Brisbane Rainforest Action & Information Network

Extract of James Backhouses' 1836 diary

In March and April 1836, the Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker visited the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement. The diary kept by Backhouse during his visit to the settlement put much emphasis on the botany of the district and the religion of its inhabitants·Mick Richardson unearthed the following interesting extracts from it, for us·

Extract of James Backhouses' 1836 diary as reproduced in Brisbane Town in Convict Days 1824-42, by J.G. Steele.

"2nd. Accompanied by the surgeon, two prisoners, and a native Black, we visited a forest, called the Three-mile Scrub, on a low, alluvial soil, through which there is a small stream. Some of the trees far exceed 100 feet in height, a few may be 150. Among the lofty ones, may be enumerated some Eucalypti, called Iron-bark, Forest-mahogany, etc. and three species of Fig, with leaves resembling those of Laurel or Magnolias. One of these, Ficus macrophylla, was forty feet in circumference, at the greatest height that I could reach: its roots formed wall-like abutments, extending from the tree, over an area, thirty feet across. These Fig-trees are very remarkable in their growth: they often spring from seeds, deposited by birds, in cavities of other trees, at elevations of, perhaps, fifty feet, or more. From these situations, they send roots down to the ground, which, in their course, adhere to the tree: these again emit transverse, or diagonal roots, that fix themselves to others, in their course downward. Those that reach the ground thicken rapidly, still spreading themselves upon the face of the foster-tree, which, at length, is completely encased. These gigantic parasites rear their towering heads above all the other trees of the forest, sending out vast limbs, and spreading their own roots in the earth, from which also, they sometimes grow without the aid of other trees to sustain them.

The trunks and limbs of these, and other trees, support several species of fern, and some epiphytes of the Orchis tribe, with fleshy leaves, and singular stems and flowers. Numerous climbing plants, with stems varying in thickness, from that of pack-thread, to that of a man's body, ascend into their tops, and send down their branches in graceful festoons. Among the slenderer climbers were two species of Passion-flower, and one of Jasmine,. The most gigantic climber, which might properly be called a climbing tree, belonged to a race of plants called Apocyneae: it had rugged bark, and sometimes formed a few serpent-like wreathes upon the ground, before ascending, and spreading itself among the tops of the other trees. There were also three species of Cissus; one of them with simple, and the other two with trifoliate leaves; these are kinds of Vine, bearing Grapes, about equal in size to English Sloes, but sweeter. The fruit of the figs is rather dry, but it is eaten by the native Blacks and by numerous birds. The Moreton Bay Chestnut, Castanospermum australe, is a fine tree, with a profusion of flame-coloured blossom, and with leaves like those of the European Walnut. Some of its pods are ten inches long and eight round; they contain several seeds, in size and colour resembling Horse Chestnuts, but, in flavour, between a Spanish Chestnut and a fresh-ripened Bean, with a slight degree of bitterness. The Blacks roast them, and soak them in water, to prepare them for food. Acrosticum grande, one of the ferns that grow on the trees, is as large as a full-grown Scotch Cabbage, and is remarkably beautiful. Caladium glychirhizon, a plant allied to the Arum, and one of the race called Tara, the roots of which afford food to the islanders of the Pacific, abounds in these woods. The root is beaten and roasted by the Aborigines , till it is deprived of its acrimony; it is then eaten, and is said to be pleasant to the taste. On the margins of the woods, and on the banks of the rivers, the climbers are also numerous, and very beautiful. Among them, are Tecoma jasminoides, a large, white Trumpet-flower, with a rosy, pink tube and Ipomoea pendula, before noticed, as bearing elegant, pink, convolvulus-like blossoms. In the grass of the open ground, is a remarkable climbing Nettle, and in the forests, the Giant Nettle, Urtica gigas, forms a large tree. Many of the hills in this neighbourhood are dry, and covered with quartzose gravel. On these, the trees are chiefly of the genera, Eucalyptus, Tristania, Casuarina, and Acacia. In the basaltic soils Altingia Cunninghamii, the Moreton Bay Pine, is interspersed; and in some places, further into the interior, it forms large woods."

" On the way to Eagle Farm, there are a few small trees of Erythrina indica? A species of Coral-tree, out of which, the natives to the north, are said to form canoes. The beautiful, blue Ipomoea hederacea, was in blossom, in the thickets, in which a Wistaria, not in flower, formed a luxuriant climber. In the margins of the woods, there was a white-flowered Grewia, with a thin, sweetish covering to the seeds, for which, it is valued by the natives. We saw several of the male Blacks, but none of the females; the latter are said, seldom to shew themselves, in this neighbourhood.

6th. In a wood, on the margin of the river, a few miles above Brisbane Town, I met with a species of Lime, Citrus, having small diversified leaves, and fruit, the size of a walnut; it formed a tree 15 feet high. Flindersia australis, Oxleya zanthoxyla, and Cedrella Toona,? trees, of the same tribe as the Mahogany, attain to a large size, in these forests. Oxleya zanthoxyla, is the yellow wood, of Moreton Bay: one I measured, was forty feet round, at about five feet up: it was supposed to be one hundred feet high. The Cedrella, is the Cedar of N.S.Wales; the wood of which resembles Mahogany, but is not so heavy. The Silk Oak, Grevillea robusta, also forms a large tree: its foliage is divided, like that of some umbelliferous plants; its flowers are somewhat like branched combs, of crooked, yellow wire, shaded into orange, and are very handsome. Hoya brownii, and Jasminum gracile? were abundant, on the bank of the river, along with Tecoma jasminoides, and many other curious and beautiful, climbing shrubs. Eleven epiphytes, of the orchis tribe, were growing on the trunks of the trees, in the forest. Most to these, were of the generas Dendrobuim, Cymbidium, and Gunnia. Some Bananas, which had been washed from a place, in the Limestone Country above, where sheep, for the provision of the settlement, are kept, had established themselves on the borders of a creek. Pumpkins were growing among the brush-wood, in great luxuriance. The last were observed, with evident pleasure, by my boats' crew of prisoners, who anticipated making a meal of them, at a future day. They are much used as a table vegetable, in New South Wales, and are a good substitute for potatoes, or turnips, by land, or by sea."