11 March, 2011

A Solitary Xanthorrhoea

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A crooked solitary Xanthorrhoea species standing in open grazing land.
Thatch from the old leaves below the crown, the texture of the trunk cleared of thatch by past bush fires

Xanthorrhoea or ‘Blackboys’ are one of the most distinctive plants of Australia’s outback. The common name is said to have originated from the similarity in appearance to the trunked species bearing a flower spike to an Aboriginal boy holding an upright spear. This may be so particular after bush fires when the crown of leaves would be lost to the flames. The common name ‘blackboy’ is now seen as an offensive term by some and they are now more often than not referred to as ‘Grass Trees’. Allthough the plants leaves are distinctively grass like, it is however not a member of the grass family being a nectar producing flowering plant classified in its own family XANTHORRHOEACEAE. Some species can attain respectable tree proportions with a height of around ten metres.

Aboriginals in areas where grass trees are common value the plant for several reasons. Fishing spears are made from the long, strait dried flower spikes. The flowering spike can also be soaked in water, the nectar from the flowers making a sweet drink. The flower spike can also aid navigation in the bush as the flowers often open on the sunny, warmer, northern side of the spike first  The trunk of mature specimens can also yield a resin used in spear making, fixing leaky coolamons (water carriers) and as a useful glue.

This grass tree (top) stood alone on open grassland cleared for grazing land. It was not the most perfect specimen but certainly had character with its multiple heads, crooked trunk and missing limb. Standing around eight feet high it is possibly well over a hundred years old. Young plants are slow to develop but once establishes some species attain height relatively fast. A five metre tall grass tree of a fast growing species could be as young as 200 years or in the case of slower growing species it could be as old as 600.

Looking into the crown of the grass tree, a valuable refuge.

The grassy heads of the plants are an valuable refuge for insects during fast moving bush fires. Insects crawl as far down into the crown as possible. Although the majority of the head of the plant will be lost to the flames the tightly packed growing point offers insulation from the heat. The large amount of thatch around this grass tree sujests that it has been quite a few years since it was last exposed to a bush fire, perhaps as long ago as when the bush may have been cleared away from around it.

Specimens of wild harvested Xanthorrhoea are often sold in nurseries throughout Europe and America for significant prices due to the age and availability of mature plants. The success rate or transplanting is low and customers who have parted with large amounts of cash are left disappointed as their healthy purchase dies slowly over several years.  The species is however easily grown from seed and can produce a respectable plant with a head of leaves of more than a metre within ten years (below). You may have to wait thirty or more years for a seed raised plant to produce an appreciable trunk.

A young grass tree, yet to form a trunk growing in the Blue Mountains near Katoomba in New South Wales.

Emerging flower spike.

The grass tree stands just off a single track outback gravel road we were following to find Nudubbermere Falls at the northern tip of Sundown National Park. The road snakes through the bush out across rolling grazing land then into Eucalyptus forest (below) as the road gets ever narrower, rougher and steeper. Eventually, we to park my car up in the bush, being more of a city run-around car and not a 4x4, and walk the rest of the way. It was not too far until the roar of the falls could be heard over the cicadas. This was back on Australia day when my house mates, Alex, Ale, Mark and Aymeric and I spent the day at a swimming hole beneath the falls, jumping off the rocks, laying in a hot waterfalls heated as small stream flowed over exposed slabs of rock heated by the sun and drank a few beers. Perfect!

Celebrating Australia day at Nundubbermere Falls.

I recently went back to the falls to hike up the valley and explore a little further into the park. From the end of the road the well used path drops steeply down to the falls then you make your own way. Climbing up and over the rocks alongside the water falls through the gorge created by the river Severn the going is rough but fun. Further up streem the valley opens out into open woodland and bush mostly comprised of Callistemon. Like everywhere in the region the flood that roared through in the new year have left their mark, laying the trees and scrub flat in a tangled mass and erasing any path that may have existed before. Being an uninspiring weather day, chilly and grey, I gave up trying to scramble through the scrub, got fed up being covered with spider webs and turned back. The drive in and out was by far more enjoyable. 


The aptly named Falls road winding its way through the bush to Nundubbermere Falls.

The bush on the valley floor laid flat by the recent floods.

Callistemon species in the river valley and a lone red flower among the rocks of the path down to the falls.

Crossing sheep country there are many grids and opening and closing of gates. I found this old rusted beer cap resting in the deep grain of a silver, weathered gate post.


  1. Thanks for a rundown of xanthorrhoea plants! Your photos are amazing too, especially the beer bottle cap. Happy traveling!

  2. jamie have you any idea what the smal red flowered thing is? craig

  3. Unfortunatly not I'm afraid. Cant find it in any books I have but will have a look online over the next few days and see if I can track it down.