Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Stenocarpus sinuatus - Queensland Firewheel

This article was published in Alfresco Magazine in May 2004

One of the things I love about Australia is how it seems to specialise in brilliant, eye-scorching colour. The land itself in all its shades of red and ochre seems to burn. It seems appropriate that it brings forth the brightest, most flamboyant birds and the most extravagant and bizarre of flowers.

And I'm not referring to Oxford Street after dark.

A favourite Australian that springs to mind is the amazing firewheel tree. To begin with, the flowers don't even look like real flowers. They're more like something an electrician might concoct out of bright coloured wires to put in the back of a computer.

The Queensland firewheel, Stenocarpus sinuatus, is native to rainforest areas of coastal Queensland and NSW as well as Papua New Guinea and is from the same iwi as the Macadamia nut and our native rewarewa. The strange fiery red flowers start in Autumn here in the North and continue through most of Winter, followed by leathery bean-like seed pods full of flat seeds that fall out in the dry weather in early Summer, which in the subtropics would be just in time for the monsoon rains.

The flowers grow in big bunches on older twigs and branches, often partly hidden under the dark shiny foliage, making the tree seem to glow like burning embers. The firewheel is a handsome beast, glossy and evergreen, growing to about 5m usually, though it will get much taller in rainforest conditions. They take about seven years to flower when grown from seed but cutting-grown trees will flower much sooner and will usually be smaller, bushier specimens.

The beautiful leaves are sinuously fingered and can be up to 45cm long when the tree is young but seem to get smaller and more rounded as the tree ages. I also notice that no two trees are alike in the shape of their leaves, some being much more finely divided and more detailed than others.

Firewheel trees are popular as street trees because they are robust, shapely and handsomely evergreen, very tolerant of poor soils, wind, light frosts and pollution. Their toughness makes them wonderful indoor plants where they will tolerate low light, dry air and neglect as capably as any Ficus. The flowers are such an unexpected delight at an unexpected time of year that it's surprising they're not more commonly grown in New Zealand gardens.

Then again, I suppose that Oxford Street look isn't everyone's cup of tea.


(Copyright Russell Fransham 2004)