In honor of Australia Day, Aussie turned California nurseryman Troy McGregor shares some of his favorite Australian natives (not to mention his own unique take on the history of the land down under).
To mark the date I thought it would be appropriate to talk a little horticulture and introduce a few
standout Australian native plants available here in the US.
First, it’s probably appropriate to give a little background about Australia Day. On January 26th 1788, 11
British ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Botany Bay. They thanked the
Aborigines for keeping the place “in jolly good shape” for the last 60,000 years (obviously less for any
Creationists reading along) while in the same breath politely telling them to “go bugger off!”
Over the next 222 years we managed to mistreat the Aboriginal population, turn convicts into farmers,
learn cricket, expand our knowledge of agriculture, become a nation able to govern itself, discover
mining, teach the British how to play cricket, teach Americans how to sail yachts, breed cattle dogs and
apologize to the Aborigines. Not to mention ship a thirty something, overly opinionated plant geek off
to America to post blogs and inform all who’ll listen that we really don’t like Fosters.
Now you know why I chose to start a nursery and not become a history professor. Let’s talk plants.
As a general rule it’s best to plant Australian natives in a well drained soil. If you are a flatlander with
clay thicker than a pint of Guinness then the best bet is to berm the soil or grow plants in raised beds.
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum while the Grevilleas are in bloom then
you are sure to have met such rock stars as Ms. ‘Robyn Gordon’, ‘Masons Hybrid’ and ‘Ruby Clusters’.
These cultivars all offer incredible flowers, require a limited amount of maintenance and are regular fuel
stops for the local hummingbird population. Finding room for medium to large plants in urban gardens
can be a challenge so here are a few Grevilleas that are better suited to smaller spaces.
Grevillea lanigera ‘Coastal Gem’ is a selection from the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum. It was released and is
distributed under the Koala Blooms program. It is a low spreading shrub between 1-2’ high by 4-5’ wide
with tight clusters of rose-pink to cream colored flowers from winter through to spring. Try ‘Coastal
Gem’ in full sun in coastal conditions or with a little afternoon shade inland for best results. Expect tip
damage at around 26 degrees however it should survive to temperatures in the low 20’s. Use at the
front of a bed or spill it over a wall for best effect.
better. This is a small shrub to 4-5’ tall by 6-8’ wide with delicate, soft and slightly hairy leaves.
Throughout the year masses of spidery shaped flowers adorn the shrub inviting both humans and
hummingbirds to take a closer look. This is a true Mediterranean plant well adapted to cold wet winters
and hot dry summers. Expect tip damage in the mid 20’s however it should survive cold spells dropping to
the low 20’s. Grevillea fililoba is best used against a contrasting wall to show off both the foliage and flowers.
year in a clients garden at the beginning of summer after a mix up at the wholesaler turned into a
‘wrong plant ordered, but I’ll take them anyway’ kind of situation. They were blooming when they went
in, bloomed during the heat of summer, bloomed during three days of frost and 25-27 degree days and
are still blooming now. Great for the home owner but not so much for the poor nurseryman waiting to
take cuttings… STOP BLOODY BLOOMING! I only have 6 months experience with G. rhyolitica however
other reports have it handling frost, drought, and terrible soils while still growing and flowering
vigorously. Grevillea rhyolitica makes a great screen with its dense foliage, fast growth… and flowers,Grrr.Eucalyptus has been in California since the late 1850’s and is often spoken of with the curled lip of
distain. Rightly so for Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian Blue Gum) and a few others listed in the Jepson
Manual as becoming naturalized in the state. Fortunately, Australia has many other Eucalyptus species well suited to the urban garden and should be looked at a little more closely.
the base of the stems which looks like a wooden burl. This is a fire adapted plant and the lignotuber
sprouts new stems after a fire has been through effectively coppicing the plant. This is a great way to correct form or rejuvenate a tired looking shrub in the home garden, although I’d recommend using a saw instead of the gas can and blow torch.
width. This is a clean looking plant with smooth bark, red stems and broad-oval shaped leaves with the
distinctive Eucalypt pointed end. Flowers usually burst from their capsules in winter and spring looking
like they belong in an Aquarium with Nemo than on the end of a tree being eyeballed by Koalas.
Gumnuts adorn the branches until new flower buds develop later in the year.
growing sideways or upright or even both. It can be trained into a small tree with pruning and staking
but do we really need another multi trunk shrub hog tied to a stick and told to be a tree? The best
option is to embrace the form and keep this plant as a specimen in its own space.
The bark of E. erythrocorys is a little more rustic than E. preissiana but the leaf and stem are quite similar
in appearance. The stand out feature of this species is the combination of intensely red buds which
precede 2-3” golden flowers from summer through to early winter. Expect a height range of between 10-25' which depends on how the plant is maintained during its life.
A post about Australian plants wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of at least one species of Banksia. I have a few in the garden now and they always draw attention when in bloom, so much so that I’ve learned to put them towards the front of the bed to satisfy the flower fondlers. The pick of the litter for me is Banksia menziesii. The spiky, oblong leaf has a tough feel not too dissimilar to that of Toyon andthe bark gives a hint of the harsh climate that the species calls home. The real draw card are the prolificflower spikes followed by cartoon like seed heads (see below). The spikes can reach 5-6” high by 3-4”wide are variable in color, seeming completely out of place on such a rugged looking plant.
Most Australian natives can be forgiving when it comes to garden soils, however Banksias are a little
more selective. Western Australian Bansksias grow in very well drained soil composed mostly of acid
sand over a limestone base so ‘blind dating’ them with Californian clay will not a happy partnership
make. My most successful plantings have been in containers after reading in Australian Native Plants
(Wrigley and Fagg) that the addition of busted up concrete added to the bottom of a bed seemed to
promote happy plants. I added a few large chunks to the bottom of my 24” containers over which I
added a bark, larva rock and sand mix. At the time it seemed a little ridiculous but the Bansksias
responded well and this winter rewarded my lunacy with their first set of blooms.
The species listed above play well with others and work just fine when combined with Californian
natives and south-west desert plants as a whole. The differing bloom periods make it possible for year
round flowers and hummingbirds and nothing is cooler than a 3” nectar fuelled fighter jet buzzing the
tower Top Gun style… well for this import at least.
PlantFile which is a database of over 3000 plants and 14000 photos and were posted with the
permission of Plant Files creator Peter Kirkland.