Callitris Columellaris Descriptive Essay

Erect graceful small evergreen tree 4-12 m with a rough barked trunk to 50 cm diameter. Typical conifer blue-green scale like foliage 4-6 mm long arranged in whorls.

Globose cones 2 cm in diameter which open at maturity to release the seeds. The cones are persistent on the tree and can hold their seeds for several years after maturity. 

An Australian conifer in the family Cupressaceae widespread throughout Australia.

Adaptable to most soil types including extremely sandy soils providing that there is moisture available to the roots. Prefers an open sunny position.

Seed is generally best sown in spring or autumn in temperate climates, avoid the coldest and hottest months of the year. The optimum germination temperature for germination is around 18-22°C

  1. Sow seed 1-2 mm deep in a seed raising mix.
  2. Avoid sowing seed too deep, seed sown too deep may not germinate.
  3. Keep warm & moist, avoid drying out or waterlogging the growing mix.
  4. Germination generally occurs in around 14-28 days in suitable condition.

General note: Seeds of many natives are dormant and require specific conditions or pre-treatment for germination.
Do not be too hasty to discard seed that does not germinate, natives will often lay dormant until the conditions are similar to their natural requirements for germination to occur. Containers put to one side will often surprise long after they were discarded.

Callitris columellaris

F. Mueller 1866

Common names

Coast cypress pine, Bribie Island pine (Grodecki et al. 1996), Murray River pine, Murray pine, northern cypress pine, western sand cypress, western cypress, white cypress pine, white pine (Farjon 2005), coastal cypress, sand cypress, slender native cypress pine, western cypress pine (IBIS) [English]. Aboriginal names include lagumin [Wagiman] (Wilson 1999) and karntirrikani [Tiwi] (McGilvray 1998).

Taxonomic notes

Synonymy (from Farjon 2005):

  • Ototlinis backhousii W. Hill 1862;
  • Frenela verrucosa A. Cunn. ex Endl. var. laevis Moore 1862;
  • Frenela moorei Parl. 1868;
  • Frenela robusta A. Cunn. ex Endl. var. microcarpa Benth. 1873;
  • Callitris columellaris F. Muell. var. microcarpa (Benth.) Govaerts 1999;
  • Widdringtonia equisetiformis Mast. 1905;
  • Callitris glauca R. Br. ex R. T. Baker & H. G. Smith 1908;
  • Callitris arenosa A. Cunn. ex R. T. Baker & H. G. Smith 1910;
  • Callitris intratropica R. T. Baker & H. G. Smith 1910;
  • Callitris columellaris F. Muell. var. intratropica (R. T. Baker & H. G. Smith) Silba 1984;
  • Callitris columellaris F. Muell. var. campestris Silba 1984;
  • Callitris glaucophyllaJ. Thompson & L. A. S. Johnson 1986.

Of these many synonyms, the only ones in recent use are Callitris glaucophylla and C. intratropica, both of which were included in the most recent Flora of Australia (Hill 1998). Farjon (2005) reduces the former to synonymy on the basis that the only character consistently differentiating it from C. columellaris is its glaucous foliage. No conifer species is assigned species rank solely on the basis of glaucous foliage; at best, glaucousness is used to distinguish cultivars, and in many taxa, trees within a stand or even branches within a tree may vary widely in glaucousness. In this case, C. columellaris (sensu strictu) is a coastal species and C. glaucophylla an interior one; it is common for taxa to show a greater degree of glaucousness when they are exposed to more arid climates and thus greater moisture stress, and that is likely the reason for the observed difference in glaucousness. As for C. intratropica, Farjon (2005) presents a cogent argument, citing prior studies by other authors, that its described characters overlap entirely with those of C. columellaris (sensu strictu), forming a continuum of morphological variation.

It hybridizes with the subspecies of C. preissii (Harden 1990, describing C. glaucophylla).


Shrubs or trees to 30 m high, with a single trunk of spreading or erect branches. Bark brown, rough and furrowed. Leaves in whorls of 3 (sometimes 4 or 5 when juvenile), variably dark green to glaucous, juvenile leaves 7-8 mm, mature leaves 1-3 mm long with apex broadly acute, dorsal surface not keeled. Pollen cones solitary or in small clusters at the tips of branchlets, cylindric-oblong, 3-10 ⨰ 2-5 mm. Seed cones solitary on slender twigs, falling soon after maturity; depressed-globose to ovoid, 12-25 mm diam., dark brown with a 7-8 mm peduncle 7-8 mm; cone scales 6, thin, often with a very small dorsal point, separating almost to base and spreading widely after opening, alternate scales short and narrow, larger ones angled into a wide sharp apex, spreading widely at maturity; columella usually slender and 3-7 mm long. Seeds 4-5 mm, chestnut brown, numerous, with 2-3 wings ca. 4 mm wide (Harden 1990, Wunderlin 1993, Hill 1998).

