With Christmas just around the corner it is only natural that as gardeners your thoughts will turn to plants that both reflect Christmas and gardening in some way.

I suspect early European settlers to Australia would have been particularly home sick around Christmas having given up all hope of a “white Christmas” but instead sat baking through a dust storm or monsoonal rains. I also suspect any glimmer of hope offered by way of a pretty flowering shrub or tree would have very quickly become the local Christmas bush or tree. Our most publicised Christmas bloomers would have to be the NSW Christmas bush Ceratopetalum gummiferum a large shrub or small tree with masses of white flowers followed by red swollen bracts. It is most certainly the red right on Christmas that gives it its common name. This plant is unlikely to succeed in our harsh Riverland and Mallee soils and climate but if you are persistent it is possible to use it in a well watered sheltered spot or in a pot.

Christmas bells Blandfordia grandiflora is a truly spectacular plant with large red and yellow bells around Sydney needing sandy soils with a high water table. Again fantastic in the wild but difficult to maintain in anything other than a pot in the Riverland and Mallee.

The Western Australian Christmas tree Nuytsia floribunda is so unusual with its massed display of yellow flowers bang on late December and elephantine trunk (excuse the pun) that anybody who sees it in flower in the wild will probably never forget it, even to the point of obsession. Its difficulty in propagation and root parasitic habit combine to make it nigh on impossible to grow in the home garden.

The Victorian Christmas bush Prostanthera lasianthos is actually occurs right through the softer climes of Queensland, New South Wales, ACT and Tasmania and can be a shrub at 2m or a tree at 10m. The spectacular terminal sprays of flowers can be white, pink or mauve and compliment the fragrant foliage. Being one of the “softer” mint bushes it is not easy to maintain a half decent plant in tough areas. (Although our own local mint bush P. aspalathoides is worth a mention is doesn’t flower at Christmas)

The Tasmanian Christmas bush Bursaria spinosa grows in every state except WA. The masses of beautifully fragrant white flowers on shrubs to 3m can be seen almost everywhere in the Adelaide hills but it runs out of puff as soon as it hits the mallee. The rattly papery pods are decorative in their own right.

While all this doesn’t leave us with a local Christmas bush to call our own. Or does it.

Dodonaea spp. hop bushes could deserve the title of Riverland and Mallee Christmas bush. Its flowers are insignificant to the point of obscurity but right on Christmas time the papery seed pods or hops colour magnificently into shades of lime green, pinky reds, right through to dark rich burgundy reds. These pods are produced in such abundance that in sand hills the wind will pick them up and gather them into great heaps or in protected spots they lay beneath the plant in carpets. The best bit is they grow here all by themselves. Park your car on the side of the road near any mallee and you in all probability find some sort of hop bush nearby. They are as easy to grow as falling off a log. Our own house at Christmas often has vases with hop bush alone or as backing material. Hop bushes vary from small 1m high shrubs to large 4m high plants. The only maintenance would be a yearly prune to keep them tidy.

So Merry Christmas and enjoy the Christmas/Hop bushes.

This article first published in the Riverland Weekly © December 10, 2009.