An Australian Botanical Christmas*

We've been here before, but then Christmas is a bit like that. These notes are from my last chat with Simon Marnie for 2009, from Mount Annan Botanic Garden. I spoke with Angela Catterns about similar matters many Christmases ago...

When Europeans first arrived in Australia they were delighted that they could pick wildflowers resembling bells and bright green foliage covered in red or white flowers to use as Christmas decorations. This was a huge contrast to the bare trees and dormant gardens they had left behind in Europe.

In Sydney, December means bunches of Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum). This shrub produces sprays of white star-like flowers in late spring, which by now are reddened around the maturing fruit.

Scattered in Sydney’s coastal heath – and here in the Connections Garden at Mount Annan – you may also find Christmas Bells, Blandfordia nobilis, with large bell-like flowers – yellow to deep red with yellow tips on spikes to 50 cm tall.

Of course, unlike our early settlers, we no longer pick these wildflowers and you can enjoy these in their natural habitat (Blandfordia is protected in NSW and a licence is required to pick flowers or collect seed, and to sell the flowers.)

Our Friends of the Gardens sell Holly Grevillea (Grevillea aquifolium) from Victoria and South Australia as an alternative to European Holly. It doesn’t have red berries, but this scrambling shrub has lobed, prickly leaves with a Christmas feel! (‘Growing Friends’ raise money for the Gardens, with plant sales at the Sydney site 11.30–2.00 most week days – and through the shop at Mount Annan).

Australia also has its own Christmas mistletoe: the parasitic Western Australian Christmas Tree (Nuytsia floribunda), which produces profuse brilliant yellow flowers in summer. Like all mistletoes, this plant is partially reliant on a host plant for nutrition, attaching itself to their roots. Some people are trying to cultivate this Christmas tree, using grasses and strawberries as companion plants.

So what is the perfect Christmas tree for Australians? Back in 2000, the Wilderness Society tried to register a eucalypt in Tasmania’s Styx Valley as the world’s tallest Christmas tree. The attempt failed; however, as the British Guinness World Records Organisation proclaimed that to be a ‘proper’ Christmas tree, it had to be a spruce (Picea), a Northern Hemisphere conifer.

At the time, Greens Senator Bob Brown disputed the ruling, stating that a Christmas tree is an evergreen tree decorated for Christmas. The eucalypt in this case was lit up each night with a four-metre solar powered star, baubles and 3000 fairy lights.

Australians usually decorate small Radiata Pines (Pinus radiata), also know as the Monterey Pine, which are native to California. They are grown in plantations in Australia and occasionally escape into nearby bushland (in some heathland areas they can become environmental weeds, displacing other species).

On our sites, we have occasionally decorated a few Wollemi Pines (Wollemia nobilis) and they are a pretty good ‘Australian Christmas Tree’, although you need to be careful to keep them watered when you bring them indoors.

Trees used by staff at the Botanic Gardens include Hoop Pines (Araucaria cunninghamii), but a bit prickly for kids to decorate, and gum tree boughs in a bucket of water (which will last a couple of weeks and give your house a fresh eucalypt smell). Also popular are bits of driftwood painted silver or gold, or a dead branch already decorated with lichens (from your garden or friend’s property).

Image: My potted Wollemi Pine before I forgot to water it last year. I have new one for Christmas this year!

*This Passion for Plants posting will also appear on the ABC Sydney website (possibly under 'gardening'), and is the gist of my radio interview with Simon Marnie on Saturday Morning sometime between 9-10 am on 702AM.