Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems

Ecology and ecophysiology of grasstrees

Byron B. Lamont A D , Roy Wittkuhn A B and Dylan Korczynskyj A C

A Department of Environmental Biology, Curtin University, PO Box U1987, Perth, WA 6845, Australia.

B Department of Conservation and Land Management, Locked Bag 2, Manjimup, WA 6258, Australia.

C School of Science, University of Notre Dame Australia, PO Box 1225, Fremantle, WA 6959, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email:

Australian Journal of Botany 52(5) 561-582
Submitted: 1 August 2003  Accepted: 14 July 2004   Published: 25 October 2004

Abstract in habit one of the most remarkable genera of Terra Australis, and gives a peculiar character to the vegetation of that part of the country where it abounds’ Robert Brown (1814).

Grasstrees (arborescent Xanthorrhoea, Dasypogon, Kingia), with their crown of long narrow leaves and blackened leafbase-covered trunk (caudex), are a characteristic growth form in the Australian flora. Xanthorrhoea is the most widespread genus, with 28 species that are prominent from heathlands to sclerophyll forests. While leaf production for X. preissii reaches a peak in spring–summer, growth never stops even in the cool winter or dry autumn seasons. Summer rain, accompanied by a rapid rise in leaf water potential, may be sufficient to stimulate leaf production, whereas root growth is confined to the usual wet season. Grasstrees are highly flammable yet rarely succumb to fire: while retained dead leaves may reach >1000°C during fire, the temperature 100 mm above the stem apex remains <60°C and the roots are insulated completely. Immediately following fire, leaf production from the intact apical meristem is up to six times greater than that at unburnt sites. For X. preissii, pre-fire biomass is restored within 40 weeks; the mass of live leaves remains uniform from thereon, whereas the mass of dead leaves increases steadily. Leaves usually survive for >2 years.

In X. preissii, the post-fire growth flush corresponds to a reduction in starch storage by desmium in the caudex. Minerals, especially P, are remobilised from the caudex to the crown following a spring fire, but accumulate there following an autumn fire. At least 80% of P is withdrawn from senescing leaves, while >95% K and Na are leached from dead leaves. Most stored N and S are volatilised by fire, with 1–85% of all minerals returned as ash. Despite monthly clipping for 16 months, X. preissii plants recover, although starch reserves are depleted by 90%, indicating considerable resilience to herbivory. Analysis of colour band patterns in the leafbases of X. preissii shows that elongation of the caudex may vary more than 5–50 mm per annum, with 10–20 mm being typical. Exceptionally tall plants (>3 m) may reach an age of 250 years, with a record at 450 years (6 m). Fires, recorded as black bands on the leafbases, in south-western Australia have been decreasing in frequency but increasing in variability since 1750–1850. Some grasstrees have survived a mean fire interval of 3–4 years over the last two centuries. In more recent times, some grasstrees have not been burnt for >50 years. The band-analysis technique has been used to show a downward trend in plant δ13C of 2–5.5‰ from 1935 to the present.

Grasstrees are most likely to flower in the first spring after fire. A single inflorescence is initiated from the apical meristem, elongating at up to 100 mm day–1 and reaching a length up to 3 m, with one recorded at 5.5 m. This rapid rate of elongation is achieved through leaf (and inflorescence) photosynthesis and desmium starch mobilisation. The developing spike and seeds are vulnerable to a moth larva. Leaf production recommences from axillary buds and the trade-off with reproduction is equivalent to 240 leaves in X. preissii. Flowering and seed production are affected by time of fire. Grasstrees are mainly insect-pollinated. Up to 8000 seeds per spike are produced, although pre-dispersal granivory is common. Seeds are released in autumn and persist in the soil for <2 years. Most fresh seeds germinate in the laboratory but germination is inhibited by light. At any time, seedlings and juveniles may account for most plants in the population, although there may be up to an 80% reduction within 1 year of seedling emergence, often due to kangaroo herbivory. In the absence of fire, mortality of adults may be 4% per annum. Although few grasstree species are considered rare or threatened, their conservation requirements, especially in regard to a suitable fire regime, remain unknown. Grasstrees are particularly susceptible to the exotic root pathogen, Phytophthora cinnamomi, although recruitment among some species has been observed 20–30 years after pathogen invasion. Much remains to be known about the biology of this icon of the Australian bush.


Our research on grasstrees was supported by the Australian Research Council, Department of Conservation and Land Management (WA) and Curtin University. We thank Neil Burrows for his support, and other eager participants in the project: Dave Ward, Perry Swanborough and Wendy Colangelo. Tom Gordon kindly provided information on the grasstree nursery industry and Adrian Borsboom on animals associated with grasstrees. The Department of Conservation and Land Management, via Rick Sneeuwjagt, met the costs of the colour figures. Dave Bell and anonymous referees made useful comments on the manuscript.


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