Grass Trees

Cresting a rise on the coastal heath track, I think of Istanbul. It’s an odd thought, but the dozens of grass tree flower stalks reaching skyward above the shrubbery remind me of the city’s skyline of minarets, and the loud call to prayer each dawn.

The grass tree equivalent of holy bells are the wattlebirds and honeyeaters squawking at the tops of the spires in between slurps at the nectar within the dense pattern of tiny pale yellow florets.The air is thick with the scent of it, sweet like incense, and attractingsmoke-like clouds of bees and other insects. Rather than quiet contemplation, this is a call to a celebratory feast.

Ever since my year in the bush when a dry grass tree flower stalk was my sole fire lighting equipment, I take a keen interest in the flowering time of year. I would wait and watch until the seeds had dispersed before choosing the thinnest straightest stalk as my firestick. It became as precious as any other belonging, sacred even, in its significance. Also coveted were the needles I would collect from under the grass tree ‘skirt’ during rain for dry kindling.

Fire is just one of many grass tree uses. It is one of those supermarket plants that offersfood, drink, fibre, medicine, tools and weapons.

As a food source, the white, tender sections of leaf bases, the growing points of stem and succulent roots were all eaten regularly by indigenous people, as were the seeds which were ground into a flour cookedinto damper on the ashes of a wattle wood fire.

To wash this down, the nectar from the flower was extracted by soaking it in water- filled bark troughs to produce a thick sweet drink. A citric flavoured alcoholic brew could be made from fermenting the nectar over three to five days, with an extra tang added to the brew by crushing a few 'formic' ants into the beverage.

A resin collected from the base of the trunkwas used for making glue by mixing it with charcoal, beeswax or fine sand, and used for shafting stone tools and weapons, waterproofing canoes and water carrying vessels.

The flower stalk also served as a butt-piece for spears and the tough leaves were used as knives.

Standing in front of one specimen, I can’t help but think of Grug – the big-nosed bush wanderer of Ted Prior’s kids books. A favourite of mine as a child, Grug was a gadabout grasstree, the epitome of a laid-back bush hermit, waddling around in non-verbal equanimity.

Metres in height, I feel young in comparison to the possibly hundreds of years it has on me. While elders individually, they are also collectively ancient. Unlike any other known plant, grass trees are in fact a living fossil developed early in the evolutionary stakes for flowering plants.

It almost makes me want to get down on my knees and give thanks.