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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Christmas Nature

With Christmas imminent, I've put together some totally inconsequential and non-sequiturial Christmas-and-nature-associated images for my penultimate post of 2017. In southern Australia there are several plants commonly called 'Christmas Something' because of their summer flowering. (There is also a lovely-looking Christmas Orchid Calanthe triplicata, found on the eastern Australian coast and far beyond, through south-east Asia and across the Indian Ocean, but I've never had the pleasure.)
New South Wales Christmas Bush Ceratopetalum gummiferum, family Cunoniaceae.
(Actually I think it's more of a tree, but that's just me.)
It is found in rainforest gullies in New South Wales north and south of Sydney.
The flowers are actually small, inconspicuous and white, but after they're pollinated they
disintegrate and the hitherto non-obvious sepals grow and turn red; surely this is associated
with seed distribution, but I can't discover what animal is being attracted.
It really seems that we don't know.
The earliest use of the name Christmas Bush for this plant (according to the Australian National Dictionary) was in 1838 in a series of essays entitled The Australian Sketch Book by 18 year old James Martin, who went on to serve in the NSW parliament, and later as Chief Justice. However as far as I can discover, there are no newspaper references to the name for another nearly 20 years. This is puzzling as Martin had noted that the tree was already becoming scarce near towns due to excessive cutting for domestic use at Christmas time. I found this illustration on the website of the Australian National Botanic Gardens, but when I tried to find the original (in the Sydney Mail of 23 December 1882 as cited on the site) I failed utterly, then or in any December issue. It seems that the reference is incorrect, but I can't do better. 
The description on the web site is: "A boatload of Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) being rowed towards Sydney for sale in the markets." It's a huge load for just one consignment!
This one really is limited to the state of its name, unlike Victorian Christmas Bush Prostanthera lasianthos, which is found in mountain forests right up through New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory to southern Queensland, and in Tasmania. It's in Family Lamiaceae, which also includes many of the Mediterranean culinary herbs; like them most Prostantheras (also known as mint bushes) have aromatic foliage, presumably to deter munching insects.
'Victorian' Christmas Bush, Namadgi National Park, near Canberra.
It's often explained that the profusely flowering prickly shrub Bursaria spinosa (Family Pittosporaceae) is known as Christmas Bush in Tasmania, but I grew up in Adelaide also calling it that. Unlike the previous two species it grows in dry forests, where there often isn't much else out in mid-summer; it is hugely attractive to native insect pollinators.
Bursaria spinosa (also known as Blackthorn and Sweet or Prickly Bursaria, among other names)
Namadgi National Park.

Fiddler Beetles Eupoecila australasiae enjoying a romantic dinner of Bursaria spinosa pollen,
Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
In Western Australia there is no doubt that Christmas Tree refers to a spectacular endemic tree which produces great golden candles of flowers in December in woodlands and heathlands throughout the south-west. It's a root parasite, in the same family as the mistletoes, Loranthaceae, but rather than take nutrient from just one host, its roots tap into those of numerous other plants in its vicinity.
WA Christmas Tree, Torndirrup NP; unexpectedly this one was flowering in September.
Another well-known eastern Australian 'Christmas' plant is actually a genus of four species of lilies, known as Christmas Bells. They are the sole members of the family Blanfordiaceae. They too were widely harvested as Christmas decorations; now they're cultivated for the purpose.
Blandfordia nobilits, Currarong, south coast New South Wales.
Plants however don't have a monopoly on the Christmas tag. A Christmas Beetle can be any of some 35 Australian big glossy scarab beetles in the genus Anoplognathus, which appear, sometimes in large numbers, browsing on eucalypt foliage around Christmas time. They are very attractive animals indeed.
Anoplognathus montanus (I am almost certain), Canberra.
I don't normally feature dead animals here, but this recently deceased Beetle which I found just outside my study, is too glorious not to enjoy, from two angles! At the time of posting I hadn't been able to identify it - and my friend Suzi Bond has since pointed out that this is because it's not actually a Christmas Beetle, but a Golden Stag Beetle Lamprina aurata. Nonetheless I'll let it stay, because I'm sure I'm not the only one to have made that mistake and it's still very aesthetic and it's Christmas!

There is also an attractive and at times abundant little spider widely known as Jewel Spider, but also often as Christmas Spider, as that's when it makes itself conspicuous. It's a member of the family of orb-weavers, but unlike most of its relations it doesn't eat its web each morning to re-spin at night, but leaves it up permanently. Moreover it is strongly colonial so the conglomeration of webs can be a hazard for bush-walkers! Obviously they don't want great clumsy bipeds (or even quadrupeds) barging through them, so they 'tag' them with little silk tufts to make them more visible.

Christmas or Jewel Spider Austracantha minax, Canberra; it is the only member of its genus.
This is a female, with orange or yellow legs; males have black legs.
Finally, what about 'Christmas' places? Christmas Island would be an obvious one, but I've not been there. A less well-known site is Christmas Rock, just outside the wildflower-lovers' mecca of Wongan Hills in the wheatbelt of north-east of Perth, Western Australia. Let's end this pleasant meander with a stroll around the rock.

Salmon Gum Eucalyptus salmonophloia.

One-sided Bottlebrush Calothamnus quadrifidus, Myrtaceae.

Raspberry Jam Wattle Acacia acuminata, named for the delicious scent of the freshly cut wood
(not that I've ever tried doing so!).

Boronia sp.
Solanum sp.
Pink Candy Orchid Caladenia hirta. I'm not sure about this name, not least because we don't use the term 'candy' in Australia!
And that will do for this piece of frippery. I can only hope you've got some pleasure out of it, and that however you mark Christmas, you'll be able to find time to enjoy some of the natural world too.

I'll see you (I hope) once more this year, for my now traditional last day photo summary of the year.

NEXT POSTING SUNDAY 31 DECEMBER.
(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)



1 comment:

sandra h said...

the reference re the image of boatload of Christmas Bush is correct. The image appears in the middle of a poem called "Christmas Bushes. A Reverie". The image is just called Christmas Bushes
The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser
Sat 23 Dec 1882
Page 1125

Have a great 2018 Ian

Sandra H.