A very striking parasite

I RECENTLY EMAILED a photo of the Western Australian Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda, to a Chinese friend in Nanjing. In uncharacteristically gushy fashion, she wrote back rapidly, ‘I like these yellow flowers. They are very beautiful like gold, like honey. I want to eat them!’ Associating my flowers with hers, she then reminded me of meihua, the elegant plum blossom, the subject of much adulation in China.

Often we in Australia know more about the charismatic plants of the northern hemisphere than we do our own. Cherries, roses, tulips, oaks. But what lore of this brilliant golden tree of my part of the world could I tell my virtual friend? To venture an answer, I must begin with a premise: the Christmas tree is a perfect contradiction.

The cultural history of Nuytsia offers a glimpse into what makes Western Australia distinctive. Its legacy reflects the curious and sometimes dismissive, sometimes glowing observations of naturalists, settlers, poets, artists and tourists – many of who regarded (and still regard) the intriguing tree as a symbol of the isolated landscape and its anomalies, conundrums and surprises.

The mellifluous name Nuytsia floribunda is of two inflections. The first bears the weight of Pieter Nuyts, the violent Dutch explorer and ambassador who mapped Australia’s southern coastline from Albany to Ceduna in 1626 on the Dutch East India Company’s vessel Gulden Zeepaard (Golden Sea-horse). The crew recorded seeing Nuytsia near Walpole. However, I speculate that the first flashes of land spotted by an earlier Dutch mariner, Dirk Hartog, and those aboard the Eendrachtsland in early 1617 as they approached the coast of New Holland, could have been the young blossoms of the Christmas tree – burning yellow and orange, iridescent against the earthen browns and ochres of the landscape.

The second inflection, floribunda, evokes the incandescent aura swallowing the tree for several weeks in the late spring and early summer in Australia’s South West. This ecoregion extends in a triangular shape from Shark Bay in the north-west to Israelite Bay in the south-east, close to the fabled ivory-sand beaches of Esperance. The South West is recognised internationally as a biodiversity hotspot with almost half of its plant species, including the Christmas tree, occurring nowhere else. Such a rate of plant endemism is extraordinary.

Nevertheless, few outside of Australia (and perhaps few within) would recognise a Christmas tree that is not an evergreen with a pleasingly tapering figure: rotund and earthward at the bottom, lean and heavenward at the top. But beauty oversteps the hard lines of biology, geography and culture. If beauty is a language (from lingua, the tongue), it can be tasted.

MY FRIEND’S SYNAESTHESIA aside, the WA Christmas tree is gorgeous enough to eat. Over one hundred years ago, Ethel Hassell became aware of this. In 1878, aged twenty-one, she took up pastoral life with her husband, Albert, at Jarramungup, a sheep station north-east of Albany. On a late December, post-Christmas trip to socialise with neighbours fifty miles away, Hassell reported ‘in the distance on the plains a clump of the most beautiful tall trees covered with deep orange-coloured blossoms’. At closer range, she and Albert observed Noongar people busily prying up the roots, or mungah, of Nuytsia, ‘tasting very like sugar-candy…sweet and more or less of a watery nature’.[i] Not only a quick (though laborious, by the standard of the mini-mart) carb kick, mungah were woody reservoirs during the long dry of the Western Australian summer. Sources of ‘beauty as well as bread’ (to quote the early American nature writer John Muir), Christmas trees have been, for thousands of years, oases in these sandy plains hugging the Indian Ocean.

Indeed, to appreciate Nuytsia and its sweet side is to know the tree from the roots up – to avert one’s gaze from the easy magnetism of its flowering canopy and to become subterranean, at least figuratively. One of the world’s largest mistletoes, Nuytsia is half plant, half parasite. Its rootlets, known to botantists as haustoria, feel discerningly in the earth for various hosts, while its leaves convert sunlight into carbohydrates, as all good plants do. The tree is more accurately a hemiparasite – a producer and consumer that pilfers nutrients from other fibrous bodies (from banksias and couch grass to utility lines), a perfectly adapted contradiction comfortably at home in the thicket of binaries we impose on the natural world. In other words, as the early twentieth-century botanist DA Herbert put it, Nuytsia exerts ‘the power of independent existence after it has once become established’.[ii]

In 1919, Herbert became the first to confirm the uncanny parasitism of Nuytsia – a subject of sustained debate among Australian botanists until then. Lugging his lantern slides and photographs into the WA Museum at a meeting of the Royal Society, Herbert demonstrated ‘the method of attack…two white fleshy arms start to grow round the attacked root in opposite directions from the point of contact’.[iii] When the two ‘arms’ meet, they fuse, encircling the host root like a wire clamp. Herbert concluded that through ‘simple osmosis’ (rather than cellular synthesis between host and invader) the root’s ‘tongue-like masses of tissue’ furtively glean the food they are after through this process. But the haustoria never penetrate the host’s deeper layers of wood, indicating that the nutrition is supplemental, rather than primary. The evidence was well received. Herbert’s paper was applauded as ‘one of the most important that has ever been read before the society’.

