In our town, from December to January, each Royal Poinciana Delonix regia blooms. The magnificent red flowers cascade over the soft green leaves.
In the shade under these lush tropical canopies, I pause and marvel. How are such gorgeous trees parts of our urban forest? What makes a number of trees a forest? What is its function and has it any future?
Global interest saved the species
Poinciana are now main features of treescapes throughout the urban tropics and subtropics.
From the 19th century, the trees were planted along important streets in places such as Hawaii and India. Such global interest saved the species, which is now almost extinct in its country of origin, the impoverished Madagascar.
In Bangalore, Poinciana were the answer to urban forest planning. The goal was to line the streets and fill the parks with trees that all blossomed throughout the different seasons. The Poinciana dominate the cityscape in summer from April through June. Then as they grow their long dark seed pods, other trees blossom in their turn.
The urban forest
When it comes to urban forests, exotic trees are important. Throughout Australia and New Zealand, the plan has been to line the entrance road and the beachfront with Norfolk pines.
In many places they are still there: large trees offering shade for people and habitat for wildlife. They also have the unexpected ability to absorb air pollution from all the vehicles burning fossil fuels.
Apart from the exotic Poinciana, Norfolk pines and other imports, what Australian trees make up most of the town forests of Byron Bay? Often seen are paperbarks (Meleuluca species). Bottlebrush (Banksia species). Moreton Bay fig/Australian banyan (Ficus macrophylla). Bangalow palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) Sheoaks (Causarina species). Eucalyptus of many sorts.
Maybe some of these trees were deliberately planted but many of them seem part of that curious subgroup known as ‘what’s left’. They remain, all that’s left after an initial development phase. They are there after the departure of previous owners who might have planted them or at least not cut them down.
In some public spaces, the trees are regrowth of forgotten origins. Those trees, part of big tracts, such as nature reserves and Arakwal Park, may yet function as part of some ecological landscapes as well as aesthetic or recreational ones.
Caught between past and future
But today’s urban trees are caught between a history of deforestation and a future of mega-development.
Our Shire Council’s ‘significant tree register’ is a list of only ‘koala food trees’: four species of Eucalyptus trees but only those ‘equal or greater than three metres in height’.
How are the next generation of food tree to grow up to such a size? Where will they grow? In fact where will any young urban tree grow to maturity?
People not only in cities but small towns the world over are thinking about tree-nature. They are pondering their streets, development applications and even climate change. They are seeing urban trees as valuable members of the community.
Individual trees need security. The urban forest as a whole needs scope to evolve.
What about urban forest evolution that includes food trees for other species, including people? What about the trees on the banks of different waterways in and about town? What about the urban beachfront or town entrance points? What about those trees, either by species or age, that are altogether missing from town? What about Urban Forest Masterplans?
The Royal Poinciana is here because some people had a few thoughts about trees. Let’s think a bit more before everywhere public becomes a parking lot. Let’s grow trees.