Alphitonia petriei

sarsaparilla tree


Alphitonia petriei

Braid & C.T.White ex Braid 1925

pronounced: al-fit-OH-nee-uh PET-ree-eye

(Rhamnaceae — the buckthorn family)


common names: sarsaparilla tree, white ash

native 4Alphitonia is derived from the Greek αλφιτον (alphiton), barley meal, and refers to the dry, mealy quality of the mesocarp in the fruits; petriei was named for Donald Petrie (1846–1925), Scottish-born New Zealand botanist.

The Sarsaparilla tree is probably endemic to Australia, and occurs on the Cape York Peninsula, in North-east Queensland, and southwards to northern NSW, normally on the edge of the rainforest after disturbance such as clearing, in upland and mountain areas. It often dominates rainforest regrowth, especially by the side of new roads constructed through the forest. The specimen found in Picnic Bay has obviously been planted here, and is in an area it likes, as it is doing very well, reaching high above the canopy of surrounding trees. The closeness of the other trees, and the height of the blossom it bears, has made it very difficult to photograph, and I am obliged to the sulphur-crested white cockatoos for chewing off blossom-bearing twigs which I have been able to salvage from the ground beneath the tree.

The most distinctive feature of the Sarsaparilla tree is its scent: the leaves and fresh bark smell of oil of wintergreen, a scent recognizable as one of the ingredients of Sarsaparilla soft drink, and of some brands of toothpaste.

The trunk is tall and straight, with, as mentioned earlier, a high canopy. The leaves are alternate, the leaf blades anything up to 16 cm long and 7 or 8 cm wide, almost white on the underside. There are small and inconspicuous stipules.

The tiny flowers are cream to pale green, the calyx lobes about 2 mm long. The petals are hooded, and much the same length as the calyx lobes; the stamens are enveloped in the petals.

In the rainforest, the leaves are often chosen by tooth-billed bowerbirds (Ailuroedus dentirostris) to decorate their performing space, and are an important food source for the Herbert River ringtail possums (Pseudochirulus herbertensis) and the Lumholtz tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus lumholtzi). They are also a food source for the caterpillars of the small green-banded blue butterfly (Psychonotis caelius), and for several species of moth.

About 6 months after flowering, the tree produces dull black globular fruits, each about 1.5 cm in diameter. These attract numerous birds, including superb fruit doves (Ptilinopus superbus), king parrots (Alisterus scapularis) and crimson rosellas (Platycercus elegans). Fallen fruit is eaten by cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii).

The tree produces a useful general purpose timber, pinkish red with a broad cream sapwood layer, and is quite hard, tough and close-grained. The pink tends to darken into a bright orange-red with age. The attractive colouring makes it suitable for cabinet-making. It has also been used in boatbuilding, and for the making of archery bows. Other uses include general building work and flooring, tool handles and cases.

Photographs taken Picnic Bay, 2012-2015
Page last updated 4th October 2018