Ceratopetalum gummiferum

New South Wales Christmas Bush

Family: Cunoniaceae

A large shrub to tree, growing up to around 10 metres (often seen much smaller) sometimes multi-trunked.

It is found naturally in NSW and Queensland, along the coast and tablelands-fringes. It grows as far south as Batemans Bay-Ulladulla, as far west as Katoomba-Lithgow and extends up the coast, in disjunct patches, to around Lismore. 

It is found often in dry sclerophyll to wet sclerophyll gully forest, as well as coastal heathlands and shrublands; almost always on sandstone or sandy-soils. Very common in Hawkesbury Sandstone gullies around Sydney.

The bark is grey-brown on young stems and ages on older stems to fissured-grey-brown, sometimes with lichen.

Ceratopetalum spp. are considered to have compound leaves, arranged in an opposite fashion. In this species, leaves are trifoliolate (with 3 leaflets). The leaves overall are to 10 cm long by 4 cm wide; leaflets are dark green above, paler below, with distinctly shallow-toothed margins, lanceolate to ovate, to 8 cm long and 3 cm wide, sharing a common petiole to 20 mm long. 

Ceratopetalum spp. have flowers arranged in terminal cyme-like clusters. The 4 to 5 sepals are the main part of the flower with the 4 to 5 petals very small or absent. In this species, inflorescences are to 10 cm long by up to 10 cm wide with flowers with 5 conspicuous sepals arranged in a star-shape; sepals are initially about 3 mm long; white-cream in colour, and enlarging and changing to red, to 12 mm long as the fruit develops in the centre of the flower. Petals stay at 3 mm long and are very thin; flowers typically produced in November-December and turn red and are shed in February.

The fruit is a nut, 1-seeded and not overly large.

In the garden

This is a very popular plant in cultivation and many cultivars have been developed. 

It grows well on a well-drained sandy soil in full sun. However, it can tolerate a heavier soil provided drainage is adequate. 

Flowering can be a bit ‘hit and miss’. At Christmas time, usually a range of spectacular to poor-flowering plants can be seen from garden-to-garden. The amount of flowering may depend on maintenance, soil-type, position as well as the provenance of the species or cultivar-type.

The flowering-foliage can be used to decorate tables on Christmas Day. 

Prune after flowering to control shape and height and provide a denser plant. They tend to grow slowly. Give adequate open space for it to grow well and do its best. It typically will not exceed 5 metres in cultivation. 

Popular cultivars are: 

  • ‘Christmas Snow’ which has variegated foliage; 
  • ‘Magenta Star’ with burgundy-coloured foliage; 
  • ‘White Christmas’ which retains white flowers until maturity; 
  • ‘Johanna’s Christmas’ – a dwarf form with spectacular red flowers (see profile under shrubs over 1 metre);
  • ‘Alberys Red’ – a compact selected form
  • ‘Red, Red, Red,’ – with red flowers that darken as they age.


Seed or cuttings are used in propagation.

If a nice form is seen or desired, this is best propagated from cuttings to retain the features.

Other information

This species grows in bushfire-prone environments and likely regenerates from suckering stems and stem-buds as well as the seed-bank. 

Ceratopetalum is a genus of 6 species, occurring in Australia and New Guinea. Five species are endemic to Australia. NSW currently recognises 2 species.

Ceratopetalum – from two Greek words kerato (κέρατo) meaning “horned” and petalo (πέταλο) meaning “petals” – referring to some species having petals resembling stag’s horns. (Aligns with names such as “Triceratops”).

gummiferum – Latin – “gum-bearing” – capturing the gum that is sometimes exuded from the trunks.

This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild. 

NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Ceratopetalum gummiferum profile page https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Ceratopetalum~gummiferum 

Australia Native Plants Society Australia – Ceratopetalum gummiferum profile page  https://anpsa.org.au/plant_profiles/ceratopetalum-gummiferum/ 

Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2001). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 4th edition. New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia.

By Dan Clarke and Jeff Howes.