NSW Christmas Bush

Until they flower I don’t ‘see’ my local Ceratopetalum gummiferum trees but every summer they cover themselves in the colours of Christmas – the profuse flowers are white (if you scrinch your eyes it could be snow), followed by red calyx that change hue as they age.

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One of my neighbourhood Ceratopetalum gummiferum trees. First it’s white …

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…  then it’s red. Photos: Sandra Simpson

Also known as the NSW Christmas bush, this plant can grow to 12m in its native range so ‘bush’ is a bit of a trap for the unwary. The ever-reliable Stirling Macoboy reports that the small genus is native to eastern Australia and New Guinea.

In the coastal bushlands of New South Wales, and in many gardens of Australia, the summer Christmas season is announced by a small, slender tree, Ceratopetalum gummiferum, he writes in ‘What Tree is That?’ (1979). Although it has no practical use, it is beloved throughout its home state and picked lavishly for Christmas decoration.

He goes on to note that the slender tree is hardly noticeable without its flower colour (whew, I haven’t been inattentive). The tree is hardy to -2C. Read more here.

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Photo: Sandra Simpson

Tree of the moment: Grevillea robusta

I’ve been promising myself for years to photograph a Grevillea robusta when the trees are in flower and, finally, in the dying days of 2015 I got round to it!

Native to Australia, the tree’s common name is Silky Oak. Stirling Macoboy says in his handy What Tree is That? book that Grevillea robusta has been “an outstanding success as a street tree, a garden specimen and a source of hard, beautifully grained timber”, adding that it grows all over the tropical and sub-tropical world and has been mass planted for timber in Hawaii.

Kew Garden’s entry for the tree updates the situation in Hawaii, saying that the tree is now considered a serious weed, although is still used as a shade tree in coffee plantations there, as it is in Brazil and India. Grevillea robusta performs the same purpose in tea plantations in China, India and Sri Lanka. Read more here.

It’s even been given ‘weed’ status around Sydney and in the Blue Mountains in its native Australia! You can read more about that here. “It is so easy to grow from seed,” Macoboy says, “you wouldn’t think of propagating it any other way.” And therein lies its danger.

It grows to up to 50m as a tree but oddly enough, is grown as an indoor plant in temperate regions.

The tree’s flowers are attractive to nectar-feeding birds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Grevillea family of plants was named for Charles Francis Greville (1749-1809), Earl of Warwick, Lord of the Admiralty, founder member of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and vice-president of the Royal Society.

Greville, who never married, lived for a long time in London where he indulged his passion for gardening, including having glasshouses in which he grew many rare tropical plants, aided by his friendship with Sir Joseph Banks, and where he coaxed the Vanilla planifolia orchid to flower for the first time under glass, in the winter of 1806-07.

Greville Harbour forms part of D’Urville Island, at the very northern tip of the South Island (New Zealand), and was named to honour his memory  in 1820.

Tree of the moment: Cockscomb

In a front corner of the Botanic Park site in Brookfield, Tauranga is a magnificent cockscomb or cockspur coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli) planted by the late Frank Sydenham who has gifted his 3ha to the city. Oddly, this tree isn’t on Tauranga City Council’s lists of heritage trees or protected trees, or maybe it’s not so strange given that both lists are surprisingly small for a city of 110,000 people!

I noticed the Botanic Park coral tree on the way back from photographing a much smaller tree hanging over a garden fence in the Cherrywood area. Still, the photos will give you the idea (I hope) that a really big tree would look striking.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

As you can possibly see from the flower, coral trees are members of the legume family and are native to the world’s tropical belt – there are many, many varieties.

Stirling Macoboy, in his What Tree is That? book published in 1979, says the wood is brittle “and useless for woodworking”. He also advises that E. crista-galli needs annual pruning back to the main trunk in its younger years, which seems to be what the garden owner has done.

Photo: Sandra Simpson

Macoboy notes that the trees enjoy a climate on “the warm, dry side but seem indifferent to winter cold short of frost”. Tauranga ticks two of those boxes but couldn’t be classed as a dry area.

E. crista-galli, planted as street trees in California, are native to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil (and is the national flower of the first two).

But not all coral trees are summer flowering – Erythrina speciosa is a winter-flowering tree that blooms on bare branches.

Seen in a Mt Maunganui reserve in September – the tui were enjoying it too. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a great article about many different Erythrina trees here.

Food for the soul

The Chorisia speciosa  (floss silk tree) outside the Western Bay of Plenty District Council headquarters at Barkes Corner in Tauranga is in full bloom and what a magnificent sight it is.

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The blooms of the Chorisia reveal the tree’s family connection to the hibiscus. Photo: Sandra Simpson


The late Australian plantsman Stirling Macoboy in his book What Tree is That? (Landsdowne Press, Sydney, in print continuously since 1979, revised in 2006) says the trees are hard to propogate outside their native South America but “the sight of a Chorisia in full bloom is food for the soul”.

He goes on to say that the flowers of one tree will never be the same as the flowers of another tree, differing in colour and structure. “The flowers will be five-petalled and basically pink … but beyond that they may vary from reddish to salmon in colour, their centres white or yellow, marked in deep red or brown, the petals plain or with rippled edges.”

However, and these are things to be considered, the tree grows very tall, 15m-plus, and the trunk is covered in thick thorns. No beauty without the beast.


Thorns on the trunk of a Chorisia. Photo: Sandra Simpson