Visit a fire-ravaged stretch of sandy bush and you will be met with an army of grass-trees, spears raised and unfurling colour.
Xanthorrhoea (xanthos = yellow, rhoea = flowing, as in resin) has 28 species, all endemic to Australia, with three of the four Victorian species found in Gippsland.
Early settlers also made use of the versatile grass-tree. John White, the first surgeon in Sydney in 1788 considered the gum to be of great value for chest complaints and the yellow balsam from the resin was administered for dysentery. Settlers found the centre of the crown fresh and palatable and the pith produced a saccharine juice that could be distilled into a proof spirit. Melted resin was used as a lacquer on furniture and floors, some being exported; it was also used as a coating on brass instruments, for preserving tins for meat canning, in a brand of stove polish, for sealing wax, yellow resin in church incense and small amounts in sizing paper, perfumery, soap making and gramophone records. The tough yellow wood could be turned and made into souvenirs. Yacca gum was chewed, but the effort needed to collect it is supposed to be the origin of the term for hard work: hard yakka.On the goldfields, stems were commandeered for makeshift waterpipes. Today the grass-tree is making a comeback in landscape gardening. Somewhat surprisingly, it has been found to produce poor-quality honey.
Perhaps the most unusual use was for explosives: On treatment with nitric acid the resin yields a considerable quantity of picric acid, up to 50% in the case of the yellow resin. In the three years immediately prior to World War I, Germany imported approximately 1500 tonnes of grass-tree resin and it was suspected at the time that the material was being converted to picric acid for explosives manufactures ...
Found in SA and Victoria in sandy heathlands and heathy woodlands, this grass-tree is mainly in the southern part of Victoria. Early descriptions of the area between Wonthaggi and Inverloch noted bayonet grass plains. Could it have been a sea of Small Grass-trees?
With a subterranean trunk and thick green leaves in a erect tuft, it has two subspecies: X. minor ssp minor in NSW with white to cream petals and X. minor ssp lutea with yellow petals. It flowers from October to April, the yellowish flowers are strongly scented, and plants often having multiple spikes. The inflorescence has a non-flowering section 30-60cm, the flower-bearing part is 5-30cm. This grass-tree appears to flower in response to smoke and slashing.
The Austral Grass-trees were magnificent after the Wilsons Promontory bushfires of February 2009, with specimens having up to eight flowering spikes. Abundant on sandy soils in heathlands and on rocky hillsides from NSW to SA and Tasmania, this grass-tree is found in most regions of Victoria. Its creamy white strongly scented flowers appear from July to December, the non-flowering part of the inflorescence 0.3-0.5m long and the flower-bearing part 110-180cm long. The trunk can be up to 3m, often branched, the bluish glaucous leaves on erect tufts when young, but spread with age; old unburnt specimens have skirts of old leaves, providing food and shelter for animals. Flowering spikes are a magnet for beetles, butterflies and birds.
Perhaps one of my most enjoyable field naturalist outings was at Gellions Run after a bushfire when all three grass-trees were in full bloom and Ellen Lyndon, leaning on a walking stick made from a grass-tree flower stalk, was expounding on the differences between leaves, blooms, stems and trunks.
Go out and visit a grass-tree patch today.