In addition to banksias, utility lines have become foci of the hemiparasite’s oral fixation. Vincent Serventy, in his book Dryandra: The Story of an Australian Forest (Reed, 1970), provides an anecdote about the species’ disconcerting culinary habits and an unlikely target – a space tracking station (presumably the Muchea Tracking Station, 1960–64), connected by underground cables two centimetres in diameter buried thirty centimetres in the sandy soil and insulated with a polymer coating to thwart fungi, termites, acids and other agents of decay. Serventy wrote, ‘All went well until six months later. Somewhere the cables had short-circuited. The engineer raised the cable and found encircling it rings of white flesh.’[iv] The carnivorous clamping mechanism was the same that Herbert had described some fifty years earlier with lantern slides. To the dismay of NASA’s Project Mercury, the haustoria nibbled the plastic sheath, taste-testing the cables inside, but probably experienced a case of hemiparasitic indigestion. Serventy quips that Nuytsia would have suffered ‘some disgust, one imagines, as there would be little nourishment in those messages from outer space’.

But to label the haustoria ‘non-discriminating’, as many botanists do, is wrong-headed and verging on the ecologically impolite. Although seemingly misplaced at times, the root system is discerning, opportunistic and ardent. Considering that it evolved in the mid-Eocene – roughly fifty million years ago – sampling of the inorganic is to be expected. According to botanist Stephen Hopper, Nuytsia came about following a period of high sea levels when the coast of the South West consisted of islands and peninsulas.[v] Adapted to the infertile and weathered soils of the ecoregion, the endemic flora, including the seasonally flamboyant Christmas tree, has thrived through isolation. Buried utility lines, in comparison, are newbies to the scene, the first telegraph line in Western Australia being laid from Perth to Fremantle in 1869. In another fifty million years, Nuytsia could figure out how to digest space-aged polymers. If intelligence entails, among other things, the capacity to evolve and adapt, then we have a genius in our midst.

In the Noongar language, the tree is mudja, a marker of birok – one of the six seasons in the traditional calendar of the South West. Nuytsia is intimately connected to the afterlife and, according to the early twentieth-century ethnographer Daisy Bates, has been considered ‘sacred for its spiritual memories’.[vi] As Noongar elder Noel Nannup explained to me, the Christmas tree’s ecology and spiritual significance are interwoven: ‘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.’

EARLIER LAST YEAR, I interviewed centenarian botanist David Goodall, who immigrated to Australia from England in 1948. In his university office (he still goes to campus each day) I asked what his first impressions of Western Australia were. Without blinking, he answered: ‘The Christmas tree. A very striking parasite.’

Perhaps you have noticed already. Nuytsia is not your run-of-the-mill Aussie tree like, say, the gum (no offense, eucalypts). Since the founding of the Swan River Colony in 1829, its combination of striking beauty and physiological peculiarity flummoxed observers and influenced its naming. Settlers came up with colloquialisms – many descriptive, some humorous, a few poetic.

‘Fire tree’ expresses the visual radiance of the species, framing the abundant blossom as a harbinger of burning. The golden profusion corresponds to the onset of bushfire season in the South West. In A Sketch of the Vegetation of the Swan River Colony (1839–40), the first substantial published account of the local flora, John Lindley comments that ‘such is the abundance of the orange-coloured blossoms, that the Colonists at King George’s Sound compare it to a tree on fire; hence it has gained the name of “Fire tree”’.[vii] Lindley never visited the Colony (unlike the contemporaneous naturalist James Mangles); instead, he relied on the previous accounts of botanists and cartographers, as well as word-of-mouth from settlers.

Other scriveners recorded ‘cabbage tree’ as an olfactory, tactile and visual moniker for Nuytsia. One would expect that the pungent, slightly foetid smell of the tree’s cut wood stung the nostrils of pastoralists as they cleared the vegetation. Just a few years ago, my own sniffing glands were overtaken by a whiff of broken Christmas tree as I tramped around a suburban Perth bushland reserve. Mild sinusitis and a vague feeling of euphoria ensued. Strangely pleasurable. In 1846, the settler George Fletcher Moore referenced the term ‘cabbage tree’ along with its Noongar and scientific names in the following: ‘Mut-yal, – Nuytsia floribunda; colonially, cabbage-tree. The only loranthus or parasite that grows by itself. Another anomaly in this land of contradictions. It bears a splendid orange flower.’[viii] Loranthus refers to the showy mistletoe family, the Loranthaceae.

