POKOK

Delonix regia in full glorious sweeping flower among the hills of Bali.(Flame tree or in Bali is Padangbai). Its origins are on the remote South West Indian Ocean Island Madagascar. It now claims many long term homes around the World.

“Pokok” – Malaysian word for tree and basically anything else that grows.

I love, admire and quite frankly am in awe of them. They can survive a 20 year drought and with the first rains pop out new green shoots from something that appeared long dead. A massive fire can destroy, or so we think until epicormic growth pops out some months later to surprise us all or its seeds germinate in the nutrient rich ash bed.

The roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruits are host to a myriad of life from monkeys and birds, bees to various insects to the microbes that chew on decomposed matter and assist in roots taking up the decomposed and munched matter for its health. They are the life protectors and givers with the filtering of our spent air into fresh oxygen. It’s products have provided warmth and fuel, a comforting roof over our heads, tyres to drive on, sound walls and floors to be safe and cosy in, and paper to write on. Can only be one thing that fits the description- the mighty Pokok/Tree!

What defines a Tree? Scientific terms such as “woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height, bearing lateral branches and leaves“. It reads so boring and dry. The layperson reading this would turn off and turn Netflix back on.

Life giver, soul restorer, shade nurture, fruits of life, vast and majestic, pillars of the Earth, the roots that bind. Just some terms that provide a human connection to Natures mightiest creations. I am fortunate. I grew up in the land of 2,000 year old temperate rainforests that are also home to the Worlds tallest Hardwood trees – the mighty Eucalyptus regnans (“Centurian”) in Tahune Reserve Tasmania weighing in at 122 tonnes plus just over half a tonne of leaf. Second tallest hardwood is in Malaysia in the State of Sabah – Shorea faguetiana (“Menara“) with less than a metre difference in the tape drop of the two distinct tree species, both hovering close to 100 metres tall.

Stand at the base of one of these giants and it would take about 15 steps to walk around. Is so difficult to cran the neck upwards to get a real understanding of how big they are or understand that these trees have been growing for at least twice as long as Australia has been colonised by white man. A photo never does them justice.

“Centurian” – view from the Top (courtesy ABC Tas)

Close the eyes and let the senses feel the nature in these places. Stillness overwhelms. Provided by the tree canopy, certainty of nature abounds as if built human World is an odd dream with no connection to the peace and serenity of these places. A troubled heart stills, panicked brain calms, blood pressure drops and nothing else is relevant to the existence of now in these places of ancient trees. Do it if you never have before and go to these places of trees. They are places that nurture and restore the soul whether we want to or not. Peace they are.

Trees have been intrinsic in my life as a Landscape Architect. Main streets from Hobart to Melbourne and as far away as Perth in Western Australia have my Tree “X” marks the spot streetscape plan. I will never live long enough to see the outcome in 100 years, but the Tree won’t mind. It will be there for many years to come with following generations appreciating their shady pleasure. Many revegetation schemes, planting for commercial, government and residential projects. Have never counted, but over 40 odd years of work the tree numbers must be pushing upwards of 100,000. Good!

Whether we like it or not humans need trees. Common knowledge of their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen. Less common knowledge is the plus side impact they have on dealing with increased temperatures from our urban heat sink of tarmac roads and hard surfaces. Without tree shade, temperature can be up to 4 degrees C hotter in non tree areas of Cities. A hot day – 35 degrees in a shady part of town. 39-40 degrees in a non-shady area. Rate of hospitalisation from heat related illness is significantly higher from those non treed suburbs than ones that are leafy and shady. Rates of mental illness are less from the leafy shady suburbs. Don’t just take my word for it, the science is out on this. Much research and peer reviewed validated science over the past ten years. The monetary and quality of life value from trees in urban areas cannot be understated.

There are those in society that absolutely detest trees. Trees are seen as a clear threat to their selfish human controlled existence.

True story – It can be the smallest thing. Autumn fall leaves blowing up a persons driveway from the street tree. Said person becomes seriously upset at these leaves disturbing their perfect controlled existence. Person insists tree must be removed as they are receiving psychological treatment due to the stress of tree leaves. The very same person had moved into their home less than one year before. The said tree has been neighborhood resident for over 60 years, never before causing distress for the happy to be green street residents. Resident gets very upset when the Council Tree person (Me) says no, we don’t remove trees due to leaf drop.

It didn’t stop there. Letters to the Mayor, State and Federal MP’s, even interview with local Community Newspaper and TV media waiving the ‘psychiatrists’ report to the camera. Finally the instruction comes down the line – Remove the Tree! My masters had bowed to this unremitting pressure which then opened the floodgates for more tree haters to try it on. For some reason most of the haters were retired and had been farmers until they moved to the suburbs. They knew far more about the danger of trees than I did, apparently!

