Along North 51st Street in Tacoma, a line of gum trees droops elegantly in the summer sun. In a Vashon garden, an acacia points spiky fingers. Australian native plants are popping up around the South Sound as local gardeners and nursery owners realize how useful, unusual and beautiful they can be – and how surprisingly well they grow in the Northwest.
“I love Australian plants,” says Mike Lee, owner of Colvos Creek Nursery on Vashon Island. “They’re so unusual, so eye-catching, so unlike what we have in the Northwest.”
He’s absolutely right. Anyone who’s ever seen the huge, menacing curves of a banksia nut, the delicate tendrils of a grevillea flower or the fluffy yellow pom-poms of a wattle would agree that Aussie natives are unusual. Red waratah flowers as big as soccer balls growing on 8-foot-high stalks, spiky tea-tree foliage, or the sharp tang of gum leaves – it’s all pretty different from rhodies and conifers.
Plus, Australian natives have other, more practical benefits to a Northwest garden. Nectar-filled flowers attract hummingbirds and bees (and are sometimes sweet for people, too.) Plants that have evolved in the driest continent on Earth don’t need a lot of water, even in a hot summer like this one. They’re fast-growing and don’t attract pests, and their spiky, strong-scented leaves repel deer. And, as a bonus, they look great all year round, keeping leaves and flowering through winter.
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“They always look attractive,” says Lee. “With all our deciduous plants around here, it looks like the Midwest. Why? Our winters are milder, and more and more of these Australian plants are growing here than they used to.”
Lee also vouches for the attractiveness to wildlife. “With my bottlebrushes, you have to fight the hummingbirds to get close to the bush. They just love it. And honeybees just adore eucalyptus, and we’re trying to save them now.”
Which isn’t to say that plants that grow in a largely snow-and-ice-free country will survive Northwest winters intact. Dr. Shirit Yarkony is a keen gardener who fell in love with Australian natives at the botanical gardens in San Francisco, but her Vashon garden is full of unusual cultivars that are only just recovering from last winter’s big freeze.
“All the banksias, all the hakeas, the callistemons, two acacias,” lists Yarkony, counting the plants that didn’t survive. Walking through her garden, she points out plants that died completely to the ground. Yet many of them are sprouting again: the unusual Banksia marginata, and a shady section of tree ferns just one foot high (they grow to towering heights in temperate Australian rainforests). And Yarkony has many still growing strong: a ground-cover grevillea with magenta, toothbrush-shaped flowers, and rows of towering eucalyptus. These plants are tough.
The secret, say both Yarkony and Lee, is picking the right species. Those from Tasmania, the island to the south of Australia’s mainland, are used to subfreezing temperatures. Yarkony also cultivates from seeds ordered from botanical gardens in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, which sees some winter snow.
Jerry Cearley, who owns Jungle Fever Exotics nursery in Ruston, is blunt about which natives just can’t deal with Northwest winters. “I don’t sell kangaroo paw,” he says, referring to the rounded red-and-yellow wildflower from Western Australia. “It’s too difficult. Even banksias are marginal.” Cearley’s large gum trees that line North 51st Street suffered a little this past winter but still look fine, and the fragrant acacia fronting North Pearl Street grew back to its current height from a past freeze.
If you do plant Aussie natives, how do you care for them?
Fairly easily, says Cearley. Good drainage is essential, and not much water (Cearley waters once a month) though tree ferns need more. You can prune in spring for height control (some gum trees grow enormous tall) or for more foliage, if you like. They don’t need fertilizer – Australian soils are notoriously nutrient-poor – but it won’t harm them if you do. If it freezes, says Cearley, cut down to the ground so they’ll regrow.
So it isn’t just homesick Australians who are putting Aussie natives in their gardens. As Northwest summers get hotter and drier, South Sounders are realizing how useful they can be. They pair equally well with spiky New Zealand flaxes and hebes, or with softer local plants, and they brighten up winter with fragrant, colorful blossoms.
“You grow these things to have fun and spice it up,” says Mike Lee. “Why not?”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
sweet, tangy smell of home
OK – I’ll admit it. I’m an Australian reporter doing a story on Australian native plants, and the only one I have in my own yard is a pathetic blue-gum in a container. You’d think that living away from Australia for 10 years I’d be stocking the garden with reminders of home, but no.
Truth is, while I lived in Australia I hated natives. Spiky, sharp or thin-leaved, they poked your bare skin while you went bushwalking and meanly refused to give any shade in the schoolyard on a 110-degree day. Gum leaves crushed just smelled dorkily like the Vicks Vaporub that mothers rubbed on when you were sick.
No, I was entranced with English plants, with apple trees and hollyhocks and rhododendrons, which always sounded so exotic. And that’s just what I have in my Tacoma garden.
But now that they’re far away, Aussie plants are starting to take hold of my memories. The smell of the bush on a hot day, heavy with eucalyptus oil and nectar. The droopy sway and dusty green of gum tree branches. The peeling paperbark, so satisfying to pull off. The delicate red filigree of a grevillea flower, and the wattle, puffy and golden in the sun, making me sneeze all over the place. And the tree ferns, cool and inviting like a deep creek gully on a blazing hot day.
I’m still a fan of cottage gardens. But maybe this year, the winter bleakness of mine will be filled out with a sparkling red grevillea or two.
Rosemary Ponnekanti, The News Tribune
Northwest-friendly Australian natives
Looking for a hardy grevillea? A gum tree that’ll cope with dry summers and wet winters?
Here’s a list of Australian native plants that do well in the Northwest. All are hardy to around 20 degrees.
To see examples, visit local nurseries such as Colvos Creek (20211 Vashon Hwy., Vashon) or Jungle Fever Exotics (5050 N. Pearl St., Tacoma), or the Australian native garden at the Washington Park Arboretum (2300 Arboretum Drive E., Seattle). Find photos at www.australianplants.com.
Eucalyptus (gum tree): Tall tree with fragrant leaves and flowers
Grevillea: Medium-size shrub with spiky leaves, colorful flowers blooming February through August
G. “Canberra gem”
Leptospermum (tea-tree): Low shrub with tiny leaves
Callistemon (bottlebrush): Shrub with feathery leaves and bottlebrush-shaped flowers in winter
Melaleuca (honey myrtle): Medium shrub with ferny foliage and bottlebrush flowers
Acacia (wattle flower): Medium tree with bright yellow flower in late winter
Banksia: Medium shrub with large, cylindrical flowers for most of year
Dicksonia (tree fern): Ferny foliage sprouting from thick trunk up to six feet
And also: Hakeas and proteas (tall flowers), kangaroo apple (purple flowering vine), kangaroo paw (red-yellow wildflower)