But the exact categorisation of the ‘anomaly’ into a plant family evaded morphologists during the nineteenth century. Philippe Édouard Léon van Tieghem, a colleague of Louis Pasteur, created the family Nuytsiaceae in 1896. But ten years on, Ludwig Diels reclassified the Christmas tree as a genuine Loranthaceae.

The algologist William Harvey, in a letter to Hooker’s Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany in 1854, mentions Nuytsia. Concerning its parasitism, he thought ‘it highly probable that there is underground attachment to the roots of other plants’.[ix] Like other botanical writers, Harvey liberally garnished scientific assessment with aesthetic impressions and folk knowledge, specifically the tree’s unusual likening to one of the world’s healthiest foods. But he strikes me as a bit cool and restrained – like a kelp, and unlike other more effusive Nuytsia commentators. ‘It is a very deformed-looking tree at best, but gay enough when in blossom; its leaves, too, are of a very beautiful tender green. They call it the Cabbage-tree.’[x] ‘Cabbage’ could either refer to the tenderness of its leaves or the ease with which the axes of settlers penetrated its pithy wood. The metaphor could also imply a modicum of stinkiness. These names persisted throughout the nineteenth century. For now, let’s take all three senses of the figuration.

The most effusive colonial-era observer of our tree would have to be Marianne North. The peripatetic botanical artist produced a very fine painting of Nuytsia, now held at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In Study of the West Australian Flame-tree or Fire-tree (circa 1880), a gracefully fluted and pleasantly mottled trunk trifurcates about halfway between the earth and a crown of deep green foliage and golden tufts. North placed the elegantly composed Nuytsia – albeit curiously elm-like – at the crest of a rise, aside a foot track that descends to the vast floor of the purplish plains in the distance. This is most likely somewhere along the Darling Scarp, perhaps during North’s overland trip to Perth shortly after her arrival at Albany.

I have been on the lookout for her Christmas tree for the last six years, since I came to Western Australia from the northern hemisphere. But I have yet to find such a symmetrical specimen in the wild or anywhere else. Instead, Nuytsia comes in all shapes and sizes, from spare-looking, wind-sculpted bushes near Lucky Bay in the region’s south-east corner to dazzlingly unkempt hemiparasites near Perth Airport on the Swan River coastal plain. I agree with Harvey, most are ‘very deformed-looking’ trees, but their anomalous growth habits make them alluring, captivating, surprising. Their bark is dark and rough and, on older trees, fractures into a raised pattern of small crevasses and rectangular chunks.

North recounts her memory of Nuytsia in Recollections of a Happy Life (Macmillan, 1892), an impressive two-volume memoir detailing her travels from Canada, the United States and Brazil to India, South Africa and Western Australia. Surprisingly, I found an original copy of this work in the stacks of a local university library, not sequestered in a special collections area. In Volume II, she deploys the colloquialism ‘mistletoe tree’: ‘I shall never forget one plain we came to, entirely surrounded by the Nuytsia or mistletoe trees, in a full blaze of bloom. It looked like a bush-fire without smoke. The trees are, many of them, as big as average oaks in our hedgerows at home and the stems are mere pith, not wood.’[xi] This curious pithiness later led to the cutting down of Christmas trees for recreational purposes – the wood of the species being ‘a resilient, though durable, target for steel darts’[xii] – and sparked the outrage of conservationists.

In the 1920s, Emily Pelloe, another botanical artist, noted some of the folk beliefs surrounding Nuytsia. To pick its flowers before Christmas Day is unlucky. To use it as a wedding decoration is to bring misfortune to the bride. A few of these beliefs continue today. Like the anti-dart contingent, who opposed the harvesting of Nuytsia wood for the manufacturing of dartboards, Pelloe also pleaded for the conservation of the world’s ‘most gorgeous botanical spectacle’.[xiii]

I WATCHED A lone Nuytsia, transplanted from the northern suburbs where its habitat was cleared for housing, languish for several years on the campus of my university, until one day it disappeared, removed surgically and silently by the grounds staff. It is known that uprooted Christmas trees rarely survive – their underground universes too sensitive, their ancient logos not readily translatable to another locale. Meanwhile, a stone’s throw away at the local golf course, they irrupted all through early summer like miniature suns, ‘like a fire in the woods’, as James Drummond remarked in the 1800s.[xiv] It had been a sodden spring season. In remnant patches of vegetation in suburban Perth, hemiparastic miracles go on as they have since the mid-Eocene, despite bushland clearing, vandalism and disease.

