Australia has many strange and wonderful plants, but if you had to pick one tree that says “Australia” that might be the bottle tree. Bottle trees are survivors. They store up water in their uniquely shaped trunks so they can wait out the dry seasons.
Bottle Tree Characteristics
Bottle trees are also known as Kurrajong trees, a term which refers to trees in the Australian outback that yield fiber which can be woven or used in a variety of ways. The scientific name for bottle trees is Brachychiton. There are several sub species of these trees including populneus, and rupestris.
Brachychiton populneus is an evergreen tree. It was used by Australian Aboriginals as a resource for several things. The outer part was used for making shields, the inner fibers could be used for weaving. They roasted the seeds and ate them.
Brachyciton Rupestris is deciduous. It drops its leaves during the winter/rainy season, then puts them back on when it blooms in the spring. A common name for this tree is the Queensland Bottle Tree. It also has the fibrous inner bark. These trees are sometimes left in the fields by farmers because they can be felled and used as feedstock for cattle during drought times.
What Stands Out
The thing that makes Brachychiton distinctive is their trunks. During rainy seasons, the bottle tree soaks up liquid, storing it in its trunk. This causes the trunk to swell, creating the distinctive wine-bottle shape. They are large trees, and make a magnificent showing when planted in a long row, especially after they are large enough to form the distinctive bottle.
Bottle trees are easy to transplant, and can be grown in a variety of different ways. A small one makes an attractive bonsai. It might need some pruning and a little coaxing, but the narrow leaves are attractive and with a little encouragement, it will form the distinctive bottle.
They can also be grown to a moderate size in a greenhouse and then planted out of doors. It doesn’t take a lot to persuade them to move from their protected indoor status to outside.
Finally, if you have a mature bottle tree that is in the wrong place, such as where a roadway needs to go or in a location where it is causing a sidewalk to buckle or tearing up a foundation, you can use large machinery and carefully dig the tree out of the ground and transfer it to a more tree-friendly location. This also makes it a clever way to quickly create a row of trees along an avenue or near a roadway.
Topic for Conversation
If you want a tree that is distinctly Australian, then either of the brachycitons will do the job. More than that, if you need a good shade tree that will stand up to dry weather, you can count on the bottle tree for that. These majestic trees are often part of the wild thickets in Queensland, and have been a part of the Australian landscape since long before Europeans started settling there.
Transplanted into warm climate areas such as California or the southern part of Nevada, it grows well there, too.
Downsides to this Tree
About the only serious downside to the Bottle Tree is that it does produce some crazy seed pods. When you have a tree as tough and weather wise as Brachycitons Rupestris you can count on the tree having developed some defenses. The one that will give you the most trouble is the tough seed pods that are covered what looks like soft down but is really some serious thorny stickers! When pulling the seeds out of the pods, it is a good idea to use pliers and gloves to prevent damage to your hands. If you want to go barefoot in your back yard, you’ll want to rake up the seed pods as quickly as possible.
Another downside, but less impactful, is that its smooth bark seems to attract vandalism. Must be something like a blank page to an artist.
A Truly Beautiful Tree
With that in mind, bottle trees are beautiful. They are highly drought resistant. They are easy to start from seeds, and easy to transplant. They can be grown as bonsai or as potted plants, for a while at least. And they can be moved if an adult tree is growing in the wrong place. The tree yields bark, fiber and food, so if you want a tree for survival, it can do that, too.