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No. 182: Ceratopetalum gummiferum,


The Christmas Tree or Bush.


Botanical description.

— Genus, Ceratopetalum. (See Part VI, p. 127.)

Botanical description.

— Species, C. gummiferum, Sm., Bot. Nov. Holl., t. 3.

A tree attaining 30 to 40 feet.

Leaflets 3, lanceolate, in some specimens all under 1 1/2 inch long, in others mostly twice that size, obtuse or obtusely acuminate, obtusely serrulate, narrowed at the base, coriaceous, shining, penniveined and strongly reticulate.

Cymes or panicles loosely trichotomous, the common peduncle shorter or longer than the leaves.

Calyx-lobes in flower scarcely above 1 line long, in fruit linear-oblong, fully inch long.

Petals rather shorter than the calyx, deeply cut into 3 to 5 very narrow lobes.

Stamens as long as the calyx.

Fruit without the wings above 11/2 lines diameter, the adnate calyx-tube strongly ribbed. (B.Fl. ii, 442.)

Botanical Name.

— Ceratopetalum, already explained (see Part VI, p. 127) gummiferum, Latin, gum-bearing. See "Exudation" below.

This, Mr. White informs us, is one of the trees, for there are several, it seems, besides the Eucalyptus resinifera (mentioned in his Voyage, p. 231) which produce the red gum, i.e., the astringent kino which was early sent to England for medicinal purposes, having previously been tested by Surgeon-General White and the doctors here. (Smith, original description, p. 10)

The Family Cunoniaceæ.

Ceratopetalum is found in the "Flora Australiensis" under Saxifragaceæ. The Cunoniaceæ are united in all British systems with the Saxifragaceæ, but are kept as a distinct Family in Engler's "Natürliche Pflanzenfamilien." They are distinguished chiefly in habit from the true Saxifragaceæ; they always have opposite or whorled leaves, with often very conspicuous stipules, and are always trees or shrubs, while the latter have alternate or radical leaves without stipules, and are mostly herbaceous, though the whole tribe of Escalloniæ consists of shrubs or small trees.

Bentham and Hooker's system in the "Genera Plantarum" is "Natural" only in the main groups — and not even that; the position of the Gymnospermæ is quite unnatural — the grouping of the families into Polypetaleæ, Monopetaleæ, and Monochlamydeæ is almost as artificial as Linne's system, based on the stamens.

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At the same time, the "Genera Plantarum" was an enormous step in advance. Mueller's system, published in his "Census," is almost as unnatural; he, merely gives one artificial system in place of another. Engler, profiting by study of the earlier systems, and with access to vast stores of additional information, to which he himself contributed, has produced the most natural system at present Known, though it is doubtless not yet a perfect Natural System. The extent of the Families is still somewhat a matter of opinion; it does not matter much whether the Cunoniaceæ are regarded as a separte Familly, or as Tribe of the Saxifragaceæ, but as we are mainly following Engler in the rearrangement of the Families in the new Census of New South Wales plants, it is convenient to follow his view with regard to the extent of the Families as far as possible.

Vernacular Names.

— "Light-Wood," "Officer Plant," "Christmas Tree." "A beautifull flowering plant, rendered conspicuous from afar by the brilliant scarlet colour of the persistent calyxes of its numerous flowers; used for the decoration of churches at Christmas, whence one, of its local names."

So wrote Sir William Macarthur nearly sixty years ago "Officer Plant " is an allusion to the bright coloured tunics of the officers, and the name "Light Wood" was given to this tree the very first year of settlement.

Aboriginal Name.

— I know of none, though. it is not possible that such a conspicuous plant could have escaped their special notice.


— The flowers Are white, small, and very dainty, But they are not particularly conspicuous. What are usually known as the "flowers" are the enlarged calyces which heighten in colour to a more or less deep scarlet.


— By well wounding the, tree, or, better still, by felling a tree and cutting it into logs, there exudes a kino of exceptionally beautiful appearance. It is of a rich ruby colour, perfectly transparent, very tough, though when it has become thoroughly hard it. breaks with a bright fracture. It is exceedingly astringent, sticks to the teeth, and obviously contains a large propportion of gummy matter.

The resinous substance also exudes from the leaves, which causes them to slightly stick to the papers as dried Specimens.

The first parcel of C. gummferum gum I received was in small tears of a beautiful ruby colour, perfectly transparent, and having a bright fracture. It is powerfully astringent to the taste, sticks to the teeth, and obviously contains a large proportion of gummy matter. This sample was removed from the cut ends of a log, from which it, exuded in small drops and in thin pieces which dried very quickly. The tree was 6 to 9 inches in diameter. It seems, as far as our experience goes at present, that ringbarking or wounding the tree, or even cutting it, down merely, is of little avail to obtain the gum; the tree must be cut into

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logs or pieces, so that the timber is open at both ends, before the gum will exude in any quantity. It remains to be seen whether the gum exudes most freely in summer.

I have received a cake of the substance obtained by draining the ends of a severed log on to a plate. When first received it was exceedingly tough; but on exposure to the air for two or three months, it fractured without difficulty between the fingers. The fractures are quite bright. It has no odour. To cold water it imparts a dark, rich orange-brown colour; at the same time, the insoluble portion forms a bulky gelatinous mass.

