In Praise of Pepper Trees

In praise of the pepper tree

On a hot afternoon, pepper trees gave a deep shade.
On a hot afternoon, pepper trees gave a deep shade.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

My life has been bookended by pepper trees.

I knew a lot of them in Eaglehawk. The house on the corner of our street had huge, rounded, drooping pepper trees growing in the chook yard and hanging over the dirt footpath.

On an endless hot afternoon these trees gave a deep shade and we kids would gather down there on our bikes. The footpath merged with the road over a shallow gutter and we could play chicken and do skids, or race around pretending to be on a motorbike by pegging swap cards to the wheel prongs so that they’d riffle and buzz on the spokes. The pink peppercorns fell to the ground and made a happy crunchy sound under our tyres.

The leaves were always a bit sticky and the papery pink berries hung in pretty globules among the green. I’d rub off the peppery pink husk and bite into the berry. The taste was a bit puzzling because it wasn’t like the white pepper in our pepper shaker, but the strong stingy feeling still had some peppery connection.

Every school yard had pepper trees and sometimes they formed a small green tree cave whose curtains you could run through, trailing branches over your shoulder. Their bark was rough and scratchy and oozed stickiness, which usually put me off climbing.

For about 40 years, my adult life in inner Melbourne and then out at Warrandyte had been mostly free of pepper trees. But then we did a ”city-change” to Port Melbourne and suddenly I saw pepper trees again.

Port Phillip Council has an imaginative street tree planting policy and I found that the street trees helped make up for the loss of bush landscape. I walk home from the tram stop under pink fruiting pepper trees. Some are getting large enough to droop over a corner nature strip, sheltering not chooks or kids, but succulents.

There’s an oldish pepper tree at the local kinder that is right on the fence line. The fence has been kinked around it, giving the trunk to the street and the shade to the kids and the chooks in their little house underneath.

I walk by, crunching peppercorns, hearing and smelling chooks, just like Church Street, Eaglehawk, more than 60 years ago.

Liz Low is an Age contributor.

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Footpath Gardening 2: Bird Poo Palm

I’ve been watching this spontaneous effort for a few years. This young palm would have to have germinated originally from bird poo dropped from a perch on the tree above. It has just quietly grown into its shared space.

What I like is that the Port Phillip Council tree maintenance workers are now treating it like the formally planted row of palms along Beach Street and Beaconsfield Parade. They give it an annual trim of its lower fronds.

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Footpath Gardening

If you’re lucky enough to have a whole nature strip in front of your house, why would you let all that un-concreted, un-asphalted soil just lie there under grass? If you have a Council planted tree on your nature strip, why not put the soil around it to use?

This  unofficial commandeering of public space by residents is officially called ‘personalization of space and environment’. Port Melbourne and surrounds have some enjoyable examples.

There is a magnificent aloe in South Melbourne, which feels a bit of an adventure to park in front of. There are two trees planted up like this and I like the bizarreness of their spreading size in the street scape. I speculate as to how old they are and am glad that Port Phillip Council has left them alone to grow so absurdly.

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Animal, Mineral or Vegetable

Do you remember the game, ‘Animal, Mineral or Vegetable’? It’s the one where the person whose turn it was, thought of an object, mentally classified it as being of animal, mineral or vegetable origin and then answered questions by the players with a yes or a no until they had worked it out.

That game has come to mind recently when I’ve been finding myself not feeling like walking along the Port Melbourne beach front but turning inland to have trees, grass and gardens in my surroundings.

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I walk up Esplanade East past the row of agapanthus which at this time of year are in full flower. The flower heads lean out over the footpath and seem to be irresistible to some people to lop their heads off. There are always a lot of bare stalks truncated at the top. The gum tree trunks on the nature strip here have a strange twisting habit as if they are following the daily path of the sun. But they’re not sunflowers, so I don’t understand that.

I leave the cars behind as I enter Lagoon Park and stroll up the curving path, trees on my right and the grass of the oval on my left. The wattle season is over and the golden wattles are now quiet. I sit on the bench looking west across the oval, over the ring of trees and over the blocks of flats rising between the small houses. The city skyscrapers rise to my distant right. I have trees behind me, grass in front of me and a feeling of shelter. Occasionally, the sound of a diesel horn floats across from the docks; an evocative childhood sound.

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It’s a dog off-lead park so there are always dogs and owners relaxing out on the grass. I used to walk my ancient golden retriever, Phoebe, up here and stand in the middle chatting to the other dog owners and watching the dogs potter around. Now, this dog friendship group has developed its own Christmas ‘Pawty”, advertised by fliers taped to the benches.

I complete the circuit via Esplanade West where the path is flanked by dietes, also in flower now and rosemary. One of the front gardens has a beautiful fragrant yellow rose. The avenue of mature banksia trees overhangs the footpath and it feels like walking under a tree tunnel. The wattle birds love these trees and squawk and flutter through the foliage.

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It’s a calm and satisfying ‘Vegetable” walk.

If I walk along the beach front, I have to cross four lanes of traffic and a bike lane. I look over the sand across Port Phillip Bay to Mount Martha where sometimes I can see sunlight glinting on car mirrors. The Bay stretches out to the Heads over the horizon, making the view one of water and sky. The walk is linear. Turn right and you walk down to Station Pier and the ferry, turn left and head towards St Kilda, and then at some point, turn around and head back. People stride out, trucks and cars roar, the wind blows. Oddly, the palm trees along the nature strip are colonized by rainbow loriqueets which chirp and call and swoop from tree to tree taking no notice of the heavy traffic. I enjoy looking at the remnant dunes which Port Phillip Council have fenced and added some extra planting. Despite these living elements, the walk tends to be purposeful, active, hard-edged and windy. The sea, the sand, the sky, the asphalt, the stone wall, the traffic, the wind dominate the experience. Generally, that walk and view is very ‘Mineral’.

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So there we are: a choice of Vegetable or Mineral walks!