Plants I love

Wollemi pine

What with Chris Pratt beating box-office records battling the dinosaurs at Jurassic World, and Canadian palaeontologists finding the 68-million-year-old skull of a previously unknown member of the triceratops family in Alberta, I’ve been thinking about the Wollemi.

The Wollemi pine is our dinosaur-era tree. A fossil of it dating to 90 million years ago has been found, but the species is likely to be considerably older than that, being part of 200-million-year-old Araucariacaeae family.

Wollemi Pine in the wild

The Wollemi was famously discovered by a bushwalker in the Blue Mountains National Park in September 1994. A few months later Cathy Offord, a horticultural researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, was presented with 57 seeds and the job of growing something that had never been cultivated before. Her success was essential. Not only were scientists around the world banging the door down to get hold of some of this living botanical fossil, but successful propagation was the key to saving the wild population. For centuries the discovery of rare plants has all too often been followed by their rape and pillage, unintentional and otherwise. The location of the Wollemi community was kept secret in a bid to keep them safe, and the pressure was on.

Offord was successful. Those first plants were harvested for cuttings and a huge propagation project took off that has sent the plant to all corners of the globe, including well outside of its comfort zone. In Canada for instance, keen Wollemi supporters plant the tree each spring, and dig it up again at the end of autumn to spend the winter safely indoors.

cones on wollemi pine

Twenty years later Offord is still studying the Wollemi, at work, and at home.She grows her Wollemi in a pot on the back deck. They are easy to keep in a pot and can be grown indoors. Every few years Offord says she ‘knocks the top off’, a pruning technique that is keeping it at 2.5m, just right for an imposing Christmas tree. Even without the seasonal baubles, the Wollemi is a handsome plant. It looks a bit like a cycad that decided it wanted to be a pine tree, and as the leaves don’t all point in the same direction it has a kind of woolly informality. The bubbly bark has been described by some as Coco Pops,and others as boiling chocolate.

Wollemi pine in a pot

Offord’s advice on Wollemi pot-culture is to find a cool spot and keep them out of the summer sun. “They don’t like to be in full sun when they’re young, though they are sun-hardy when they’re mature. They prefer cool temperatures, so actually the best ones I’ve seen growing are in the UK. I water mine and fertilise it with a regular fertiliser for potted plants.”

No one knows how long the plant will live in cultivation, but some of the 100 individuals in the wild are between 500 and 1000 years old, so there’s a chance a potted Wollemi could become a family heirloom. In the meantime it’s Jurassic World, without the wildlife.

The pictures in this post aren’t my own but were supplied by the Royal Botanic Garden. 

In season

June 30

In now: Globe artichokes are one of winter’s bitter treats.

At its best: Seedless watermelon is hitting a sweet spot. If a cool salad of sweet watermelon chunks, fresh herbs and salty fetta seems too cold; grill the watermelon in slices for a few minutes each side then pile on the herbs and cheese.

Best buy: Eggplant is a bargain, and the weather feels right for a moussaka.

In the vegie patch: Sow snow pea seeds directly where they are to grow, in the garden or in a pot. Water the seeds gently after sowing, and then not again until after germinate.

What else:

  • quality is increasing and prices are decreasing on Queensland strawberries. I’ll be eating them straight from the farm, and in the region’s great restaurants soon with a group of food and garden lovers. Can’t wait!
  • cold nights are a good excuse to eat too many potatoes.  I recently rediscovered what in this house are called Evil Potatoes.  Slice potatoes super thin ( I use a mandolin), pat dry with kitchen paper, then layer into a casserole dish with salt, pepper, nutmeg and dobs of butter. Add milk to about half the volume of potatoes and a few more dobs of butter on top. Cook at 180 until the potatoes are soft and brown on top.
  • the imperial mandarins are especially good this year so don’t leave them all for the kids
  • snow peas are a good price this week
Plants I love


The yellow tulips I admired glowing alongside a steely lake in Norway last month reminded me of the day I first fell in love with hippeastrums, seeing them flowering deep red against an ochre wall. It took me a while to work out why. The circumstances couldn’t have been more different: cool damp Norway in early spring, and hot dry Dural in early summer. I finally realised it was the contrast of brilliant colours in both scenes that made the memory snap. Tulips and hippies are equals in colour saturation and both offer a dazzling spring performance in the garden.