In bulk, the gum of C. apetalum appears in no way different from that of C. gummiferum. It, however, smells more or less strongly of coumarin, which is also contained in abundance, in the bark. It is obtained either by, wounding the tree or by felling it. In cold water it swells up largely, and at the same time, possesses a good deal of coherence. It imparts to the water a pale orange-brown colour and an intense odour of coumarin.


— "He (Surgeon-General White) further remarks that it is the only wood of the country that will swim in water." (Smith; original description, p. 10) This is the earliest reference to the timber. It shows that trees of fair size grew about Sydney, and, knowing as we do the great demand there was for soft wood, one can readily understand how the plant, as a tree, Would soon be exterminated in the vicinity of the infant town.

This wood is fine-grained, of a reddish colour, and is used occasionally by turners. It is useful for tool handles. A slab of this wood in the Technological Museum,which has been seasoned over twenty-five years (having been exhibited at the London International Exhibition of 1862), hug a weight which corresponds to 41 lb. 14 oz. per cubic foot.

In the South Coast district it is used for house-work, butter kegs, &c. (Forester J. S. Allan).


— This plant is usually called "Christmas-bush" for the reason that the people of Sydney, where the plant is in such great demand, ralely see it in any other form than that of a bush, i.e,. young plants or second growth. I have told many Sydney people, much to their surprise, that it attains the magnitude of medium sized or even large tree.

Following are some figures:—

Bermagui district. Height 40–90 feet, diameter 1-2 feet. (Forester J.S. Allan.) Termeil Creeck, Bateman's bay district, 50 feet high, diameter 1 foot (J.H.M.). The above are South Coast localities.

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At Linden, Blue Mountains, there is one specimen (see photo.) over 30 feet high, and over 18 inches in diameter (Dr. A. Houison and J.H.M.).

Port Macquarie to Comboyne Brush, 20–30 feet to first branch, and up to 4 feet or more in girth. (Forester G.R. Brown.)

Head of Bellinger, 25–30 feet high, diameter 12–15 inches. (Forester Mecham.) Murwillumbah, Tweed River, 20 feet high, 8 inches diameter. (Forester Pope.) Moonambah, Tweed River, 60 feet high, 15 inches diameter. (W. Baeuerlen.)


— It is confined to New South Wales, so far as we know, but in view, of the fact that it is of large size in the Bermagui district, I expect to hear of its discovery in East Gippsland, Victoria, sooner or later. It extends to the Tweed in New South Wales, and one may be absolutely certain that it will be found across the border in Queensland.

In the Flora Australiensis it is recorded from Port Jackson to the Blue Mountains only. It is found in various places about Sydney, and I know a plant of it (which is never permitted to flourish) in the Sydney Domain.

In the Blue Mountains we have it from Lapstone Hill (R.H. Cambage), while it is a large tree at Linden (Dr. A. Houison, J.H.M.). This is the farthest west known to me.

Following are coastal localities:—

South. — Kiama to Bermagui (east of Coast Range) (Forester J.S. Allan, Milton); Termeil Creek (J.H.M.); Conjola, near Milton (W. Heron).

North. — Stroud (A. Rudder). In small patches from about 2 miles north of Camden Haven River southwards to John's or Stewart River, and within 8 miles of the coast. There is a patch from Port Macquarie to Comboyne Brush, I suppose about 30 or 40 acres. (Forester G. It. Brown.)

Chiefly in the high lands at the head of the Bellinger. (Forester Mecham, Bellingen.) Occurs abundantly in dry beds and on banks of rivers and creeks. (Forester Pope, Murwillumbah.)

At Moonambah, Tweed River. (Mr. W. Baeuerlen, through Mr. R.T. Baker.) Copmanhurst, Upper Clarence River. "Common in this district on sand." (Rev. H.M.R. Rupp.)

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Plate 186: Christmas Tree. (Ceratopetalum gummiferum, Sm.) Lithograph by Margaret Flockton.

  • A. Twig of normal flowers.
  • B. Flowers in a more advanced stage, from the original plate in Sir J.E. Smith's "Zoology and Botany of New Holland." MDCCXCII.
  • C. Flower opened out, showing —
    • (a) Calyx-lobes.
    • (b) Petals.
    • (c) Stamens.
    • (d) Perigynous disc.
    • (e) Pistil.
  • D. Flower with stamens removed.
  • E. Portion of flower showing Pistil, &c.
  • F. Petals, various forms. Note how in shape they are like stags' horns, and hence " Ceratopetalum."
  • G. Fruit, calyx-lobes, petals and stamens persistent.


Ceratopetalum gummiferum, Martin's Folly, Linden, Blue Mountains. (Photo., Dr. A. Houison.)

Supplementary Material Added With Volume 5

No. 182. Part XLIX.

Ceratopetalum gummiferum, SM.



Habitat. - Series of trees on the top cliff path between Echo Point, Katoomba, and the Meeting of the Waters, Leura,-ahout half way (T.D. Mutch).

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