Design notes: Lillipilly, a multiuse tree for shade and food

Design notes…

THE LITTLE RED FRUIT on the ground were the giveaway. Reddish and around a centimetre in diameter, they suggested something was happening above. Looking up, there it was. The tree was coming into fruit, the magenta of the fruit contrasting vividly with the dark green foliage of drip-tip leaves.

Come autumn and winter, the small red fruit on the ground are a sure sign of lillipilly above.

Autumn and winter are lillipilly time. That’s when the fruit of these Australian trees of the Syzygium genus, Myrtaceae family, come to ripeness.

Lillypilly is a common tree in the suburbs of Australia's east coast towns and cities. In its natural occurrence the species prefers the moister environment of the gully or the edge of the rainforest. Lillipilly is also a favourite of landscapers, especially the small-leaf lillipilly, Syzygium leuhmannai, a narrower tree of moderate height attractive to landscapers because of its bronze-coloured new growth and small, pinkish fruits.

Syzygium paniculatum is an evergreen to around seven metres in height and a similar spread. In municipal planting it is suited to parks and public places. It is also suited to the landscaping of commercial and industrial land.

Planted in public places such as on footpaths the tree offers summer shade that goes towards reducing the urban heat island effect whereby cities are hotter than their surrounding territory, encouraging energy consumption for air conditioning.

Uses in permaculture sites and community gardens

The species is suited only to the larger community gardens and permaculture properties. In smaller gardens might take space better planted to commonly-eaten fruits.

Perhaps the most useful location in the community garden or on a permaculture site would be as part of a mixed planting on the windward side. There, with other species, it would serve as a windbreak to shelter vegetable and fruit crops from strong hot or cold winds. It may also offer refuge to birds, adding to the wildlife conservation and biodiversity role already performed by these gardens.

Magenta lillipilly, Syzygium paniculatumn

As with all tree plantings on smaller permaculture properties and in community gardens, consider the mature height and width of the tree before planting and avoid planting other long-lived trees where the lillipilly will eventually shade them out. Instead, plant short-lived small trees, the fast fruits, in the area that will eventually be shaded by the lillipilly. Depending on climate these might include pawpaw, banana, tamarillo and babaco. They will go through several generations before the lillipilly shades the soil where they are growing.

For community gardens and permaculture properties that cultivate an area of native plants, the magenta lillipilly would be a fine specimen that knowledgable gardener-cooks can harvest for its fruit, turning them into tasty sauces and other foods. They are also edible raw. The shade cast by the growing tree would be a suitable place to make a small pond to attract insects and amphibians.

Magenta and other lillipilly planted as street or public place trees offer urban foragers the opportunity to glean free food. First, though, check whether the tree is maintained by a community group who plan to harvest the fruit themselves, so that you don't deprive them of their hard work. The same goes for taking lillipilly from community gardens unless you are a member.

Magenta lillipilly — an edible presence in east coast towns and cities performing many roles including human forage, wildlife refuge, boosting biodiversity and urban cooling.

Gardener-chefs: Do you have any lillipilly recipes to share? Just add them in the comments below…

A young Syzygium paniculatum, the magenta lillipilly, planted as a street tree. Consider the mature height and spread of any tree in deciding where to plant it: will it eventually shade-out other plants or take growing space better planted to commonly-used crops?

Magenta lillipilly with the flower characteristic of the Myrtaceae genus.

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