Suddenly there suckers everywhere. There were big robust suckers nudging aside medium-sized suckers, and the whole lot surrounded by a daunting number of tiny but tenacious suckers.

Steadily, silently but undeniably - they were taking over. They had a secure foothold, all right, and were annexing new territory right before our eyes. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before they'd be upon us.

We needed help, and fast. It came in the form of a field day organised by the Mossman Branch of the Rare Fruit Council.

Now, Branch members have calm and informed ways of dealing with these sorts of problems and the verdict was ruthless: the suckers had to go.

It was the only way to deal with an out-of-control banana plantation.

We were at Curlew Cottage, where for the past nine months Branch members Cynthia McCloughan and I, Allan Small, have been transforming a neglected tropical orchard on a two and a half acre property, Curlew Cottage, at Kewarra Beach, 20 minutes drive north of Cairns and about 45 minutes from Mossman.

Relative newcomers to tropical horticulture, the field day provided us with first­ hand advice on resurrecting and expanding our orchard. Perhaps ominously, the January field day was also punctuated by the heaviest downpours of rain for the month.

Certified by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) in 1999 as a plantation of some 200 ducasse banana suckers, the back section of the then-tenanted property had progressively reverted to a banana-studded rainforest jungle. When Cynthia and I moved in last Easter, there was a ferocious and ongoing battle between the hardy ducasse and an amazing and thorny array of trees, bushes, towering grass, vines plus miscellaneous wildlife including snakes, bandicoots, spiders, wasps and various birdlife. I suspect I saw a Tasmanian Tiger lurking there, too - sadly, I didn't have my camera with me. The resident curlew family, noisy nocturnal birds, quickly lent their name to that of the property, Curlew Cottage.

Amongst the ducasse, an eagle-eyed Branch member spotted a blue java banana, a cooking variety with its head poking through the branches of one of our many "mystery" trees - some of which were clearly escapees from the rainforest adjacent to our property. This tallish tree with arching prickly branches had produced a bumper crop of round green-yellow fruit a few months earlier. But even the fruit bats stayed away in droves, much preferring to devour our crop of kensington pride mangoes, so I felt confident that this was a sure sign the fruit was either toxic or not worth eating/survival food. Wrong again: several members promptly identified it as a ju-jube tree, apparently a native of China, with fruit worth sampling next season.

The sky darkened and down came another downpour. As we dashed for cover, a couple of hardier - or slower - members spotted some native passionfruit entwined around the trunks of foxtail palms which line the property's perimeter. The thin-skinned yellow-orange coloured thumbnail-sized fruit, with its green lacy outer covering, easily splits open to reveal a cluster of black seeds and that luscious passionfruit flavour. The tiny sweet fruit brought back happy childhood memories to several members, who recalled collecting them from creek banks on the way home from school.

A large shade tree near our house has produced an excellent crop of small, plum-coloured fruit, and is frequently visited by migratory metallic starlings that find the crop very much to their liking. I'd cautiously sampled the fruit some time earlier and it tasted sweetish with a firm tannin finish. The tree's identity was revealed as a java plum ... another mystery solved.

We've extended our home, and some of the original custard apple trees had to be transplanted. The move, involving about eight trees, was totally successful. This variety of custard apple yields fruit which is typically sweet but contains a large number of seeds. The fruit is also prone to a disease that begins with the appearance of black specks on the skin; the specks become larger and eventually cover the fruit, which mummifies. Inquiries with the DPI's Information Extension Officer at South Johnstone - an excellent source of information - suggest we might be dealing with Disease X, a decidedly troublesome pest. Hopefully, the DPI's book, Custard Apples cultivation and crop protection, will reveal a cure or effective steps for protection.

We have no shortage of green ants. They're everywhere and in vast uncontrollable numbers, lurking in their rolled-up egg-riddled leaf nests in trees and shrubs, prancing along fence posts, waiting to drop on unwary visitors and locals alike. As all Far Northerners are painfully aware, they bite; and, yes, you can bite them back, too (their abdomens taste rather like a mini blast of citrus). Green ants are also farmers, and actively protect mealybugs that suck sap from fruit such as soursops and mangoes. For their role as farmer protectors, the green ants are rewarded by the mealybugs, which exude a sweet honeydew the ants find appealing to their taste. This symbiotic relationship means mealybug predators are reluctant to attack them - green ants are ferocious fighters - so, consequently, fruit quality and appearance suffers. Branch members offered a simple and effective solution, spray white oil onto the mealybugs during the cooler part of the day, to avoid burning fruit and foliage.

