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The Bunya Bunya Tree at Mercer Bookmark

The Bunya Bunya Tree at Mercer

What grows to the height of a dinosaur, is native to Australia, and can produce fruit as large as a bowling ball? The bunya bunya tree!

What grows to the height of a dinosaur, is native to Australia, and can produce fruit as large as a bowling ball? The bunya bunya tree!

Reaching a height of over 150 feet, this large, evergreen conifer is not just a dinosaur in size. The bunya bunya, or bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii), was actually around during the time of the dinosaurs, with fossils dating back more than a million years.

“Mercer has a well-deserved reputation for its collection of thousands of rare and fascinating plants. The bunya bunya tree is perhaps the most iconic specimen found at Mercer,” says Darrin Duling, director of Mercer Botanic Gardens.

The tree is native to the northern subtropical/tropical coastal areas of Australia and found primarily in Queensland. It produces thick, spiny needles, which may have served to deter herbivores like the brontosaurus from snacking on its fruit. The large heavy cones resemble spiny, green pineapples and produce seeds that are said to have a nutty, warm flavor. The tree typically only yields fruit in abundant quantities every three years because so much energy goes into producing the cones.

The bunya bunya was at one time immensely significant to the life and food security of some of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. When the fruiting cycle hit every three years, people feasted on the seeds and held special gatherings and festivals. Mercer planted its largest bunya bunya tree as a small specimen in 1993. Nearly a quarter century later, the tree stands at over 80 feet tall in the Prehistoric Garden. True to its nature, it forms massive cones that drop in early summer approximately every three years. The heavy cones fall straight down within the shelter of the tree’s canopy.

“To protect visitors from harm, we barricade the paths around the tree until all the cones have dropped,” Duling says. A bunya bunya cone is on display in Mercer’s Visitor Center, but Duling notes that the cones at Mercer have never fully matured before dropping. “No tasty or fertile seeds have produced so far, most likely due to our capricious Gulf Coast climate,” he says.

Mercer also has two smaller specimens, found in the Tropical Garden and Creekside Ramble, grown from tree seeds produced in California gardens. “The bunya bunya makes a handsome, commanding specimen that flourishes in our climate, even seeming to relish occasional flooding around its base,” Duling says.

He cautions that because of its size, it’s certainly not a tree for the faint of heart or those with small gardens. Mercer is currently experimenting with a vast array of conifers from subtropical and tropical climates to determine which species grow in the area. “While there may not be a bunya bunya in your future, we hope that in the coming years we can offer other outstanding evergreen selections that will be perfectly suited for the average home landscape in our region,” he says.

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