When the Australian Lillipilly Collides with Asia

You’re probably familiar with the sight of a lillipilly bush. This hardy Australian staple – a glossy evergreen bearing powder-puff flowers and clusters of bright berries – features in many a garden hedge.

The powder-puff flowers of lillipilly’s light up our lives when they flower

But you may not know this humble native has spread across the globe in waves of emigration, adaptation and evolution. Almost 1,200 species of lillipilly are now found in rainforests across the tropics and subtropics of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Research has helped reconstruct the evolutionary history of lillipilly’s in unprecedented detail and we can show how lillipilly’s evolved in Australia and now form the largest genus of trees in the world.

Twenty-one million years ago – When the Australian continent is about to collide with Asia.

Lillipilly’s began their international adventures about 17 million years ago. At that time, the Australian continent (which together with New Guinea is known as the Sahul Shelf) was colliding with Southeast Asia (known as the Sunda Shelf) following its breakup with Antarctica. This breakup was the final dramatic act of the fragmentation of Gondwana. The collision provided opportunity for biotic exchange between the northern and southern hemispheres. Many plants and animals moved south to the Sahul Shelf and prospered in the new lands. Lillipilly’s are one of the few lineages that moved in the other direction. Along with our songbirds, lillipilly’s stand as a rare example of an Australian group that set out from these shores and achieved major evolutionary success abroad.

Plump clove buds from the annual clove harvest. Photo Ian Burnet

Many species in the genus are used as food and medicine by indigenous people, and cloves have potent antibacterial and analgesic properties which made them very valuable in a world without modern medicine. A favourite spice of home bakers, cloves are the dried flower buds of an Indonesian lillipilly – the aptly named Syzygium aromaticum.

Credit to an article by Darren Crayn, Professor and Director of the Tropical Herbarium at James Cook University and published in The Conversation.

To achieve the maximum amount of clove oil the buds are picked before they break into flower. Photo Ian Burnet

Commercial quality cloves were originally only found in seven ‘Spice Islands’ off the west coast of the island of Halmahera in Eastern Indonesia. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English all built forts and fought wars over control of the valuable spice trade.

Ternate is the northernmost of the seven volcanic Clove Islands off the west coast of Halmahera. This image shows the Dutch fort on the island as well as the clove trees it was built to protect.
As the cloves are laid out to dry in the sun their colour changes from green to red to black. Photo Ian Burnet

The clove tree has a characteristic triangular shape and can be recognised from a distance. As seen here covering a hillside of the island of Obilatu, south of Halmahera, in Eastern Indonesia.

The two spicy Ian’s. Ian (Herbie) Hemphill and Ian (Spice Islands) Burnet.
Ian (Herbie) Hemphill of ‘Herbies Spices’ admiring a mountain of cloves at a warehouse in Ternate. Photo Ian Burnet


About ianburnet

Author of the book, Spice Islands. Which tells the History, Romance and Adventure of the spice trade from the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. Author of the book, East Indies.Which tells the history of the struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas. Author of the book 'Archipelago - A Journey Across Indonesia'. Author of the book 'Where Australia Collides with Asia' Author of the book 'The Tasman Map'. Author of the book 'Eastern Voyages'.
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2 Responses to When the Australian Lillipilly Collides with Asia

  1. maximos62 says:

    Something I used to address with my students during the time I was conducting field study programs in Indonesia. The Gondwanan connection is so important, for New Zealand as well.

    I love Lillipilli jam.

  2. ianburnet says:

    Thanks Russel – and where do I find Lillipilli jam?

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