Purple, Red, Yellow, Jacarandas, Illawarra Flames and Silky Oaks

November 8, 2009 by
Filed under: Australian Plants 
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In November, the urban areas of Australia become a blaze of colour with the yellow of Silky Oaks, purple of Jacaranda’s and the Red of Illawarra Flame Trees.

Silky Oak, Jacaranda and Flame Trees

The flowering of these trees also marks the end of year exam time for schools and technical colleges and I remember when I was studying Horticulture in Sydney, I used to have lunch at the top of a hill overlooking Sydney and I remember vividly the spotting the purples, reds and yellows throughout the suburbs where these trees were planted in peoples backyards.

The Silky Oak

Silky Oak 1
A young Silky Oak tree (Grevillea robusta) growing at Umina

The Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta) is a tree that grows naturally along the east coast of Australia north from Coffs Harbour, up into Queensland to the Bunya Mountains. The bright yellow flowers produce copious amounts of nectar and are a favourite food for many Australian animals, particularly birds. I’ve seen noisy minors, red wattlebirds, brush wattlebirds and noisy friarbirds feeding off the nectar.

Silky Oak 4
Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta) flowers and foliage

The nectar eaters; Blue-faced honeyeaters,  Rainbow lorikeets, Crimson rosellas, Regent bowerbirds, Purple-crowed Lorikeets, Little Friarbirds, White-plumed Honeyeaters, Scaly-breasted lorikeets, Olive-backed Orioles, Figbirds and Satin and Regent Bowerbirds and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters have all been reported eating nectar from the flowers.

In the 1960’s the Endangered Regent Honeyeaters were seen in Melbourne in the flowering silky oaks. Interestingly, Silky Oaks are promoted in the United States as bird attracting plants for Hummingbirds.

Blue-faced Honeyeater
Blue-faced Honeyeater
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tgerus/ / CC BY 2.0

The Silky Oak flowers also attract insects and Peewees (Magpie Larks), Grey Butcherbirds, Willie-wagtails, White-winged Trillers, Torresian Crows, Dusky Woodswallows and Starlings have been observed leaning insects from the flowers.

Silky oak timber is highly sought after in the cabinet making industry where the timber has a magnificent “Silky” sheen and distinctive grain, although sometimes can cause allergic reactions in some people. The timber is used for firewood in Tanzania and is the most common introduced tree planted on farms in the Meru Central district of Kenya. The trees are grown as shade trees for coffee in Hawaii, India, and Brazil and as a shade tree for tea in India and Sri Lanka. In India it is a valuable honey producing tree, while in Hawaii, southern Florida and Norfolk Island the Silky Oaks have become a weed species.


The Jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is a very commonly planted tree in Australia, southern Europe (Italy and Spain) and the USA in Florida, Texas and southern California.
Jacaranda 8
Jaracaranda tree in full flower at Woy Woy

Jacarandas are native to a special vegetation system at the base of the Andes in South America in Bolivia and Argentina called Piedemont Forest. These forests are endangered in South America and the Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is listed as vulnerable according to IUCN criteria.

Jacaranda 6
Flowers and leaves of Jacaranda mimosifolia

I’ve seen very little australian birds utilising these trees, although I have seen Magpie Larks build mud nests in the boughs.

Illawarra Flame Trees

The red flowers of the Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius)  are a truly spectacular sight when in full flower. It is an interesting tree because it it can shed all of its leaves when in flower, or just partially shed its leaves. I used to grow these trees from seeds, and the young trees when growing in pots would shed their leaves at the same time when other older trees were in full flower, even though the ones in pots had not a single flower.

Illawarra Flame Tree
Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) in full flower (with Jacaranda in the background) at Woy Woy

Illawarra Flame trees grow in rainforests north from the Shoalhaven River in NSW, up into Queensland. We had a huge tree growing in our yard when I lived at Terrigal many years ago, and the falling bell-shaped flowers used to make a carpet of red on the grass.

Illawarra Flame Tree 5
Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) flowers.

I remember the leaves used to get eaten by caterpillars, and Illawarra Flame Trees are host to at least 2 beautiful Australian Butterflies, the Tailed Emperor (Polyura sempronius) and the White-banded Plane (Phaedema shepherdi).

Tailed Emperor (Polyura sempronius)
Tailed Emperor (Polyura sempronius)
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kookr/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

All three of these trees are really worth planting in the larger garden, both because of the spectacular flowers and because of the wildlfe attracted to them.



6 Responses to “Purple, Red, Yellow, Jacarandas, Illawarra Flames and Silky Oaks”
  1. gabi says:

    Love the Illawarra Flame tree but not game to grow it in the small back yard I have for fear of invasive roots. Would it work if I planted a small tree in a pot? Would it flower?

    • Doug Beckers says:

      Gabi, I’m not sure if a pot would work. They do take quite a while to flower and by the time it can flower it would be quite large. But I guess it depends on how big the pot is, maybe one of those huge ones you see in malls might do, but it would be impractical for most home gardeners.

  2. Kaye Legge says:

    Hi Doug, can you burn an Illawarra flame tree for firewood in a combustion fireplace?

  3. Steven Vien says:

    Mr. Beckers:
    I live in Southern California, and have several purple jacarandas in my yard, one is quite large, but both have become the host to either a woodpecker or sapsucker. I was wondering if this is commonplace, and if so, does it pose any danger to the trees?
    I first thought it was a woodpecker, but we had one for years and it pecked trees and telephone poles a a fast rate, like a jackhammer or machine gun, whereas this bird seems to peck at the rate of about 1 per second. Is there any way to identify the difference in the birds, and if it is a sapsucker and not a bug eating woodpecker, driving off whichever species it is if the tree is endangered?
    Thank you,
    Steve Vien

    • Doug Beckers says:


      I don’t know much about the birds of California, however, in Australia where I live I’ve never heard of any animals living in the trunk of Jacarandas, but you never know there may be some animals that burrow into the wood and make such hollows their home. Rarely do hollows actually threatened the life of the tree.

      My suggestion is to first try and identify the bird by noting its size and colours, you could put the description as a comment here and I’m sure we can track someone down to identify it. A photo would be good if you do have one as well.


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