Gymea lillies - Doryanthes excelsa

One of the most impressive flowers that greets visitors to Sydney is the Gymea lilly. The scarlet head of flowers is held 3 or more metres above a rosette of broad flat leaves. The latin name is Doryanthes excelsa, one of two species in the genus. The genus is the only one in the family Doryanthidae. More distantly, Doryanthes excelsa is related to asparagus and Joshua trees.

Gymea is also the name of a suburb of Sydney. It is said that the name comes from the local aboriginal mob, the Dharawal and, according to some sources, ‘gyomea’ means ‘big lilly’. Others say that it is unclear if Gymea comes from the Dharawal or Dharug, and that the word means small bird.

The non flowering part of the plant is a collection of long flat leaves. Each leaf may be 2 – 3 metres long. After the plant has matured for 8 or more years, flowers start to appear. One or several flower heads may arise from a single plant. A flower head is borne on a tough stalk that dies as the flowers die.

The Gymea lilly lives in forests that are often visited by fires. The leaves and flower heads are burnt away during a fire, but the roots can contract pulling the plant into the ground. This survival strategy protects the plants so that they can regenerate. Ash around the base of the rosette stimulates the production of new flowers

Gymea lillies grow naturally in a small zone on the east coast of Australia – mostly around Sydney and 50 or so miles to the south. They are often found in gum forests, the picture above being an abundant stand in the Royal National Park. The park extends from the southeastern suburbs of Sydney towards the south. (Map from Australian Native Plants Society)

Each flower head is made up of dozens of individual flowers. Before opening, the flowers are torpedo shaped. When they open, 6 petals fold back to reveal 6 mustard/yellow anthers with the pollen. The anthers when young are smooth and hard, but the pollen becomes loose and fluffy, easily dislodged by birds or small mammals that visit to plant. The anthers surround a single stigma with a dark purple tip. The stigma captures pollen during pollination

The plants are pollinated by small mammals or more usually by birds. The animals knock into the anthers, dislodging the pollen that then catches on their fur or feathers. Some pollen may land on the stigma, but it also gets transferred to other plants, increasing cross-pollination.

The flowers produce considerable amounts of sugary nectar that collects around the base of the anthers and stigma. The nectar attracts birds and small mammals, and these are the primary pollinators. Flowers are often broken, or – as above right – cut into, by animals that seek the nectar.

A 2002 Audi AllRoad is 189 inches or 4.8 metres long. From it, we can estimate that leaves of the rosette are around two metres long – they vary from plant to plant. Flower stalks are 2-3 times taller – usually. On the right is a flower stalk that is about 5 times as long as the leaves, or 10 metres / 30 feet. Oddly, the Guinness book of records assets that Amorphophallus titanum, or the titan arum, is the tallest flower, at almost 9 feet long.

The second species of Doryanthes is Doryanthes palmeri. Like the gymea lilly, it has red compound flowers that arise from a rosette of broad leaves. Unlike the gymea lilly, the flower stalk extends sideways rather than upwards, the the individual flowers are arranged in sequence rather than as an apical crown. It too is endemic to Eastern Australia – it is listed as a vulnerable species in the context of the New South Wales Threatened Species Act.

Gymea lillies