Sharon Willoughby, Royal Botanic Gardens VictoriaChristmas tree – Oh Christmas Tree!

Walking through Observatory Gate at Melbourne Gardens in early December I passed one of my favourite native Christmas Trees – Bursaria spinosa. It was absolutely laden with tiny pearly white buds and on the verge of bursting into flower. Bursaria spinosa has a swag of common names depending on the Australian State you live in: Australian blackthorn, mock orange, native box, sweet bursaria and Christmas bush in honour of its star-white flowers and sweet perfume that scents the Victorian bush at Christmas time.

Bursaria spinosa flowers. Photo C. Firth

Bursaria spinosa flowers. Photo C. Firth

I can’t smell Bursaria without thinking of my Grandmother who grew up in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne. Nanny remembered cutting Bursaria, on the farm, to bring into the house at Christmas time (a desecration of the bush she would never have allowed us to emulate). The native plants that she grew up with in the hills were an important part of her memories of family and Christmas. Her favourite Christmas tree was the local Cherry Ballart, Exocarpos cupressiformis. Cherry Ballarts look somewhat like traditional European Christmas trees in shape with a cypress-like (cupressiformis) form. In some years the Cherry Ballarts at Cranbourne Gardens are covered in bright red shining fruit at Christmas time – like ready-made baubles. Walking through the bush at Cranbourne Gardens this Advent I haven’t spotted any yet but then the possums may have beaten me to them.

Melaleuca linariifolia, Snow in Summer

Melaleuca linariifolia, Snow in Summer

Another native Christmas tree I look out for at this time of the year is the common street tree Melaleuca linariifolia. This beautiful paper bark is called Snow in Summer for its frosting of feathery creamy white flowers. In my neighborhood these trees bloom and shed their snow in early December – a reminder that it is time to hurry up with writing Christmas cards and emails. There is a large Snow in Summer on the lawn in front of the Perennial Border at Melbourne Gardens – with a fine backdrop of Gardens House.

Melaleuca linariifolia at Melaleuca Spits. Photo W. Worboys

Melaleuca linariifolia at Melaleuca Spits. Photo W. Worboys

In the Australian Garden at Cranbourne Gardens you will find Snow in Summer in the Melaleuca Spits. In the Spits these small trees have been pruned to create interesting shapes. The horticulture team has used a mixture of two ancient horticultural techniques, espaliering (pruning to train the trees to grow in a flat plane) and pleaching (pruning the canopy of a tree to reveal the main trunk whilst also flattening the sides and top of the canopy). These techniques are creating trees that have the appearance of windswept coastal trees. They remind me of hot summers camping on the Rosebud foreshore or beach Christmas at the Prom!

Melaleuca linarifolia in the Melaleuca Spits before flowering showing pruning techniques. Photo W. Worboys

Melaleuca linarifolia in the Melaleuca Spits before flowering showing pruning techniques. Photo W. Worboys

Melaleuca linariifolia at Melaleuca Spits in the Australian Garden Cranbourne Photo W. Worboys

Melaleuca linariifolia at Melaleuca Spits in the Australian Garden Cranbourne Photo W. Worboys

The real Christmas showstopper at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is the West Australian Christmas Tree, Nuytsia floribunda, which grows on top of Howson Hill in the Australian Garden at Cranbourne. The staff and Friends at Cranbourne watch this tree like hawks each year waiting for the first sign that it is about to flower. Last year it was at its best on New Years Day. ‘Nuytsia-watch 2015’ is already underway. This particular Nuytsia is special to us for a number of reasons. Firstly, when it blooms it is covered in a mass of spectacular orange-yellow flowers, and almost golden in colour they glow against a blue sky. You couldn’t wish for a more beautiful self-decorating Christmas tree.

Nuytsia floribunda in flower

Nuytsia floribunda in flower at the Australian Garden at Cranbourne

Secondly, this particular plant is itself a horticultural “propagation miracle”.

Nuytsia floribunda is a member of the Mistletoe family and like many of its members, it is a hemi-parasite, which means it derives some of its nutrients from the attachments it makes to the roots of surrounding plants. While Nuytsia will germinate readily from seed, thriving for a while, seedlings invariably fail. Which plants it needs to make these root-to-root connections to is mysterious – making it a notoriously hard plant to propagate. We believe that our Nuytsia is one of only a small number of these trees in cultivation in a garden outside of its Western Australian bush home.

Nuytsia floribunda's rich golden flowers. Photo C. Firth

Nuytsia floribunda has rich golden flowers. Photo C. Firth

Long-term member of staff and Curator of Horticulture, Warren Worboys, propagated our Nuytsia and he still doesn’t know why this seedling took off from amongst the thousands he planted! Warren started working for the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in 1971, only a year after the land that ultimately became Cranbourne Gardens was acquired. In 1979 Warren was given a bag containing hundreds of small Nuytsia seeds and decided to experiment with trying to get one of these spectacular plants to grow. Warren planted the seeds in a variety of different ways, in different soils types, with different host plants, in clusters, by themselves, in pots and in the ground. Over the years Warren kept planting seeds that would disappointingly fail to hook up to a host and die.

Nuytsia floribunda on Howson Hill in the Australian Garden at Cranbourne, flowering last January

Nuytsia floribunda on Howson Hill in the Australian Garden at Cranbourne, flowering last January

In the early 1980s Warren discovered that one of the seedlings that he had planted on Mallee Hill (now called Howson Hill in the Australian Garden) was thriving. Somehow quietly and mysteriously it had found a host plant or plants and was starting to grow into a tree. Warren’s Nuytsia flowered for the first time in 1996. It is now a large tree close to 6 metres in height flowering annually. I asked Warren on what day he thinks the Nuytsia will bloom this year:

“It’s always hard to say, how many flowers will be produced, but we can now rely on the tree to start flowering just before Christmas and to be at its peak flowering early in the New Year”

When you think about it, plants are seeded through our celebrations at this time of the year: bunches of flowers, table decorations, the elaborately spiced feasts that we eat, the multitude of fruits and vegetables, gifts, swags of greenery and trees. Their flowering marks the turning of the wheel of the year, evokes memories of other long hot summers and sometimes the larger scale passage of a lifetime’s work and passion. I hope you will join us in watching out for the first Nuytsia bloom this year: let us know @RBG_Victoria if you see it first.

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3 thoughts on “Christmas tree – Oh Christmas Tree!

  1. Great first post Sharon! Keep it up. As soon as I return from a miserably wet Sydney I’ll check out the Nuytsia at Cranbourne Gardens…

    • Thank you Tim – hope the Sydney weather turns around. Nuytsia on its way!

  2. It’s quite remarkable that there’s a WA Christmas tree growing outside its natural range. Amazing persistence by Warren!

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