A Nuytsia specimen bloomed at the Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1842, but died in 1883. Maybe North was aware of this. She finishes her glowing recollection with a fitting disclaimer that ‘they have never succeeded in cultivating those trees in captivity’.[xv] Pelloe concurs regarding ‘the hopelessness of its artificial propagation’.[xvi] This saga played out during Georgiana Molloy’s short life. At the behest of Mangles in 1839, Molloy took up the task of collecting seeds – an arduous preoccupation that would last until her death in 1843. She wrote apologetically to the captain, conceding that ‘I have been four times out in quest of Nuytsia and send you the small, small harvest. They are very difficult to obtain, if not there the very day they ripen.’[xvii]

Molloy’s labours were much later memorialised by Alan Alexander in his beautiful poem ‘Nuytsia Floribunda’:

The parasite Floribunda for my drowned son.
How delicate they are, these stars at random.[xviii]

Stars at random. Georgiana, her lost son and her elusive seeds bring home to me that this striking parasite is a heritage that can too easily be wiped out by unchecked ‘development’ in the South West and the global impacts of climate disturbance. The irony nowadays, to my mind, is that the fiery blossom continues to symbolise what is unique about Western Australia, while the uniqueness becomes increasingly threatened. State identity through endemic flora is not a new story. It sits uncomfortably alongside the destruction of plant life.

In 2010, at the request of the Premier’s Department, Jan Pittman’s illustration of Nuytsia was featured as one of Colin Barnett’s Christmas cards. Yet hundreds of Nuytsia were expunged in the summer of 2013 to make way for the expansion of Perth Airport. I feel a pang of loss tinged with revulsion as I pass along the Great Eastern Highway where the trees once stood, the first living specks of colour noted by visitors flying into Perth for the summer holidays. The ‘not threatened’ conservation status of Nuytsia cannot tell this story.

Recently, the Christmas tree has been selected by Earthwatch Institute as an indicator species.[xix] Its ClimateWatch initiative involves large-scale data collection by citizens in an effort to demonstrate the ecological impacts of climate change. Although the results are inconclusive, one aspect has been made clearer: Nuytsia is a highly resilient species that, for nearly fifty million years, has evolved with a fire-prone landscape. And other species rely on it, just as it depends on them. For instance, the Christmas tree is the only suitable nesting tree for the yellow-rumped thornbill (Acanithiza chrysorrhoa) several years after a bushfire.

THE ‘VERY STRIKING parasite’ is a state of mind, a mode of consciousness in Western Australia. It’s an aureate tuft in peripheral vision. It’s a sting in the nose, a sweet watery sap. It’s beauty and bread. Marianne North got Nuytsia right – it occupies the centre, but also wafts in from the margin. It’s a perfect contradiction in an imperfect world.

[i] Hassell, E 1975, My Dusky Friends: Aboriginal Life, Customs and Legends and Glimpses of Station Life at Jarramungup in the 1880s, CW Hassell, East Fremantle, p. 26.

[ii] Herbert, DA 1919, quoted in ‘The Christmas Tree: Its Parasitic Nature’, The West Australian, 16 April, p. 6.

[iii] Herbert, p. 6.

[iv] Serventy, V 1970, Dryandra: The Story of an Australian Forest, AH & AW Reed, Sydney, p. 106.

[v] Hopper, S 2010, ‘Nuytsia Floribunda’, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 333–368.

[vi] Bates, D & Bridge, PJ (ed.) 1992, Aboriginal Perth and Bibbulmun Biographies and Legends, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, p. 153.

[vii] Lindley, J 1840, A Sketch of the Vegetation of the Swan River Colony, James Ridgway, London, p. xxxix.

[viii] Moore, GF 1842, Descriptive Vocabulary of the Language in Common Use Amongst the Aborigines of Western Australia, WM Orr & Co, Paternoster Row, London, p. 80.

[ix] Harvey, W & Hooker WJ (ed.) 1854, ‘Extract of a Letter from Dr. Harvey, dated Cape Riche, West Australia, March 12, 1854’, Hooker’s Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany, vol. 6, p. 219.

[x] Harvey, p. 219.

[xi] North, M 1892, Recollections of a Happy Life, vol. 2, Macmillan, London, p. 153.

[xii] ‘Christmas Trees Cut Down to Make Dart Boards’, Sunday Times, 1 December 1940, p. 7.

[xiii] Pelloe, E 1926, ‘The Christmas Tree: A Plea for Preservation’. The West Australian, 27 December, p. 5.

[xiv] Hopper, S 2010, ‘Nuytsia Floribunda’, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 26, no. 4, p. 341.

[xv] North, p. 153.

[xvi] Pelloe, p. 5.

[xvii] Hasluck, A 1955, Portrait with Background: A Life of Georgiana Molly, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, p. 241.

[xviii] Alexander, A 1979, ‘Nuytsia Floribunda’ in Wide Domain: Western Australian Themes and Images, Bennett, B & Grono, W (eds.), Angus & Robertson, London, p. 53–54.

[xix] Ashbolt, P, Quaife, B & Ryan-Charles, S 2012, ‘Phenological Aspects of Nuytsia floribunda’, Cygnus, vol. 1, pp. 207–217.


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