Distribution and Ecology

Australia: All states except Tasmania; this is the most widely distributed species of Callitris. Primarily grows on sandy soils, in distributions ranging from isolated individuals to extensive forests (Harden 1990, Hill 1998).

Extensive forests occur in the Murray-Darling Basin, in the Tambo-Dalby-Inglewood region of southern Queensland and the Baradine-Narrabri and Cobar districts of northern New South Wales (RIC 1999). The region receives annual rainfall of 300 to 650 mm; in addition, periodic flooding helps to support the productive Callitris forests. The Pilliga State Forest, located north of Coonabarabran NSW, is the only large area in the Murray-Darling Basin that has naturally regenerated from sparse open woodland to forest over the period of European settlement. This is essentially due to the elimination of Aboriginal burning and livestock grazing. By the early 1900s, the elimination of burning was resulting in very dense growths of C. columellaris, and the area now has the largest expanse of inland plains forest in Australia. The Pilliga is approximately 430,000 hectares of which this species covers about 80% (MDBI [no date]). With the exception of the Pilliga forest, C. columellaris is not found in large, pure stands; it grows best in open woodlands with Eucalyptus and other species (NFI 1998). This may be partly because of allelopathy; each tree puts out an exudate through its roots and leaves that inhibits the growth and dominance of its neighbors (RIC 1999).

In South Australia it is prevalent in the scenic Flinders Ranges where it is sometimes the dominant tree on rocky slopes and rises (Holliday and Hill 1974).

Hardy to Zone 9 (cold hardiness limit between -6.6°C and -1.1°C) (Bannister and Neuner 2001). Naturalized in USA: Florida: Brevard, Indian River, Orange, and Seminole counties at 0-10 m elevation, where it occurs in sand pine scrub and thickets (Wunderlin 1993).

An interesting dependence on aboriginal fire is described by Bowman (1998). Since aboriginal burning has greatly declined in the species' range, the effects have been dramatic:

"Both field research and mathematical modelling have shown that on sites without topographic fire protection, healthy populations (that is forests with a balance of seedlings, saplings and trees) of northern cypress pines can develop only under a very specific fire regime of frequent mild fires. Infrequent fires result in cypress pine forests that are densely stocked with juveniles. This situation has occurred in an area in western Arnhem Land where a forestry program stopped all fires in an area dominated by Callitris, and in southern Australia where grazing has resulted in a cessation of wildfires.

"Conversely very frequent burning ultimately eliminates all size classes and results in the local extinction of Callitris. The very specific fire regimes required to support healthy populations of cypress pines would not occur under natural conditions. Lightning strikes at the end of the dry season are a common cause of intense bushfires which are highly destructive of cypress pine forests.

"The local extinction of Callitris is currently occurring in vast areas throughout the Top End. The decline of the cypress pines is occurring on all land tenures: Aboriginal land, pastoral land and national parks. This tree species is most probably like the miners' canary, signalling that fundamental ecological changes are occurring in response to the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal land management and a shift to intense fires, many of which are deliberately lit. If this conclusion is correct then the conservation of biodiversity in Northern Australia will hinge on land managers returning to fire regimes that approximate those used by Aboriginal people" (Bowman 1994).

Big tree

A tree in coastal habitat at Coominga, Queensland was measured in 2012 as 73 cm dbh and 18.0 m tall, and 40 years old. An ornamental at the Melbourne Botanic Garden, Victoria, was measured in 2009 as 117 cm dbh and 21.5 m tall (National Register of Big Trees 2012).

The largest tree known in habitat in the continental interior is a tree called "Old Grey" in Kerringle State Forest, NSW. In 2010 it was measured at 97 cm dbh and 23.0 m tall, and was estimated at 300 years of age (National Register of Big Trees 2012).

A specimen in Bradenton, Florida has a height of 18 m, a dbh of 146 cm, and a crown spread of 9 m (American Forests 1996).


"Old Grey", described above, ca. 300 years of age based on, it seems, guesswork (National Register of Big Trees 2012).



