The glauca grass tree, or Xanthorrhoea glauca is another one of those plant types unique to Australia. Although there are similar plants growing in other places, the Grass Tree is distinctive.
Xanthorrhoea plants grow all over Australia, as well as in some other parts of the world. They are remarkably resilient, being resistant to drought, frost, and even fire. In fact, the glauca grass tree is uniquely adapted to an environment that has periodic brush fires. It grows an insulating layer around the outside of its stem or trunk, and actually benefits from periodic burn off. In addition, the plants need some of the nutrients created when the leaf and grass litter is burned.
These plants grow a hollow stem that becomes larger with each passing year. Think of a giant soda straw that continuously grows larger, with a bigger hollow inside.
Glauca refers to a waxy, grayish coating on the leaves. It resembles the bloom on a grape or an apple, and acts as a protection against damp, insects or many other things. It is easy to damage this coating, just as washing grapes or polishing apples will remove the bloom.
Where Does it Grow
The glauca grass tree likes rocky hillsides where rich, but shallow, deposits of basalt soil provide the kind of nutrients it prefers. With that said, it doesn’t limit itself to rocky hillsides, but will grow almost anywhere. This resilient plant is likely to be one of the first to shoot up after a grassfire.
What Does it Look Like
As with many plants, no two will look exactly the same. With that said, grass trees grow their stemmy trunks as tall as five meters high. The stems look shaggy, almost as if a thick layer of moss is growing on it. At the top of the stem is a spiky cluster of long, narrow leaves that give it the appearance of being “grass” on the top of a stubby stem.
An Amazingly Useful Plant
The aboriginal people of Australia make extensive use of the grass tree. The blossoms, when soaked in water, make a sweet drink. If you need a salad, the leaf stem and white leaf base can be eaten. Dried flower stems make excellent tinder for starting a fire – especially if you are using a fire drill. The base of the leaves exudes a resin that makes an excellent glue.
When settlers from Europe came to Australia, they, too, discovered the many uses of the grass tree, especially the resin. It was applied to furniture as a polish, burned as incense, used to coat stoves and even tin cans, and even used in industrial processes such as making soap, paper, perfume and gramophone records.
Double check to Be Sure You Have the Real Grass Tree
Glauca Grass Tree isn’t the only plant sometimes called a “grass tree” so if you are wild cropping or foraging, it is handy to have someone along who truly knows their plants because there are several other plants that might also be called “grass trees.” It can still be fun to take your plant identification book and camera and go foraging for pictures, even if you are not completely certain of the plant. Since it is a remarkably useful plant, learning about it could be useful to anyone planning to spend a lot of time camping or hiking in Australia.
Buying from a Nursery
One way to check your identification is to visit a reputable nursery where they might have young plants on display. Frequently, the plant’s common name, scientific name, and growing habits will be displayed on a handy little tag. You can even match these up with your photo foraging to make sure that you are correctly labeling the pictures you are collecting.
Growing Your Own Grass Tree
Grass trees can be propagated from seeds or they can be transplanted from the wild. Unfortunately, established plants often have a low survival rate under cultivation, even when nursery grown. The good news for proud owners is that one of the primary causes of grass tree death is over watering. Since they are a desert plant, they are marvelous in your xeriscape garden where they will need little or no attention. Grass trees are one of those plants that can thrive on a benign neglect.
Nutrients for Grass Trees
As one wily old gardener commented, all plant cultivation begins with the soil. While grass trees might require little water, they are picky about their soil nutrients. Bush collected plants actually do best if you can get a cubic meter of the kind of native soil that is present in its original location. Failing that, the closer you can come to duplicating that soil, the better. If you can’t get the real thing, have the soil minutely analyzed to discover the micronutrients that your grass tree might prefer.
If you are buying from a nursery, be sure to enquire about their recommendations for soil type, location and watering.