I’ve spent too many years trawling the road between Darwin and Katherine and beyond in the NT’s Top End and it is all too easy to become complacent and drift into various reveries at 130 klicks in the hour.
The Stuart Highway between Darwin and Katherine is for mine dangerous beyond measure and complacency and driving that road is often fraught, with at least one “Oh, fuck” moment each trip.
At this time of year—between the intermittent heavy (and I mean monsoonal downpour heavy!) rainstorms, the road-trains, piggy-piggys, bullocky, buffalo and worst of all, slow-driving southern tourists in caravans and motorhomes—I find it is always good to have an edge to keep one’s mind’s eye sharp.
Right now we’ve had an early start to the wet season and widespread rain has fallen across the Top End and prompted the spectacular flowering displays of one of my favourite targets along the that stretch of the Stuart Highway, the Xanthostemon paradoxus which, apart from some redundant, too-ordinary-to-share and arcane examples, doesn’t appear to have a common name.
For mine I’ll call X. paradoxus the Top End’s “self-decorating Christmas Tree.” Who needs baubles and bells when you have such glorious inflorescences as these?
John Brock’s magisterial—and invaluable—Native Plants of Northern Australia* (Top End Native Plants in earlier editions) describes X. paradoxus as a member of the family Myrtaceae and as “a small tree, 4-10m high, often scraggly with crooked branches.” Flowering is “sporadic” and flowers are “bright yellow with numerous stamens … [a] profuse showy display of bright yellow flowers.”
It is said to be distributed around the Katherine, Darwin, Victoria River, Arnhem Land and Kimberley regions and into Papua New Guinea.
Indeed X. paradoxus is all of Brock’s understated description and more. Earlier today I drove back from Katherine homewards to Darwin and spotted this small—and yes, straggly— example of X. paradoxus along the road just south of the Edith Falls/Leliyn turnoff on Jawoyn country.
And, while the settlers may have struggled to find a suitable name for X. paradoxus, it is unsurprising that local Aboriginal language groups have no shortage of names—and uses— for this tree.
For the Warray language group* from the NT’s upper Adelaide River and Finniss River areas it is known as “burdu‘ and, according to Warray Plants and Animals, compiled by Glenn Wightman with Warray elders and knowledge holders, is a plant that is useful for:
Sugarbag, native bee-hives that contain honey, pollen and wax are often found in this tree. The hard timber is good firewood.
For the Malakmalak and Matngala language groups* from the Daly River area south-west of Darwin, X. paradoxus is indicative of the seasonal knowledge that contributes a spatio-temporal element familiar to anyone who has spent time working with Aboriginal people and the innate connectedness of all around them. The Matngala language group call this tree kipin.
The bright yellow flowers indicate that freshwater crocodile eggs are ready to be collected and eaten. It also indicates that sugarbag are full of sweet honey. Hollow stems cane be used to make didgeridus, the wood is very hard and it makes good didgeridus.
For the Jawoyn people—on whose country I photographed this specimen earlier today—X. paradoxus is called jumpatmo and, according to the book Jawoyn Plants and Animals:
The dried fruit are sometimes used to make necklaces. The wood is dark brown, heavy and hard. It has large clusters of bright yellow flowers.
For further reading on this plant—and lots more on Top End native plants and animals I recommend the following.
1 – Native Plants of Northern Australia. John Brock, New Holland, 2001
2 – Warray Plants and Animals. Aboriginal flora and fauna knowledge from the upper Adelaide and upper Finniss Rivers, northern Australia. Doris Lidawi White, Elsie Ajibak O’Brien, Dolly Mabul Fejo, Roger Wurdirdi Yates, Ada Ajibak Goodman, Mark Harvey and Glenn Wightman. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin No. 33. 2009.
3 – Malakmalak and Matngala Plants and Animals. Aboriginal flora and fauna knowledge from the Daly River area, northern Australia. Biddy Yingguny Lindsay, Kitty Waliwararra, Frances Miljat, Helen Kuwarda, Rita Pirak, Albert Myung, Edwin Pambany, Jack Marruridj, patricia Marrfurra and Glenn Wightman. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin No. 26. 2001.
4 – Jawoyn Plants and Animals. Aboriginal flora and fauna knowledge from Nitmiluk National Park and the Katherine area, northern Australia. Phyllis Wiynjorrotj, Sara Flora, Nipper Daybilama Brown, Peter Jatbula, Judy Galmur, Margaret Katherine, Francesca Merlan and Glenn Wightman. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin No. 29. 2005.
All of the Northern Territory Botanical Bulletins are available from Batchelor Press at https://batchelorpress.com/