So when I had to do a writing exercise about a familiar object, my mind jumped instantly to all things Australian. Initially I ran through a number of clichéd images of Australia: an assortment of unique and unusual native marsupials; a clutch of brightly coloured parrots; white sandy beaches or large red rocks; gnarled and knotty eucalyptus; hot dusty-dry wet earth pocked with raindrops after a thunderstorm; iconic bridges and azure waters. And then less visual ideas: Kylie Minogue, Aussie Crawl or Redgum songs; the scent of lemon myrtle; the sound of magpies at daybreak; broad streets, lazy drawls, meat pies,Vegemite and white bread sandwiches…
…And then I thought of jacarandas.
The jacaranda is not a native Australian species, but it is cheerfully resistant to drought – a good quality in an Australian immigrant. It was introduced from South America and can grow to forty feet tall.
So, a tall, elegant tree, the Jacaranda changes its foliage through the seasons like a woman changes fashions. In summer, its lacy green leaves, reminiscent of fern fronds, barely move in the still smoky-hot air, its canopy overarching like a parasol or beach umbrella and providing a dappled shade. Its seed pods are green and disguised among the leaves in summer. In autumn you are suddenly aware of the palm-sized seed pods, now dried and hardened to a walnut brown, flat but slightly cupped, like a papadum. Thin and hard, these seed pods make a loud and satisfying crack under heavy feet, and they are the perfect kindling for a wood fire. In late winter, early spring, the jacaranda stands bare, its limbs exposed, skeletal. Its bark is unexpectedly rough, its branches elegantly thin.
I love the jacaranda best in November, decked out in its clusters of small, purple-blue, five-lobed flowers like tiny trumpets. Reminiscent of English bluebells, the flowers succumb easily to the bossy wind, fluttering to the ground, or fixing themselves firmly, with a grip like a rock oyster, to the windscreens of cars or the soles of unwary shoes that crush them thoughtlessly into a bruised pulp. Briefly, they carpet the lawn in a delicate shade of lavender blue.
Here it stands, shoulders shrugged, non-committal against the backdrop of a rusty corrugated iron fence, or outlined against a thundery, leaden grey sky, smudging the clouds with a hazy halo of purple like a water colour painting.
Scenes of purple haunt the landscape of my memories, that splash of purple as familiar as my mother’s perfume.
I see a blasé, expressionless kookaburra with an anti-social attitude perched on a jacaranda branch overhanging our lawn in Sydney – ‘if I don’t see you, you can’t see me’ – short and dumpy in its mottled brown feathers and its potato wedge beak, and sulkily silent till it throws back its head with a war cry set to unman a Maori rugby player.
Shading the street I grew up in, one jacaranda in particular stood guard outside my parents house. Muffling our voices, it leaned in to share secrets as my boyfriend and I sat for hours outside the front fence, talking and kissing before mum crept out in her nightie to rattle milk bottles and remind me it was well past curfew.
Welcoming me home to Australia, after years abroad, it was the one tree I recognized amongst a host of unfamiliar, unknown semi-tropical shrubbery on the east coast. As we slowly learned our way around the confusion that is Sydney, its roads winding and twining round the harbour, its preference for one-way streets sheer hell for the newcomer, the jacarandas brightened up unfamiliar streets like the smile of an old friend.
I remember clouds of purple floating over Adelaide in November (our antipodean Spring), the year my uncle died. It seemed a fit and stately tribute to his memory, and now I will always think of him when I see a jacaranda in bloom.
*with thanks to Google images for these beautiful photos.