Nuytsia floribunda (Western Australian Christmas tree or simply Christmas tree) is a root hemi-parasite. It is named in honour of Pieter Nuyts who was a 17th century Dutch explorer and colonial official. It belongs to the family Loranthaceae, the mistletoes. The Christmas tree is unique in that it is the only member of the mistletoe family to grow as a tree. Most mistletoes grow in the canopy, infesting the host tree and drawing nutrients from it whilst also producing some chlorophyll for themselves.
This 8 to 10 metre tall tree is native to Western Australia. It appears through much of the south west forests, woodlands and coastal plains. Distribution extends from Israelite Bay, east of the Esperance Plain to the Geraldton sandplains in the north. It also extends inland for some distance. It appears in a variety of soil types from sand, sandy loams, gravel, granite and limestone.
It gets the name ‘Christmas tree’ from the brilliant blooms which produce a spectacular display during the Christmas season. Masses of bright orange, almost fluorescent flowers make the tree most distinctive. The bark of the Christmas tree is grey to brown and the leaves are a dull bluish green. The leaves are somewhat thick and between 40 and 100mm long. The flowers appear in dense sprays of a striking deep yellow to orange colour. Each flower has six to eight petals and the same number of unequal stamens. The fruit has three prominent wings and contains a single seed.
The parasitic roots have suckers. Haustoria on the suckers attach to the root systems of neighbouring plants. Haustoria have even been found attached to underground cables. The Christmas tree extracts water and minerals from its neighbours. It withdraws very little from each individual host but gains considerable benefit by being attached to so many. The Christmas tree also photosynthises its own food in the normal manner of most green plants.
The Nyoongar aboriginals used the bark for shields. When the bark was removed, the tree would ‘bleed’ gum. This sweet gum would be eaten raw. The suckers were also utilised as food. They would be dug up, the outer layer peeled off and the remainder eaten like candy.
The winged, brown fruits are light and dry, and may be up to three millimetres wide. The fruits float away from the parent tree. A low, bushy shrub develops with numerous stems arising from the base. Eventually one of the stems develops as the trunk.
The Christmas tree is difficult to cultivate outside its native habitat.