The species was published by Brown in 1810, and has since had an unremarkable taxonomic history. Its only synonym is Sirmuellera nutans (R.Br.) Kuntze, which was published by Otto Kuntze as part of his unsuccessful attempt to transfer Banksia to the new generic name Sirmuellera.
Carl Meissner demoted Eubanksia to sectional rank in his 1856 classification, and divided it into four series, with B. nutans placed in series Abietinae because of its entire leaves with revolute margins. When George Bentham published his 1870 arrangement in Flora Australiensis, he discarded Meissner's series, placing all the species with hooked styles together in a section that he named Oncostylis. This arrangement would stand for over a century.
In 1981, Alex George published a new taxonomic arrangement of Banksia. Endlicher's Eubanksia became B. subg. Banksia, and was divided into three sections, one of which was Oncostylis. Oncostylis was further divided into four series. Meissner's B. ser. Abietinae was reinstated for one of them, and B. nutans was placed at the end of it.
In 1996, Kevin Thiele and Pauline Ladiges published the results of a cladistic analysis of morphological characters of Banksia. They retained George's subgenera and many of his series, but discarded his sections. B. ser. Abietinae was found to be very nearly monophyletic, and so retained. It further resolved into four subclades, so Thiele and Ladiges split it into four subseries. One subclade contained only the two varieties of B. nutans, and this clade became the basis of B. subser. Nutantes, which Thiele defined in terms of B. nutans' pendent inflorescences, the fragile pellicle of the pollen-presenter, and the wrinkled follicles. The nearest outgroup of B. subser. Nutantes was the clade upon which was based B. subser. Longistyles.
Thiele and Ladiges' arrangement was not accepted by George, and was largely discarded by him in his 1999 arrangement. B. ser. Abietinae was restored to George's 1981 circumscription, and all of Thiele and Ladiges' subseries were abandoned.
The placement of B. nutans in George's 1999 arrangement may be summarised as follows:
Since 1998, Austin Mast has been publishing results of ongoing cladistic analyses of DNA sequence data for the subtribe Banksiinae, which suggest a phylogeny that is very greatly different to George's arrangement. Mast's results place B. nutans a substantial phyletic distance from the other members of B. ser.Abietinae; it nearest outgroup is a clade consisting of the members of Thiele's B. subser. Occidentales, a subseries of B. ser. Spicigerae.
Early in 2007, Mast and Thiele initiated a rearrangement of Banksia by merging Dryandra into it, and publishing B. subg. Spathulatae for the taxa having spoon-shaped cotyledons. They foreshadowed publishing a full arrangement once DNA sampling of Dryandra was complete; in the meantime, if Mast and Thiele's nomenclatural changes are taken as an interim arrangement, then B. nutans is placed in B. subg. Spathulatae.
B. nutans grows olang the south coast of Western Australia between Albany and Cape Pasley. There are two main centres of distribution: between Albany and Hopetoun and between Scaddan and Cape Pasley. The intervening area has been largely cleared for agriculture, and B. nutans is not known to occur there. There are also some outlying populations: populations of B. nutans var. cernuella have been recorded in the vinicity of Arthur River, and the Western Australian Herbarium has recorded B. nutans var. nutans from around Norseman.
The species grows in depressions, especially amongst consolidated coastal dunes, in white or grey sand, or in gravel. The majority of populations occur within the Esperance Plains biogeographic region, a region predominantly vegetated by mallee-heath and proteaceous scrub, with a warm mediterranean climate.