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New South Wales Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum)

Jeff Howes

A few facts about New South Wales Christmas Bush.....

Ceratopetalum is a small genus of 5 species, all occurring in Australia and New Guinea.

Ceratopetalum gummiferum
  The massed red 'flower' display together with a few much smaller true white flowers.
Ceratopetalum gummiferum
  The enlarged pink/red sepals and some white flowers just starting to enlarge and change colour.
  • Ceratopetalum .... from two Greek words: ceras, a horn and petalon, a petal, referring to the petal shape of one species.
  • gummiferum .... gum bearing, alluding to the richly exuded from cut bark.

The NSW Christmas bush is generally a large shrub or small tree and in cultivation it rarely grows to more than four to five metres high. The leaves are up to 70mm long and are divided into three leaflets which are finely serrated and the new growth is often pink or bronze coloured. Ceratopetalum gummiferum is widespread over the east coast of New South Wales, commonly growing in open forests on sandstone hillsides. In cultivation the plant must have a well drained but moist position, in sun or semi shade. Annual feeding with a slow release fertiliser is beneficial.

Towards the end of December this hardy and reliable plant puts on a great display of red 'flowers' that I admire so much - however all is not what it seems. The true flowers are white in colour and fairly insignificant and are seen in late spring to early November. After pollination by flies and native bees, the sepals, which are the outer series or whorl of flora leaves that protect the flower bud, enlarge and turn deep pink to red in colour enclosing the fruit, a single seed, a nut and the whole fall when ripe. When sowing, the whole fruit with calyx lobes attached should be sown for best results.

Plants known in other Australian states as Christmas Bush are entirely different and have no connection with Ceratopetalum.

Some other examples of plants that enlarge and colour the sepals are the:

  • Tropical South American Bougainvilleas where the actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant.
  • Hydrangea - the flowerheads contain two types of flowers, small fertile flowers in the middle of the flowerhead, and large, coloured, sterile bract-like flowers in a ring around the edge of each flowerhead.

From "Blandfordia', the newsletter of the North Shore Group of the Australian Plants Society, February 2007. Photographs by Jeff Howes.

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