The Mighty Mallotus

When we first moved to our acreage at Lefthand Branch I would occasionally catch whiffs of a strong sort of herbal smell wafting from the vegetation below the hill. What is it and where is it coming from? I later learned that it comes from Mallotus claoxyloides (Green Kamala, also aptly known as Smell-of-the-Bush). These trees are one of many pioneer species that self sow and sucker while not being weedy, and win an award for resilience to drought, plagues of insects, and to some extent fire. They are a multi-stemmed tree to no more than about 4m with large tough leathery leaves. The foliage releases a pleasant odour intermittently, although I have noticed that it often occurs after rain. New growth is a pretty maroon colour. The M. claoxyloides trees that are growing on my property all defoliated during the many months of drought experienced in 2019. However, recent rain has brought them all bursting with fresh new growth. The yellow/green flowers make a nice show which precede three-lobed spiky capsules that explode revealing a small seed.

M. claoxyloides new growth – photo by Karen Gruner

In the warmer months, the foliage of green kamalas gets absolutely mauled by the Mallotus Beetle, (Cantao parentum), also known as the Mallotus Harlequin Bug. They are vividly colourful and seen en masse on the leaves and manage to turn every leaf into lace. The trees take it in their stride though and once the bugs have gone, are quick to re-foliate.

Another member of the genus Mallotus is the Red Kamala, (Mallotus philippensis). It tends to thrive in gullies, rainforest pockets or lower parts of hills and grows to about 15m in most situations but can reach up to 25m. I like that it tends to sucker, forming a natural grove and providing good shade. The clusters of yellow/green flowers are pretty to look at and attract a range of pollinators.

Mallotus philippensis flower – Photo by Martin Bennett

The spikes of seed capsules really stand out. The capsules are also tri-lobed but are coated in a bright orange/red powder. The distribution of Red Kamala includes southern parts of Asia, (as the species name suggests) and in India the powder on the fruit is used for making dye. The capsules crack open to expose three black round seeds.

Mallotus philippensis seed capsules – Photo by Martin Bennett

The Red Kamala also succumbs to insect attack but reproduces new foliage in no time.  My local scrub turkeys tend to congregate under the shade of the Mallotus trees in the warmer months.  Perhaps they are also feeding on the fallen seed.

I’d like to make the point that people often plant high nectar producing species such as grevilleas and callistemons to attract wildlife, particularly birds to their gardens.  Agathis robusta (Silky Oak) is the only grevillea that occurs naturally on the property.  Otherwise, the main nectar trees we have at home are wattles and eucalypts.  Many of them flower only once a year, and yet we have abundant bird life. Why is this so?  Well, I’ve deduced that it is largely due to the huge volumes of so many species of insects.  The insects feed on the foliage of many plants, including Mallotus species.  Those same insects in turn become a major food source for lots of birds including drongos, willie wagtails, fantails, honeyeaters, kookaburras, friarbirds, orioles, and let’s not forget lizards, skinks, frogs and bats as well. 

A few years ago a fire came through our place and burned several Mallotus trees.  It took a while, but they bounced back with basal new growth I find them to be virtually unkillable and requiring no assistance from me to thrive, as well as playing an important role in our natural vegetation.

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