Tulips in Norway

I know it sounds unlikely but these tulips reminded me of red hippesastrums I admired at the Dural garden Reverie years ago.

Gardeners experimenting with tulips this spring will have planted their chilled bulbs; gardeners looking to try hippies can order bulbs now for immediate planting and flowers from October into summer. The glowing, dark red tones are startling, particularly seen against dark foliage or painted walls, but there are other options too, primarily in variations of red, pink and white with or without feathering, striping, shading and edging.


I saw these at Floriade, the Dutch horti-extravaganza that takes place once a decade. I prefer the single flowers but love them crammed into the shallow box.

The bulbs look like oversized onions and like to be planted with their neck poking out of the soil. They want a sunny position and won’t handle frosts, coming as they do from the subtropical and tropical regions of South America, primarily Brazil. The scapes appear from the side of the bulb, and a big bulb will produce a couple of flowering spikes, each with a few flowers. These are big and bold, and shrug off Sydney’s variable spring weather. They will naturalise to form a large clump and are not much bothered by pests and diseases, which is why they are so often seen thriving in neglected gardens, though snails need to be kept away from the developing flower spikes. They also make dramatic displays in pots and like to be potbound, so should be crammed in tight. They can be brought indoors while in flower.

Hippeastrum papilio

It looks like I’ve photographed it in a hall of mirrors to make it look so tall and lean, but as well as that striking green and burgundy colouration, the butterfly hippie has a very appealing shape.

An English watchmaker called Arthur Johnson did the first hybridising work on hippies in the late 18th century, and they are now bred around the world, including on the Sunshine Coast hinterland where Mick and Nellie Maguire have been growing hippies for 25 years on a former pineapple plantation. The new varieties being introduced by breeders are ever more complex, with double flowers, ruffled petals and picotee edges but I prefer the oldies. As well as a solid unnamed red, and a huge-flowered pink and white ‘Apple Blossom’ I grow one of the species hippies, Hippeastrum papilio. Sometimes called the butterfly hippie, this one features burgundy stripes on a green flower that never fully opens. The plant is evergreen and the best use of it I’ve seen was at Bronte House where Myles Baldwin had planted papilio through agapanthus. The flowers of papilio appear in October, and are over before the agapanthus erupts. The agapanthus disguised the somewhat untidily lounging foliage of the hippeastrum and allowed all the attention to be taken by the amazing flowers.


Other people's gardens, Travel

Modernist zen gardens in Kyoto

Kyoto’s most famous Zen garden is Ryoan-ji. Its raked gravel and 15 carefully placed stones make the world’s most recognisable garden image. (It’s so well-known I’m not even going to bother you with a picture.) I love Ryoan-ji, which despite the hoards of visitors adding their own snaps to the image load of the garden, still manages to instill a mood of mystery and quiet reflection. It was made by an unnamed monk in the 15th century and was the template for a dry stone Zen garden for four centuries – until Shigemori Mirei brought the Zen garden into the 20th century and introduced it to modernism. On a recent trip to Kyoto I was keen to see how Shigemori made this marriage work.

Shigemori’s original passion was not for the garden, but for other traditions in Japanese culture – painting and art history, calligraphy, tea ceremony and ikebana. The early decades of the 20th century were a tense time in Japanese culture as a modernising, westernising push clashed against a conservative desire to preserve Japanese traditions unchanged. Shigemori argued that Japanese culture was strong enough to survive engagement with the west and he tried to found a new arts school to pursue his modernising vision. Before he could get it going though the 1934 typhoon tore through western Japan, alerting him to the fragility of that other Japanese art – garden-making. He began surveying gardens all over the country, a project that culminated in the mighty 26-volume ‘Illustrated Book on the History of the Japanese Garden’. Shigemori was now the country’s expert on Japanese garden history and a year later, in 1939, he was given his first design brief – for the gardens around the hojo (abbot’s residence) in the Tofuku-ji temple.


