You don’t have to hunt around carefully to find the towering Gymea Lily
When you are looking for wildflowers in Australia, you often have to look downwards and peer carefully to spot small flowers hiding in the undergrowth. But there are some striking exceptions to this rule. Maybe the most dramatic is the Gymea Lily, which has flowers standing on tall, spear-like stems that can tower to a height of around 6m above the ground.
These plants dwarf most other wildflowers and will have you craning your neck to look upwards at their bright red flowers. Even the broad, sword-shaped leaves are quite large. They radiate out from the base of the plant and can be around a metre in length, making the plant very noticeable in the bush, even when it isn’t in flower.
The Gymea Lily isn’t actually the tallest flower in the Australian bush. Plenty of flowering eucalypts and banksias grow much taller. However, with their branches and small to medium sized flowers, these trees don’t quite seem as determinedly upward reaching as the Gymea, with its long, straight flower stem.
Length and Breadth
However, it isn’t just their height that makes Gymea Lilies so impressive. Their flowers form a large disc at the top of the stem, and can be around 30 to 70cm (1 to 2ft) in diameter. That’s larger than a dinner plate. Each flower head is actually composed of many individual flowers, each about 10cm (4in) across, clustered together in what botanists call an inflorescence. You can’t really tell when you look from below, but the flowers are rich in nectar, which attracts many birds.
The flower is formed in spring and summer, typically about three years after a bushfire, which stimulates germination of the seeds. As well as this sexual reproduction, the Gymea Lily can also reproduce by putting out shoots from the base of the plant. These shoots eventually form whole new plants.
There are many reports of Gymea Lilies being eaten as traditional bush tucker by Aboriginal people. They found ways to prepare food from the stem, roots and flowers. The young flower stems were roasted and eaten, while the root was cooked and turned into a type of cake which was eaten cold. The flowers were soaked in water to produce a sweet nectar drink. As a bonus, birds which came to eat nectar from the flowers were caught and eaten as well.
What’s in a Name?
The name Gymea is the local Aboriginal word for these plants. It has also been used to name the Sydney suburbs of Gymea and Gymea Bay, which are on the south side of the city near the Royal National Park. Both suburbs were reportedly named after the Gymea Lily, which grows in this area.
The botanical name of the Gymea Lily is Doryanthes excelsa and describes the flower very nicely. Doratos is Greek for spear, anthos means flower, and excelsus means high/lofty or exceptional. The plant also has many common names, including Giant Lily, Flame Lily, Spear Lily and Illawarra Lily. Despite these common names, a botanist will assure you that the Gymea Lily is not actually a lily at all. True lilies are all part of the Lilium family, while Doryanthes (which only has two species) is part of the Asparagaceae family.
The Doryanthes were first observed in 1802 by the Portuguese botanist José Correia de Serra, who was a close friend of Sir Joseph Banks. As you would guess from the name, the Asparagaceae family includes the garden vegetable asparagus, which does look amusingly like a miniature version of the towering Gymea Lily.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
The Gymea Lily grows in a fairly limited area. It is native to the coastal areas and adjacent plateaus of New South Wales, near Sydney. It grows in open eucalypt forest, usually in deep soil derived from sandstone, and often in full sun. It can be found from about Karuah (near Newcastle) in the north to Mount Keira (near Wollongong) in the south.
We have seen the plant growing in the wild in the Royal National Park, south of Sydney, beside the walk to the beach at Wattamolla and also on the Winifred Falls walking trail. It is often grown in streets and parks in Sydney, and can be seen in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and in the botanic garden section of Kings Park in Perth.
For more information about Gymea Lilies, visit www.anbg.gov.au/gnp/gnp12/doryanthes-excelsa.html