Harbingers of Christmas
Western Australian Christmas Trees, in a paddock by the York-Lakes Road
Driving up to the Avon valley yesterday. I noticed that the WA Christmas Trees are just coming into bloom. I pass several clumps of them in paddocks, or single trees in the bush near the Lakes-York Road. I love to see them coming out, as they do every year in about mid-December. They remind me of my childhood, but also that Christmas is just around the corner (yet again!).
The WA Christmas Tree (Nuytsia floribunda) is also known by its Noongar name, Moojar. To quote from my book York Gum Chronicles:
Moojar has a special significance to the Noongar people. According to my former colleague and respected Noongar Elder Noel Nannup: “A spirit sits on the tree until it flowers. Then the spirit moves on to the spirit world in conjunction with easterly winds and fire, which take the spirit out over the sea”.
The early settlers called it Fire Tree. This was partly because of the striking shaft of firelight from its blossom. The 19th century artist Marianne North wrote in her memoirs: “I shall never forget one plain we came to, entirely surrounded by the Nuytsia in a full blaze of bloom. It looked like a bush-fire without smoke”.
Fire Tree near Albany in WA, a painting by Marianne North in 1880
I have always thought that Fire Tree was an appropriate name for another reason: the flowering signifies the onset of hot summer weather and the beginning of the fire season. In my long years involved with bushfires in the south-west, the first bad fire of summer always seemed to occur on Christmas Day – the telephone bell would ring just as I had the carving knife poised over the roast duck.
As for reminders of youth, when I was a youngster there was a large area of bush over the road from our house. I spent as much time in that bush as I did in the house. I will never forget one day picking a bunch of flowers off one of the numerous moojar trees that grew there and taking it home for my mother. To my surprise Mum shoo-ed me straight back outside. "It is bad luck to bring Christmas Tree flowers into a house" she explained. Perhaps it was, but I soon found out there was a more practical reason - the blossom was always thick with ants and bees.
Moojar blossom – alive with bees and ants.
In and around the Perth suburbs of Palmyra and Bicton, where I cycle almost daily, there are other trees that I have come to regard as harbingers of Christmas. These are growing as street trees, or in suburban parks or gardens. My favourites include two indigenous eucalypts, the coral gum (E torquata) and the red-flowering gum (E ficifolia)
Coral gum is at its best in late November, but the blossom can be found right into mid-December and the lead-up to Christmas. I planted a clump of them, about 20 trees, on our place up on the Avon River, and in early summer every year, they drip with gorgeous blossom. This is a spray picked from one of my trees, gracing the kitchen table in a vase:
It would be hard to find a finer street tree than coral gum. Apart from the beautiful blossom, they have silvery-grey foliage which contrasts nicely with the heavy dark bark. For a Western Australian eucalypt it is surprisingly shady, and they will not grow up into the powerlines, requiring butchering by Western Power or the local Council.
Mid-December also sees the red-flowering gum (E ficifolia) bursting into flower. Not just one of our loveliest trees, and harbinger of Christmas, it is also one of WA's best exports. I have seen them in Adelaide and Melbourne, and they are a very common street tree in San Francisco, in fact throughout southern California. In Perth they are at their best around Christmas. In their natural habitat down on the south coast, the flowers are a bright scarlet, rather like the tree in the picture below, but plant breeders have been fooling around with them, and you can now find trees where the blossom ranges from pink to a deep vermillion. The entire crown of the tree can be a mass of flowers.
Numerous tropical tree species do well in Perth. Sometimes people are surprised by this because Perth has a temperate (Mediterranean) climate with very hot, dry summers. However, the sandy soils of the coastal plain on which Perth is built have a shallow fresh-water aquifer that trees can easily get their toes into. Exotic tropical species are tricked into thinking they are in the tropics, experiencing hot weather and plentiful water.
One of my favourite tropical imports is the Mexican frangipani which comes into bloom here in about mid-December and is therefore also a harbinger of Christmas. I love them because they are so showy, but also because of their sublime perfume. We have one in the front of our house here in Palmyra. This one has white flowers, but you see them in various shades of pink and yellow.
However, without doubt my favourite harbinger of Christmas is the poinciana (Delonix regia) tree. Readers in Queensland will yawn over this, as the tree is so common in Brisbane and nearly every coastal Qld town I have ever visited, that Queenslanders have become blasé about its magnificence. But in Perth, poinciana trees are relatively rare, found mostly in the older suburbs, usually in a front garden where they have grown into a substantial tree, completely taking over. I know all of the 20 or so poinciana trees within a 10 km radius of my place, and visit them every year in the lead-up to Christmas. Like the Illawarra Flame Tree (another Christmas harbinger) on our front verge, the poincianas in Perth only flower really well every second or third year, but when they do, they are simply breathtaking. I snapped this one with my phone when I was out on the bicycle one day. It is just up the hill from our place in Palmyra:
My career as a forester (especially the latter years) has brought frustration, disillusionment, and even grief when you take into account the needless destruction of our lovely forests by bushfires and bauxite mining. But there are compensations. Chief amongst these is the passion for trees which comes with being a forester, and the pleasures derived from them. How lucky we are that trees are still all around us, things of beauty that are a joy forever (to coin a phrase), and in such a pleasing multitude of colours, shapes and sizes.
To be reminded (by a tree) that Christmas is just around the corner is also handy. There are appointments to keep, functions to attend or sometimes organise, and last-minute presents to acquire, wrap and secrete in a quiet spot. It is also my duty every year to provide a 'Christmas Tree' to be decorated and stood in a corner in the house, with interesting parcels at its foot. For this I disdain the use of American pine or European spruce, but bring a small sheoak sapling in from the bush. It does the job, and brings to the Yuletide season a touch of Australiana - as do those wonderful flowering eucalypt trees, the harbingers of Christmas.
Felicitations for the season to all my readers!
14 December, 2022