This is the most economically important Callitris species (Christiansen 2000, referring to C. glaucophylla). It supports a commercial harvest of about 250,000 m3/yr in New South Wales and Queensland (National Forest Inventory 2005, describing C. glaucophylla). The presence of natural substances in the wood (resin, guajol and callitrol) give the timber exceptional decay resistance. Callitrol is a phenolic compound that imparts a camphor-like odour to the wood (Christiansen 2000). Applications include flooring, paneling, cladding, joinery, frameworks, posts, small poles, and beehive construction. The wood, although somewhat brittle, can be turned and machined reasonably well, and it has high dimensional stability after it is seasoned. The sawdust can irritate the mucous membranes in some people (TBIA 2002).

The following remarks apply to the northern populations formerly called C. intratropica:

An essential oil is extracted from this species. Called "Australian blue cypress" oil in the trade, it is used in perfumery, cosmetics and aromatherapy. The oil has been much promoted by Bill McGilvray, who (McGilvray 1998) reports that it is and has long been used for medical purposes by the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands, north-east of Darwin. He also states:

"The Tiwis and some mainland aboriginal groups use Callitris intratropica in very specific ways:

"As a wash: To relieve abdominal cramps. Also applied to sores and cuts. Occasionally used internally to treat abdominal pain and discomfort. About a handful of freshly gathered inner bark is pounded and heated in about 500 mls of water. The cooled liquid is spread over the body, and a long strand of inner bark is wrapped around the abdomen (to relieve abdominal cramps).

"As an insect repellent: The bark is thrown into the camp fire to drive off mosquitoes and midges.

"As an analgesic: To relieve minor aches and pains. The wood ashes are mixed with water and smeared over the affected part of the body...

"First used by Europeans in Australia in 1905, the timber was then milled for building. Being tough and exceptionally resistant to termites and severe climatic conditions, initially,it seemed a good choice for a plantation timber resource. Large scale plantations were established in the 1960s and 70s on Melville Island and near Darwin, with the aim of producing timber for construction.

"However, Callitris grows very slowly, and the prospect of reasonably quick plantation returns appeared much less certain after 10 years of slow growth. Then, after a severe cyclone devastated Darwin in 1974, building codes were changed to replace timber house frames with steel. The plantations were officially abandoned in 1978 as a source of building material..."

McGilvray (1998, citing the the Tiwi Land Council Fifteenth Annual Report) also tells us that the Tiwi people, whose word for Blue Cypress is Karntirrikani, recount this legend describing its origin:

"And then Mudangkala, the old blind woman, arose from the ground carrying three babies in her arms. As she crawled in darkness across the featureless landscape, sea water followed and filled the imprints left by her body. Eventually pools became one, and formed a channel. The old woman continued her journey overland, and again the moulded earth filled with the flow of water. Before she left, Mudangkala covered the islands she had created with plants - Karntirrikani - and filled the land and sea with living creatures. Finally the land was prepared for her three babies, and for the generations of Tiwi who followed."

The tree is also used by the Wagiman people, who use the wood to make spear shafts. It is also good firewood as it burns quite well even when it is wet, and the pleasant-smelling smoke keeps away mosquitoes. In the past this tree was cut down for building houses. This logging, in conjunction with recent more widespread hotter fires, has much reduced the number of mature trees in Wagiman country.

In about 1995, it was discovered that an essential oil could be extracted from the tree. The oil is potentially quite valuable and was the subject of a protracted legal dispute, as recounted by Daly (2004), but development of this resource is now moving ahead. Vince Collins, entrepreneur in the essential oil business, reports that harvest of plantations in the Darwin area is now occurring (V. Collins email 2009.11.09). For more information on this oil see Burfield (2004).


Fairly extensive sands can be found amid great scenery at Flinders Ranges National Park, Snowy River National Park, and Terrick Terrick National Park. It also seems to be abundant on the Bathurst and Melville Islands, 80 km N of Darwin in the Northern Territory (McGilvray 1998).


The epithet columellaris refers to the columella, which is the small pillar of woody tissue at the heart of a Callitris seed cone.

