A new branch of the POEM FOREST


We are thrilled to announce our new POEM FOREST planting partner, Wollongong City Council. We asked Wollongong Botanic Garden horticulturist Penny Hoswell all our questions about the new branch of the POEM FOREST, her team's work behind the scenes and the poems that trees write for us (and how to read them).

Would you like to learn more from Penny? Book a spot in our free online National Science Week poetry workshops on 15 August.

Hi there! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at the Wollongong Botanic Garden? 

My name is Penny. I am currently acting as the Education Officer at Wollongong Botanic Garden. A long time ago I did my Horticultural Apprenticeship here but moved on to do Tree Preservation at some other Councils before returning to Wollongong.

We’re so excited about this new branch of the POEM FOREST. Where will it grow, and why is it so important to plant trees there?

This year’s POEM FOREST has a new outlook as we grow the forest on Dharawal Country across the suburbs of Wollongong - in parks, as street trees, in our natural areas and in Tiny Forests. These areas have some of the lowest canopy cover in all of NSW so these trees will improve climate resilience, provide habitats for native flora and fauna, and create a better future.

The trees will be planted by Council staff, with local students having the opportunity to get involved in some planting projects to create a canopy linking streets and communities together. Poems are to be shared, create interest, make statements and bring people together. This project asks our students, our future, to step outside and make some observations about the trees that they see with all of their senses. Then the students condense that experience into a poem that will activate the planting of a tree and hopefully engage people to understand the sense of place and calm that a tree brings.

We hope to see neighbourhoods coming together under the living canopy of the POEM FOREST.

You’ll be planting lots of different trees, including one called the Illawarra Flame Tree. What’s so special about this tree and how does it get its fabulous name?

The Illawarra Flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) is such a delightful tree. When flowering in summer you can see the red sashes bursting through the darker green canopy of our rainforest pockets on the escarpment. The tree has this beautiful conical shape so that when it is in flower it does look like a flame on a candle as the trunk can get quite rounded. The leaves that remain when it is in flower are often tinged with yellow, and that adds to the look. More importantly, though, is that the Illawarra Flame Tree has this gorgeous nurturing characteristic. It fixes nitrogen into the soil and shares it with other plants around it. It is one of our few semi-deciduous native trees, shedding some leaves in late spring/early summer, creating homes for soil life, which in turn keeps the roots cool and moist. The White-headed Pigeon loves to roost in its branches and several butterflies lay their eggs on it.

Can you tell us a bit more about Tiny Forests? How small are they and what purpose do they serve? 

Tiny Forests aren’t filled with miniature trees – they are small spaces filled with lots of trees and plants as a community. Because of their small footprint (they can be as small as half a tennis court) they provide the ability to pack the benefits of a forest into small urban or even industrial areas. Tree selection is based on native plants that would naturally occur in the area and as such share a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, pollination timings, and many other symbiotic relationships. What that means for Wollongong is that we can plant 500 trees in such a small space, but still benefit from 500 trees all carbon sequestering, all working together to restore poor land, giving a block of shade to cool the air and an awesome habitat site for so much of our wonderful fauna that otherwise struggle to find a home in suburbia. As the plants are only 60 cm apart, sure, they are working together to feed each other, but they also adopt a healthy amount of competition and will grow quickly, meaning that our Tiny Forests will spring up into a forest in about 5 years - much faster than a natural forest takes to regenerate!

What’s a native plant species that you’re particularly excited about? And how can we make sure to preserve this and other species for future generations?

So hard to select just one!

I do love the Turpentine (Syncarpia glomulifera ). This beautiful tree occurs in stands across our escarpment and there are a few original stands still here in the Wollongong Botanic Garden. They are resistant to termites and put on a fantastic display of creamy flowers in October. Such a wonderful haven for our pollinators such as the little red flying fox. When young, Turpentines can take quite a while to establish and get going, so if you choose to adopt a Turpentine you need to be willing to look after it for at least the first 5 years - watering it, mulching around it and generally giving it love. These trees can become quite large so are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Another tree, which is much smaller and grows well in your yard, is the Whalebone Tree (Streblus brunonianus). If grown amongst other trees, it can get up to 15 meters, but in a sunny spot on its own it will get to around 3 meters and looks like a mini tree. The Whalebone tree has strangely flexible branches and - the best bit - has little yellow fruits that taste just like jellybeans! Birds LOVE this fruit and it does become a race to see which one of you gets to eat the most. The berries ripen November to December and are eaten by various birds including the Brown Cuckoo-dove, Green Catbird, Lewin’s Honeyeater, Rose-crowned Fruit Dove and the Topknot Pigeon.

If trees could write poems, what do you think they’d write about? Are there any plants or animals that you think would make particularly good subjects for a poem?

Trees share poems and stories all the time, it’s just that not everyone knows how to read them. The Coastal Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) with its twisted gnarled branches and leaning habit, for example, is telling you about the winds that come across the sea buffering and shaping. It’s not a poem of hardship, it chooses to be there, and celebrates winters end with a profusion of white flowers in spring and summer.

The lone old Cabbage Tree Palms (Livistona australis) speak of rainforest long cleared and forgotten.

Our Eucalypts, with their leathery tough leaves full of lignin that turn away from the sun on hot days, describe a land where hot conditions are part of life.

There are the sad poems that we can miss, such as a tree putting on the most amazing flower show ever seen which may actually be saying a final farewell and setting up its final offspring.

A Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) that starts to decline on the northern side only speaks of extended periods of high temperatures that are heating the resin inside the northern side of the tree.

Sheoaks (Casuarina sp.) declare romance as male and female flowers appear. The female, although red, are small and not obvious to the untrained eye. The male flowers however are a reddish orange and scream mating season to the world.

Perhaps we need to start to have Tree Poetry Reading sessions to help people focus on what nature has been telling them.

Learn more about the trees in the POEM FOREST with the case studies in our curriculum aligned Learning Resource and let them inspire your nature poems - every poem plants a tree. Entries are open now until 22 September to young people 18 and under and accredited teachers.