ranges, and is common in Tasmania.
At home in the Blue Mountains of N.S.W., Pittosporums are often regarded as weeds. However, I was not familiar with species P. bicolor so was very pleased to find it at Cradle Mountain in August 2011 and be able to familiarise myself with some of its characteristics before the artist residency on Maatsuyker Island in December.
The flowers and fruit are very attractive. The bell-shaped flowers hang on pale, hairy, axillary pedicels about 5 – 20mm long at the end of the branches. They have 5 recurved petals, about 15mm long, crimson on the outside, yellow on the inside. The hairy sepals are about half the length of the petals. I took these photos in early December 2011. By this time most of the flowers were finishing. Photos taken by one of the care-takers in October show a profusion of flowers with the outside of the petals bright yellow (same colour as the inside) sometimes tinged pink.
From “Students Flora of Tasmania” Part 1 “… The leaves are usually crowded, shortly stalked, entire, narrow-elliptical or oblong, mostly 2 – 6cm long, 5 – 8mm broad, the margins revolute, blunt, coriaceous, the upper surface glabrous except the midrib, under surface tomentose or silky-hairy, often ferruginous.” This is exactly as I observed them. “Coriaceous” meaning of a leathery texture.
The fruit is a capsule with the shape of a very small, hairy apricot. It is about 15mm long and 10mm wide. When the fruit first forms, it is rounded in shape, hairy and dark. It then becomes yellow and green, but as it matures, I observed the capsule flattening and the colour changing to orange and pink-purple, still very furry.
Finally, the fruit becomes a sticky, shiny orange or red-coloured mass of seeds suspended in the open capsule.
Most of the P. bicolor trees I saw grew on the south-western side of the island and despite the exposed conditions, they looked bushy and floriferous, with densely crowded leaves. Some specimens were approximately 4m high.
This plant now has special significance for me. Fortunately, my friend and fellow artist-in-residence Marsha is a top gun XMAS tree decorator. About two weeks before Christmas, we found a wind-blown piece of a Pittosporum lying on the track. We took nothing but necessities to the island so Marsha undertook the daunting task of finding items that could be fashioned into decorations. By December 25th, we had the most beautiful ornaments including folded pieces of shiny paper from discarded grocery packaging and decorated pieces of abandoned muttonbird eggshells, all suspended with sewing cotton.
By the end of January, most of the fruit capsules were open and the red pulp glistened in the sunlight just like Christmas lights. The outer casings of the capsules appear to be persistent, some hanging on dead branches like rusty old tin lids.
My research so far indicates the common name of “Cheesewood” comes from the yellowish coloured bark of the tree. I read that the timber was used by Tasmanian Aborigines for making clubs. It is also used for axe-handles and billiard cues apparently. The species favours moist forests and its branches certainly attract mosses and lichens.