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Christmas Island: Galapagos of the Indian Ocean

By Larry Rettig (LarryRNovember 16, 2014

While I was busy decorating our home for the holidays recently, I found myself humming a tune that I hadn't heard or thought of in years. It begins: "How'd you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island..."

Gardening picture

Many of you may know the tune.  Jimmy Buffett did a version of it several years ago.  In any event, one thought led to another.  Soon I was at the computer, wondering exactly where Christmas Island is located, what its history is, and, being a gardener, what grows there.

I was surprised to learn that the island wasn't permanently settled until 1882.  Located in the Indian Ocean on the rim of South East Asia, Christmas Island is an Australian External Territory about 1600 miles northwest of Perth, Australia.  Its shape reminiscent of an outstretched dog posing at a show, the rugged terrain and lack of arable land has kept the population of the island fairly sparse.  It currently numbers about 1,400.  A small island, Christmas Island is only 35 miles long and 25 miles wide.

Christmas Island Song

o  Originally originally recorded by
The Andrews Sisters with
Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians in 1946
o  "Christmas Island," a Jimmy Buffett album featuring the
title song, recorded in 1996

(Let's get away from sleigh bells, let's get away from snow
Let's make a break some Christmas, Dear, I know the place to go )
How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'd ya like to spend the holiday away across the sea?
How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'd ya like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?

How'd ya like to stay up late, like the islanders do?
Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe.
If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island
You will never stray for everyday
Your Christmas dreams come true.

How'd ya like to stay up late like the islanders do?
Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe
If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island
You will never stray, for everyday
Your Christmas dreams come true
On Christmas Island your dreams come true.


It  was Captain William Mynors of the East India Ship Company who named  the island when he arrived there on Christmas Day, 1643.  But    conditions at the time prevented him from making a landing.  It wasn't until 1688 that the English buccaneer, Charles Swan, made the first recorded landing.

Today the island has an interesting mix of people and cultures.  The diverse population includes Chinese, Australian/Europeans, and Malaysians. The wide range of ethnic festivals held throughout the year reflects that diversity.  All are permanent residents of Australia and most hold Australian citizenship.  Phosphate mining and tourism-which is on the rise-are economic mainstays.

The climate, as you might expect, is tropical.  The wet season runs from December to April, and the rest of the year is quite dry.  Heat and humidity are moderated by trade winds.

There is enough rain annually to sustain a rainforest that's practically primeval.  In fact, Christmas Island is often called the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.  There are many plant and animal species on the island that are found nowhere else.  It was also named as one of the finalists in the seven wonders of the natural world.  The red crab migration during October and November was listed by David Attenborough, a well-known documentary filmmaker, as one of his 10 greatest wildlife experiences.

Along with the population of the island came numerous non-native species of both fauna and flora.  It's the native species, however, that merit special attention.  I was particularly interested in the native plants that grow there. Here is what I found.

The table below is a sampling of some of the 18 plant species that are found only on Christmas Island.  Missing images and incomplete descriptions are due to the fact that the lsland is relatively new to civilization, its geography is rugged, and that much work remains to be done to record and study its plant life.  (Some images in the table are offered as "look-alikes" and are in the same genus as the Christmas Island species.)  Australia took a big step in the right direction, when it set aside 63% of Christmas Island as a National Park.  Endangered species can be more easily protected and everyone can study and enjoy the unique plant life on this exotic, far-away island.  I'll be adding Christmas Island to my must-see list.


         Endemic Plants



Asplenium listeri
A small, terrestrial fern with short, creeping rhizomes and with fronds up to 90 mm long held in a crown

Found on rocky terraces





Arenga listeri
A solitary palm, with silver undersides to the leaves, and very fibrous trunk

Found on coastal fringe and terraces

Tree palm

                         © Plan-Japan

Colubrina pedunculata
A thorny, sometimes straggling, shrub or small tree. Its thorns are 5-20 mm long. Its leaves are alternate, narrowly elliptic, and deciduous after fruiting. It bears many yellow-green flowers, 5-6 mm across and clustered.

Found on terraces



                                  © Wikipedia


Dicliptera maclearii
An erect herb with small pink flowers growing to 1 m in height. Its leaves are lanceolate to ovate, acuminate or spine-tipped, 20-70 mm long and 5-30 mm wide

Found on coastal fringe and terraces


No image available

Grewia insularis
A shrub or small tree. Its leaves are oblong to ovate, 40-110 mm long. The yellow flowers are usually 1-3 in an umbel, often with several umbels from one leaf-axil. The fruit is purple.

Found on terraces


No  image available

Hoya aldrichii
A tall climber. Its stems have a pale bark. The leaves are elliptical, rounded at the base.  They are 75-150 mm long, 35-60 mm wide, with a 10-15 mm long
petiole. The flowers occur in umbels of 15-30, are white through pink to deep purple-pink in colour, and are fragrant at night.

Found on plateaus


                        © AlohaHoya

Ischaemum nativitatis
An erect, tufted grass, 250-700 mm tall, with the stems often branched and the nodes smooth. The leaves are 30-110 mm long, 2.5-7 mm wide and are scattered along the stem

Found along the coastal fringe



Pandanus christmatensis
A small tree or shrub, with prop roots, that grows to 10 m in height. Its leaves are 1-2 m long and 50-80 mm wide, dark green and with marginal prickles. The flowers have white bracts. The fruit is orange when ripe.

Found on terraces



Phreatia listeri
A small, clump-forming epiphytic orchid. The long, thin leaves are 40-110 mm long and 2-5 mm wide. The 40-80 mm long
inflorescence has many tiny, greenish-white flowers, only about 1 mm across. The orchid's lip is concave and contracted at the base.

Found on plateaus


No image available

Peperomia rossii
epiphytic herb growing to about 50-100 mm in height. It is glabrous, with creeping stems, rooting at the nodes, with an erect flowering shoot. The leaves are usually opposite, elliptic, entire, and 10-30 mm long. It carries many flowers. The fruit is a round berry.

Found on plateaus


                     ©Raimond Spekking/CC-BY-SA-4.0 (via Wikipemedia Commons

Zeuxine exilis
terrestrial orchid dependent on symbiotic mycorrhiza. They usually go through a period of dormancy after flowering. The flowers have two deeply divided granular pollinia and two stigma.

Found on plateaus





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(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 29, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.) 





































































  About Larry Rettig  
Larry RettigAn enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.

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