With the help of ravenous sulphur-crested cockatoos we'd previously discovered that our 'lime' tree was in fact a mandarin. It looked and tasted like an emperor variety, but Branch members felt it was probably a successful seedling due to large thorns on the trunk and branches. It's been severely pruned and the vibrant burst of new shoots are overdue for thinning and shaping.

We'd also guessed the wrong variety altogether with our 'lemon'· tree. An excellent cropper, the smallish round fruit always remained green inside, even when the skin was yellow. Strange, we thought, but it was probably some sort of tropical Meyer variety. Wrong again: our lemon turned out to be a tahitian lime. Well, at least we picked it as a type of citrus.

Towards the end of last year we began planting a virtual fruit salad of trees, mainly citrus. There's also a seedling avocado; the fruit was pear-shaped and had a magnificent creamy texture - time will tell if we've been able to replicate its quality. A juvenile black sapote promises to produce an abundance of fruit which, we're told, can be dried to create something like liquorice; the soft black flesh of the fruit with its chocolatety taste, mixes perfectly to make an excellent refreshing milkshake. A macadamia tree has been added to the orchard, too, and it's living proof that this particular tree can survive being run over by a rather careless concrete truck driver during additions to our home. Will it produce flat nuts?

Malaysian dwarf coconuts have been good croppers, with a nice creamy taste, and the nuts are easy to reach ... and less likely to cause serious injury if they fall on you. We recently invested $35 in a metal scraper attached to a low stool, to remove the flesh from the nut - and it works.

We've recently planted a barbados cherry (acerola) which, we're told, is the second highest source of vitamin C (top of the list is blackcurrant). Research indicates a single barbados cherry produces the equivalent vitamin C of some 50 oranges.

Nearby, a pitiful tree that recently re-sprouted after losing its leaf canopy during the prolonged dry season, has been identified as a durian. Branch members seemed to share general community views about the durian, with some enthusiastic about the fruit, which is intolerable and inedible to others. Love it or loathe it, the so-called king of tropical fruits certainly creates a polarised and mixed reaction.

Apart from green ants, we're well represented with other wildlife, most of it unloved and unwanted. Grasshoppers have dined well on many of our saplings, particularly the lemonade fruit. Shortly before the field day, I'd carefully raked mulch away from the trunks of all trees, aware that it can help promote fungus and other diseases. Overnight, a team of scavenging bandicoots staged a daring raid and scratched it all back again. Then a feral pig, down from the mountain range and seeking water, shredded some banana trunks in spectacular fashion.

Bore irrigation is about to be installed on our property, ending a lucrative source of income for Cairns Water. At the suggestion of Branch members, we will then give the orchard a decent dose of fertiliser - keeping it well away from the phosphorus­intolerant macadamia. More mulch will be added around the trees, though some members regarded this with mixed blessings: while conserving water and shading the root system, its decomposition robs the soil and plants of nitrogen.

The suckers, banana suckers, that is - have now been decimated and I fancy the survivors are already feeling a whole lot the better for it. And here's a useful tip for those seeking to kill unwanted bananas: after cutting off the sucker's trunk, nip out a small hole in the centre containing the rootball and add a dash of kerosene. That'll fix any sucker!

But, finally, there was even more humiliation awaiting us. Amongst the bananas was a rather attractive shrub, which produces small red berries next to the leaves. Well, this might have been a rare species of useful tropical plant, something to rival Alan and Susan Carle's botanical treasure trove in their property, the Botanical Ark. Help was at hand. A knowledgeable Branch member crushed a few leaves between his fingers and casually invited us to take a sniff. Phewwww! The smell ... it was like ... like ... The learned member leaned forward and confided: "what you've got here - pardon the language - is a fartbush."

The fartbush continues to thrive, and definitely deserves its special place amongst our bananas. Mocked by cruel friends from down south, who were all too quick to bestow a trendy latin name (Busheticus fartivica) on it, the unloved fartbush is, well, different. Certainly, none of our sniggering southern friends have one. And, who knows, it may prove to be a usefully ally in helping to move-on guests who overstay their welcome.

Allan Small, 31 January 2002

DATE: March 2002

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