The Xanthorrhoea plant is uniquely Australian. It grows in the South East of Australia thriving in well drained, aerated soils with low nutrient content. It is a plant that can suit most gardens, and being endemic to Australia means it is ideal for our climate and environment.
All species of Xanthorrhoea are very slow growing BUT they are also long living; some elderly specimens are among the oldest living plants worldwide. They live for hundreds of years, some have been found to be up to 600 years old. A plant with a metre long trunk for example may already be 100 years old!!!
Xanthorrhoea plants are also known as Balga Grass Plants. ‘Balga’ is the Aboriginal word for black boy and for many years the plant was fondly known as a “Black Boy”. It is thought that the Aborigines called the plants Balga because after a bush fire had ravaged the land, the blackened trunk of the Xanthorrhoea would be revealed beneath the burned lower leaves, and would resemble a child like black figure. Others believe that the plant, with it’s bush fire blackened trunk and long flower spike resembled an Aboriginal boy wielding a spear. Whatever the case, as the years have passed, it is seen as an extremely racist name, and is thought to be very offensive to the original custodians of the land, so the plants are more commonly known as Grass Tree, because let’s face it Xanthorrhoea is a bit of a mouthful.
The Xanthorrhoea was invaluable to the Aborigine people. It was a source of food, drink and building material.
Food; Fleshy white parts of leaves and the succulent roots of the plants were frequently eaten. The seeds were collected, ground into a powder and used to make damper. They also collected grubs from the base of the plant.
Drink; The flower of the Xanthorrhoea was soaked in a trough of water extracting a thick sweet nectar which could be enjoyed as is or fermented for 3-5 days in order to produce an alcoholic brew.
Material for tools; The leaves of the Xanthorrhoea produce a hard waterproof resin, which is liquid form when warmed, but sets hard when cooled. The Aboriginals used the resin as a super glue type of material to attach blades to spears and as a waterproofing material for canoes.
There are 28 species of grass trees in Australia. Xanthorrea Johnsonii is just one of these species, but is a popular variety in Australian gardens due to it’s singular trunk which can grow up to 5 metres tall. When you see a grass tree where the trunk changes direction, has major bends or even multiple heads, this is generally caused by new growth after the plant has flowered, or if the tree has been involved in an accident (another tree falling on top, or pushing against the grass tree). So essentially, the survivors turn into architectural masterpieces; each trauma, and struggle spurs them on, making them ever more interesting and beautiful. Each tree is totally unique and proudly displays its history in its shape.
These plants often flower as a direct result of fire, quickly bringing an essential food source to the surrounding birds, insects and other wildlife. It is often the first spurt of colour in an otherwise blackened environment. The flower spike of the Xanthorrhoea is the growth point; after flowering, you will notice that the tree will remain dormant and cease producing new leaves for months or even years. Many people panic, but there is no need. The plant does not require extra water or fertiliser- it just needs your patience. This is the way of nature, and the Xanthorrhoea has survived just like this for hundreds of years; this is a defense mechanism. To encourage continuous growth, you will need to remove the flower spike as soon as it appears.