PAINT THE TOWN RED

COLOUR­FUL PLANTS AND FLOW­ERS LINKED WITH CHRIST­MAS HAVE LONG HELPED SPREAD LOTS OF FES­TIVE CHEER ACROSS AUS­TRALIA

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - GARDEN - Kate Hef­fer­nan is a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist, ed­u­ca­tor and hon­orary life mem­ber of Friends of the Gold Coast Re­gional Botanic Gar­dens. You can lis­ten to her ra­dio show Gar­den Talk­back on ABC 91.7FM. De­tails at kate­hef­fer­nan.com.au WORDS: KATE HEF­FER­NAN

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.

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