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Ceratopetalum gummiferum – the NSW Christmas Bush

The world needs more trees. And Australia has so many beautiful trees that occur nowhere else on the planet. One such tree is the Ceratopetalum gummiferum, commonly known as the New South Wales Christmas Bush.

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This is a lovely tall shrub or small tree that gets its name from its bright red display at Christmas time in southern NSW. In warmer climates, that colour starts in October and is pretty much done by Christmas, but the name persists.

The botanical name, Ceratopetalum gummiferum, is derived from some distinct features of the plant. The first part comes from two Greek words meaning horned-petal, and the second is a reference to the large amounts of gum which is exuded from the bark when it is cut.

The leaves are bright green, quite small and glossy, with a bronzy tinge when they first emerge. They are very attractive, made up of three distinct parts, each of which has a slightly serrated margin. The masses of small white flowers emerge in spring. But it is the sepals surrounding the flowers that are the star – as the flowers finish and the seeds form, the sepals surrounding them change colour, turning from white to a bright pinky-red. The whole effect is very showy, persisting for several months. The cut stems last for weeks in a vase. For this reason, you will often see lovely bunches of the stems in florists and at markets when they are at their peak.

Ceratopetalum gummiferum  occurs naturally along the NSW coast. It is widespread from about Ulladulla to Evans Head, and more patchy outside of this area. It usually grows in sandy positions, in open forests, heath or moist gullies, in full sun or semi-shade.

It’s a great tree for a home garden, because it stays quite small and is easily pruned. In fact, it will look better if pruned by about a third immediately after flowering. I have read that it shouldn’t be pruned back into hard wood, but I have also read advice contradicting this. One article demonstrated the re-growth of an 8m specimen after it had been pruned back to a stump about 50cm high. So I think you can prune as much as you like.

There are a few named cultivars that you might see in garden centres. ‘Albery’s Red’ is a lovely compact form that is a particularly bright red. ‘Johanna’s Christmas’ is an outstanding miniature form, growing not much more than one metre tall, but it is not as easy to come by.

Like all plants, you will get the best results if you can provide conditions similar to what they enjoy in their natural state. So, in this case, well-drained soil is important. A full sun or partly shaded position would be suitable.

Mulch well, prune after (or during) flowering, and fertilise a couple of times a year with a good complete plant food. The tree will survive dry conditions, but will be healthier and therefore more attractive if it is watered during dry times. And remember that deep watering every now and then is better than a splash on the surface more frequently.

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