Since I haven't described it elsewhere in the database, this seems like a good spot to talk about glaucousness. Conifer leaves (pretty much all leaves, actually) are typically exposed to a harsh environment on the outside, and on the inside, contain air spaces where carbon dioxide diffuses into the leaf and oxygen diffuses out, at rates and concentrations related to photosynthetic activity. There has to be a way for gases to move from the outside of the leaf to the inside, in order to maintain this photosynthetic activity. There also has to be a way for the plant to control that gas movement, primarily to control its water balance; the gases in the inside of the leaf are saturated with water vapor and uncontrolled loss of that water vapor could result in desiccation and death of the leaf. This is most important in arid climates, but even in the wet tropics it can sometimes be a problem for the plant. Depending upon the environment, a certain amount of uncontrolled gas and water vapor diffusion directly through the epidermis of the plant may be acceptable, but gas movement into the leaf is primarily controlled by stomata, which are literal openings into the interior of the leaf that can be opened or closed by the plant in response to physiological triggers, primarily water stress. The glaucousness of the plant is controlled primarily by the amount of waxy cuticle covering the plant's epidermis. A plant can therefore achieve the same water balance either by having a thick waxy cuticle and a lot of stomata, or by having a thinner cuticle that is more permeable to gas diffusion, and a smaller number of stomata. This is why adjacent branches on a plant can have foliage with different degrees of glaucousness; the more glaucous branch exchanges more of its gas through the stomata, and the less glaucous one exchanges more of its gas through the epidermis. Similarly, a plant may have more glaucous foliage on branches exposed to greater water stress, e.g. branches in full sunlight on the upper crown; and less glaucous foliage on branches with less water stress, e.g. on shade foliage. Or, an entire population may show greater glaucousness on sites with greater risks of physiological drought.


American Forests 1996. The 1996-1997 National Register of Big Trees. Washington, DC: American Forests. This is a dated citation; the big tree register is now available online.

Baker, R. T. and H. G. Smith. 1910. A Research on the Pines of Australia.

Burfield, Tony. 2004.05. Cropwatch Issue 3., accessed 2009.11.10, now defunct.

Bowman, David. 1994. Why the skillful use of fire is critical for the management of biodiversity in Northern Australia. In Rose, Deborah Bird (ed.). Country in Flames: Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia., accessed 2002.01.18, now defunct.

Christiansen, D. L. 2000. Australian cypress. INTAD., accessed 2002.01.18. This site has quite a variety of information on commercial uses of Callitris wood, lists common names for many of the species, and has several links to photographs.

Daly, Martin. 2004.04.21. Bitter blue., accessed 2009.11.09.

Grodecki, Andy, Sylvia Willie and Matt Deshon. 1996. Queensland tree selector. Online database; these data cited at, accessed 2002.01.22, now defunct.

Holliday, I. and R. Hill. 1974. A Field Guide to Australian Trees. Australia: Rigby.

IBIS (Integrated Botanical Information System). [no date]. Australian plant common name database., accessed 2012.11.23.

McGilvray, Bill. 1998. The birth of the blue from plantation to perfume: the history, development and marketing of an indigenous Australian essential oil. From a presentation given by Bill McGilvray at the 1998 Australian Aromatherapy Conference held in Sydney, Australia. Available online at, accessed 2002.01.18.

[MDBI] Murray-Darling Basin Initiative. [no date]. Forestry., accessed 2002.01.22, now defunct.

Mueller, F. J. H. von. 1866. Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae 5:198. Available at Google Books, accessed 2012.11.23.

National Forest Inventory. 1998. National Forest Inventory Australia: Callitris Forest, accessed 1999, now defunct.

National Register of Big Trees. 2012. Tree Register: National Registry of Big Trees., accessed 2012.06.23.

[RIC] Rainforest Information Centre. 1999. RIC Good Wood Guide, "Australian Native Timbers.", accessed 1999, now defunct.

[SFNSW] State Forests of New South Wales. 2002. State Forests of NSW: Kids & Schools: Wild Forest Adventure: Woodwork: White Cypress., accessed 2002.03.03, now defunct.

[TBIA] Timber Building in Australia. 2002. Species detail: white cypress pine.Timber Research Unit, School of Architecture, University of Tasmania., accessed 2002.01.22, now defunct.

Wilson, Stephen. 1999. Wagiman online dictionary., accessed 2002.01.18, now defunct.

Wunderlin, Richard P. at the Flora of North America web page.

See also

Bowman, D. M. J. S. and P.K. Latz. 1993. Ecology of Callitris glaucophylla (Cupressaceae) on the MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia. Australian Journal of Botany 41(2):217.

Bowman, D. M. J. S. and W. J. Panton. 1993. Decline of Callitris intratropica R.T. Baker & H.G. Smith in the Northern Territory: implications for pre- and post-European colonisation fire regimes. Journal of Biogeography 20:373-381.

The Callitris Project Newsletter,, accessed 2009.11.10, now defunct.

Last Modified 2018-01-21

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