Pittosporum moluccanum is an attractive small tree native to Indonesia and northern Australia, that Darwin nurseryman, Dennis Hearne, recommends should be considered more for home garden use because of its resistance to termites and cyclones, and the ease with which it can be propagated. Whilst it is appearing more in nurseries in northern Australia, it’s potential has not been widely recognized in other tropical countries as yet.
This small compact tree is one of the most attractive in the Genus. Pittosporum moluccanum is listed as “near threatened” in both the Northern Territory and in tropical Western Australia. Local Darwin populations are considered endangered due to habitat loss through housing developments.
With its small compact growth and glossy evergreen foliage it is an ideal small tree for most home gardens. Its attractive growth is coupled with axillary clusters of creamy white blooms, which exude a delightful sweet fragrance in the early evening. These are followed by small globular orange coloured seedpods that open rather like a clamshell, to reveal small shiny black seed in a sticky clear mucus.
The plant is easily propagated from fresh seed and from softwood cuttings in the early wet season. Young seedlings show a prominent light coloured petiole that persists until the tree is about one metre tall, making identifying young plants quite easy.
As the plant ages, it develops a whitish grey stippled bark which adds to its attractiveness in the garden. Young foliage is a favored food of the endangered Atlas Moth.
It is my opinion that this native tree should be extensively trialed in street, park and thicket plantings throughout the Top End of Australia as well as other tropical regions. Given its compact growth that seldom, if ever, needs pruning, its evergreen nature and lack of messy fruit or untidy litter it ticks all the boxes for an ideal street tree.
Its deep rooting system makes it virtually cyclone proof and it does not have surface roots to buckle and distort pavements. The presence of strong-smelling sap in stems and roots makes the tree virtually termite resistant as well.
In its natural habitat this tree is found in coastal vine thickets and monsoon forest fringes. These habitats make the tree reasonably resistant to dry periods in the dry season, but of course, adequate watering ensures best growth and several flower flushes through the year.
Aside from Indonesia and northern Australia, the species is also found in Timor Leste, Taiwan, the Philippines and parts of Malaysia. Some authorities consider it to be a relatively recent arrival in Australia, but widespread location sites in northern Australia suggest otherwise.
As a relatively new species in the gardening scene, this native plant is strongly recommended. Its modest height and compact growth makes it ideal for the smaller home garden and it will never achieve the ‘near weed’ status that Pittosporum undulatum has achieved on the east coast of Australia.
Editor’s note: The photograph of the fruit of Pittosporum moluccanum by Brian Kane was taken in Broome, in the northern tropical zone of Western Australia which has a much longer and more pronounced dry season than Darwin, suggesting that this species is adaptable to a wide range of tropical climates. You can see more of Brian’s photographs of the Broome natural environment on his photo blog at http://wkfl.asn.au/nature/aaopen.html