Friday, 18 July 2008

My Downy Starbush (Asterolasia phebalioides)

About a year ago I was visiting Kuranga Nursery when I found this curious shrub going out for cheaps. It stood about 30cm high, had small, green furry leaves (I love anything with furry leaves) and it had a little handwritten tag saying: Asterolasia phebalioides. Kuranga have a great information centre, so I went and ask the attendant there. They pulled out a big, thick book, and it had just one small entry which read:

"Not easy to maintain. Needs perfect drainage. May be best grown in a rockery"

That's all.

It sounded like a handful, but I was so taken with its little furry leaves I decided to take it home... for just $3.

I asked a native plant forum for tips, but they only had as much information as Kuranga. Google didn't have much either, but I found out that it is listed as "vulnerable" and "rare" and is found in just a handful of places: the Grampians National Park, Little Dessert National Park and Kangaroo Island (where it is listed as endangered), and is under threat from salinity. In this document I found out slightly more information:

Species Characteristics: Small slender shrub to 1.5 m high; branchlets densely grey-tomentose with silvery and ferruginous hairs. Leaves densely crowded, lacking obvious petioles, broadly cuneate, less than 1 cm long, densely stellate-tomentose. Inflorescence terminal with subsessile solitary flowers; calyx minute; petals 8-10 mm long, golden yellow. (Armstrong & Telford, 1986).

Habitat: The species grows on sandy, acidic soils derived from sandstone. In the Grampians the species occurs as part of dense heathy shrub layers between 1 and 1.5 m high, with sparse canopies of trees such as Oyster Bay Cypress-pine (Callitris rhomboidea) and Brown Stringybark (E. baxteri) (Overton et al., 1990).

Life History: The species appears to be long-lived, and is an early coloniser following fire and soil disturbance by humans and native mammals (Overton et al., 1990). Sexual reproduction, and subsequent establishment from seeds. The species is an obligate seed regenerator; nearly all plants are killed by fire, and regeneration is solely from seed stored in the canopy or in the soil for a short time pre-fire. It tolerates occasional major disturbance and requires such disturbance for the rare opportunity to establish and spread (VRFAF).

How I currently keep it:

Perhaps not the most beautiful specimen ever. This poor thing does struggle!

I have it currently growing in a pot, with some coarse rocks in the bottom, then some smaller rocks, and finally filled in with a combination of sand and potting mix. I occasionally water it, but try to ignore it as much as possible as I am conscious of root rot. The pot is in part shade and gets mostly afternoon sun. It hasn't grown much since we got it, and the leaves go a very (alarmingly?) dark green colour in summer, but it seems to be starting to put a few new shoots at the moment. It seems to be a bit of a slow grower. After my cat, Monty, sat on it (what on earth is it with cats and pots?!), it has a bit of a lean and now has a stake to keep all cats off. It has flowered regularly in the past year, which is a good sign I think. It produces these adorable little bright yellow star shaped flowers, so I am pleased.

I am scared though. Looking after this plant is, for me, is like looking after a fragile alien. There isn't much information out there, and less about how to look after one in your backyard. I would love to find someone else who has one because I really have no idea what to do with it and I am scared to death of killing it!

I would love to learn how to propagate this thing because I think it is one of the coolest looking plants ever. I would love to have more of them!

List of resources:
Update (22/7/08):

I have just received an email from Kuranga. Looks like we'll need to relocate it. Here is there advice:

I have sourced some information from Elliot and Jones Australia plant encyclopedia and they recommend that Asterolasia phebalioides is grown in a very well drained light-medium soil. Growing plants in pots creates a very different root environment and it is recommended with most plants in pots that you use a good quality potting mix. If you are using soil or sand and rocks/pebbles in the base in a pot you often find that rather than draining better it actually compacts the root zone more. This may be causing the plant to be a little slow to establish. Elliot and Jones also recommend that you grow this plant in dappled shade or partial sun so definitely protection from afternoon sun. They mention that it should be alright in full sun as long as the root system is well protected, which in a pot it may not be best. I hope this is of some help to you in growing you Asterolasia.

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