All I saw were narrow minded, selfish and abusive people that had an overwhelming desire to control every aspect of their environment, to make sure Nature is subdued and diminished. The subject of the tree hater story moved out a year later. I have no idea and certainly don’t care where she went and did hope for some time that she had a miserable life. What I do care about is that in the short time she was a resident, she was successful in putting a wrecking ball to a well established shady tree and that others were emboldened by her Tree attacks.

I had to put up with severe ongoing personal abuse, attacks on my reputation, lies being spread about what I stated to these haters and culminating in nasty lawyer letters. Even my staff and consulting Arborist didn’t escape the vitriol. It got to me. Sleep patterns disrupted and blood pressure up. Dreading coming to work as there would be the tree destroyers list to deal with. Rational these people were not. Dead set hating zealots they were. She and others had their way with the Pollies and my public servant masters only because they wanted these bad publicity problems to go away. Pathetic without backbone my masters were. They were as culpable as her and those she emboldened in this Tree destruction.

Time moves on. A few years later, the toxic tree haters and spineless public servants left behind to the new World in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Project I was employed on – “River of Life”, we planted about 20,000 trees across various stages of the project. Was hoping to fall in love and gain knowledge of the local tree species through this process as I assumed (wrongly) that local tree species would be designed in. Alas, our local Landscape Architects didn’t know one end of a tree from another, let alone the species and place of origin! Hard landscape was their mantra, just the same as many graduates coming out of Australian Universities.

So sad, so disappointing and extremely frustrating the disconnect these LA’s had with the local natural environment. Our Client’s LA’s (KL City Council) were no better as they approved species selection. Here was an opportunity to showcase 100% Malaysian vegetation, but no 90% of trees and general vegetation planted were exotics from far away lands. Others (supposedly in the know) informed proudly that the plants were local until a simple Google search brought them undone. Many of these trees had been used in Malaysian landscape for a long time. This familiarity led to erroneous assumptions of being local species. I will forever lament this disconnect from Nature by Professionals who should know better or at least have a desire to learn more, become educated in local species and educate those that don’t.

I have a long term romantic taste budded familiarity with a fruit plant I also assumed had it’s origins in Southern Asia. Having first encountered its orange/red flesh in 1972, courtesy of the gardener at the Unit block we had just moved to in Singapore. The humble Papaya with its origins in Southern Mexico. Taste? Only like Papaya! Texture? Only like Papaya! My favourite memory of 1972 was scooping out the hundreds of black seeds, adding a generous helping of vanilla ice cream to the hollowed out centre and gorging happily away. Always taste sensation and so refreshing. Love at first sight and taste it was.

Bump forward to a student rental house in Brisbane circa 1980. Amazing stone house hand built into the side of a steep hill by post WW2 Italian refugee. Was complete with a Grotto off the main bedroom! Rotary clothesline in side yard never rotated due to well established Papaya growing resplendent with a permanent crop of the largest fruits that ever existed. Non stop supply for housemates, neighbours and I.

Cool temperate climate was home for many years after. Fast forward to 2015 and back to tropical world in Malaysia and reignited relationship with my favourite fruit. Could only buy, being in Condo flat. I craved for some landed property to plant one and dream finally rewarded in early 2020. It took some months, but finally procured a baby Papaya about 300mm high and planted on lower rear embankment in September 2020.

October 2020

Wasn’t sure how long to fruiting, but urge to pluck and munch was overwhelming. Every day went and stroked the leaves, pat the trunk, whisper sweet words of love.

It grew, slowly at first. About 3 months after planting we were away for a week. First view on return was a staggering doubling of height. From then on it just grew like crazy. Started fruiting as well. Not the monster fruit of Brisbane, but lunchbox Papaya. Picked the first one about a month ago. Juicy and sweet! Luckily I had built a timber deck around it, otherwise a ladder was required to pluck the fruit from on high.

October 2021

Ladder did come out. Set it up and dropped the measuring tape down to ground level. As of two weeks ago it settled in at 6.5 metres high (over 20 feet) with the leaf giving a canopy diameter of just over 3 metres (10 feet). It hasn’t stopped growing yet.

The mighty Papaya Pokok!

In just over a year this mutant growth has continued to amaze. Walk out the back door and the eyes instantly travel upwards to the canopy or settle on the ripening fruit wondering whether I pick now or wait a bit longer. Will the squirrels or Civit Cats intervene in my careful picking plan? There are more than enough fruit for us all to share. Let them ripen, I decide.

Head to the deck with cold amber fluid after hot thirsty day. First thing I clamp the trunk in my hand, marvel at the straight pole disappearing to the stratosphere, check the Love Heart scratched in the bark which is about 30% larger and about a foot higher than it was at scratching time only three months ago.

“Centurian” or “Menara” it is plainly not. Life giver and soul restorer? It certainly is. Is still Pokok in my books!

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