PAINT THE TOWN RED
COLOURFUL PLANTS AND FLOWERS LINKED WITH CHRISTMAS HAVE LONG HELPED SPREAD LOTS OF FESTIVE CHEER ACROSS AUSTRALIA
Way back in ancient history the Romans used holly to decorate their homes during the midwinter festival of Saturnalia. Some prominent historians believe gift giving associated with Christmas derives from this celebration in honour of the Saturn god.
In the Victorian period, holly, known as the “holy tree” was thought to keep bad spirits at bay and a mistletoe branch was known as a symbol of love.
There are long traditions of plants and flowers associated with Christmas. Across the Tasman, Metrosideros excelsa, known by its Maori name Pohutukawa, has been thought of as New Zealand’s Christmas plant from early settlement. Branches were used to decorate churches and it’s still the No. 1 flower on New Zealand Christmas cards. As a widespreading tree, it lines the North Island’s coastline. When in flower the whole crown is a show-stopping scarlet.
For many years buckets of flowers of NSW Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) and Christmas Bells (Blandfordia grandiflora) were on sale at railway stations and on every shop corner in Sydney from early December. Once picked from the local bushland, they are now protected and can only be sourced through flower growers and florists.
Christmas Bush is celebrated for what looks like colourful flowers, but are in fact the swollen bases of spent white flowers. It is happy growing in most gardens where the soil drains well, and is an excellent cut flower. It thrives on Tamborine Mountain and in many coastal gardens. Every year after all the colour is gone it should be pruned thoroughly to ensure many colourful branches the following year.
Christmas Bells are not easy to source or to grow. Their natural range in Queensland is wet heathlands where they were once abundant, but are now uncommon and protected as endangered species under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act. In New South Wales, wild harvesting has been replaced by cut flower farming.
Each Australian state has a native plant described with a common name that relates to the Christmas season and flowers in December. Western Australia’s Christmas tree is Nuytsia floribunda, a parasitic plant with brilliant golden flowers. It’s difficult to grow without a host plant so is best left growing naturally. Victoria has the Mint Bush, Prostanthera lasianthos with flowers varying from white through to mauve. Both leaves and flowers are highly fragrant, and this variable height, adaptable plant can be grown locally, but is difficult to find in nurseries.
From early colonial days Brisbane’s Christmas flower was the beautiful white orchid Calanthe triplicata. Brisbane’s Christmas Orchid grows best in full shade in either garden or pots.
Known as a butterfly attracting plant, and for its value in floristry, South Australia’s Christmas bush is white flowering Bursaria spinosa. This shrub or small tree is another good plant for local gardeners looking for a native hedge plant that can be pruned to a dense habit. It offers some degree of security with its small but sharp thorns.
One mainstay that abounds in nurseries and florists at Christmas is the brilliant red poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. It was introduced into the United States from its natural habitat in Mexico. Popular at Christmas for its brilliant red flower-like bracts, these are actually leaves that turn to red just before the flowers bloom. The job of the bracts would be to attract pollinators to the small and insignificant flowers. The Australian nursery industry has to shorten the day length inside green houses to simulate the northern hemisphere winter light conditions to bring poinsettias into colour for an Australian Christmas.
Locally I associate the massed scarlet or orange-red flowers of poinciana, Delonix regia, as a tree that heralds the onset of summer and the start of the Christmas season. Best wishes for Christmas and happy gardening.