Gumnut, Baby

Words by
Caitlin McAtomney
Images by
Georgina Reid
| November 19, 2018

As far as relationships with random objects go, gumnuts seem to engender in me a special but nebulous affection. Perhaps it’s the May Gibbs effect. Perhaps it’s the ubiquity of gumtrees and gumnuts in the Australian landscape. Perhaps it’s some obscure connection with the taste and smell of the eucalyptus drop lollies that my Dad used to dole out to me and my siblings as a childhood treat. Or maybe it’s just gumnuts’ compact size and aesthetically pleasing form, making them a pleasurable object to hold, feel and examine, and an ideal decorative adornment in all sorts of contexts…

I can’t quite pinpoint why, but there is something about these perfect little capsules that in my mind makes gumnuts the quintessential motif for a distinctly Australian sense of natural beauty, nostalgia and ephemera.

The word ‘gumnut’ is something of a misnomer. Gumnuts are actually the (non-edible) fruits of eucalypts. The woody, sealed vessels house the gum flowers which burst forth when the operculum (cap) falls away. After the flowers fade, we’re left with those delightful little ligneous cups. The term eucalypt, meaning well (eu) covered (calyptos), was first coined by French botanist Charles Louis L’Héritiert de Brutelle in 1788 and it refers to the gumnuts that grow on all kinds of eucalyptus trees. Brutelle had examined the flower buds of a rough-barked tree from Tasmania’s Bruny Island, collected on James Cook’s third voyage. My young son is half French, so it pleases me to have discovered this very gumnut-specific Franco-Australian connection.

In his short life I have already tried to endear my son to the gumnut. He is currently in the midst of initial language development and his attempts at saying the word ‘gumnut’ are expressed as ‘mudut’. When we are out walking he points up enthusiastically at nearly every tree we pass under and asks ‘mudut tree?’. He was disappointed to learn that not every tree has gumnuts growing on it, but this just makes the hunt all-the-more enticing. Who knows what gumnut memories and associations may linger into adulthood for my son. For the time being, gumnuts simply present him with the ideal object to fit on the end of his thumb and with which to practice another emerging skill – throwing with accuracy and force.

Gumnut, baby

Fledgling hands clasp damp earth,

Elfin fingernails encrusted with inky curiosity.

Miniature wooden urns, once neglected

At the foot of the eucalypt

Now embrace their new destiny –

Rescued and repurposed as

Diminutive missiles released from eager palms.


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