Tokufu-ji, Kyoto

Tofuku-ji is a big complex of temples so famous for its maples that autumn crowds pack the pathways for momi-ji (maple viewing). The gardens aren’t easy to find through the crowds, the buildings and sub-temples; the upside of that being that there are few other visitors.

For Shigemori, creating modern gardens required following the approach of the old masters – combining knowledge and tradition with innovation. Even knowing this, the grid garden at Tofuku-ji comes as a shock.



Squares of clipped azaleas alternate with squares of raked gravel. The symmetry is not part of traditional Japanese garden design, yet here the grid references the patchwork of Japanese rice fields. The grid pattern is repeated in the next garden, but this time in moss and gravel, the grid gradually falling away into entropy.


Shigemori designed another set of gardens at Tofuku-ji, for the Ryogin-an sub-temple. The hojo here is the oldest existing one in Japan, its floor worn so silky you just have to sit and stroke it as you contemplate the garden. Dry stone Zen gardens, called kare-san-sui, are designed as an aid to meditation for monks in the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The patience, skill and concentration required to rake the specific pattern of the garden are part of Zen training and practice. An unwavering straight line is required in the Garden of Vanity, which is simply straight raked white gravel, edged in a straight line of river stones, backed by a bamboo fence and with a pavilion gazing onto the nothingness.

Ryogin-an, Kyoto

The emptiness of vanity is an easy message to read in this garden; the metaphor is a bit more obscure in one of the gardens in Zuiho-in, on the other side of the city.


The feudal lord who dedicated this temple, Otomo, was convinced by Portuguese missionaries to convert to Catholicism. Not long afterwards, Christianity was outlawed in Japan. In one of the gardens around the temple an asymmetrical cross is abstractly marked in stones and points to a stone lantern, beneath which is buried a statue of the Virgin Mary. The unseen statue is quite a powerful idea but my favourite garden here, is much more physical and energetic than this spiritual riddle. Stones in the form of a dragon leap from an ocean of waves of white gravel. The tines of the rakes used on the gravel form heaped ridges that add to the energy of the vertical rocks and the rising angle of the screening hedge at the back of the garden. It’s invigorating and serene at the same time.



Shigemori Garden Museum

Shigemori designed domestic gardens as well as temple gardens, but the only one it’s possible to visit is his own, now a ‘museum’. You need to book as only a handful of visitors are allowed in to see the master’s gardens and tearoom at any one time. There’s no wandering allowed. Views of the garden are controlled and when the shoji screen slides back from the tea house facing into the garden, the view revealed is of perfectly placed rocks, moss, camellias and pines, with glimpses of the suburb through the trees. The traditions of the Japanese garden, set in modern life.




In season

June 23

In now: Leeks are in peak supply and so are a briefly affordable alternative for those who cry buckets whenever a dish calls for diced onion. But they also star on their own. Try them braised until silky soft in olive oil, white wine, garlic and thyme.

At its best: Radicchio is one of the chicory family members that prefers growing in the cooler months. Try it now fresh in salads.  Or if the oven’s on, quarter the head, drizzle the pieces with olive oil and roast until browned on top, and soft all the way through. Drizzle caramelised balsamic or vincotto over  for a sweet-bitter-nutty effect. Pair with hot roasted beetroots, walnuts and dolce latte.

Best buy: And while we are celebrating bitter, the West Australian ruby grapefruit are a bargain. In her new book Bitter one of my favourite food writers, Jennifer McLagan, has a recipe for a grapefruit curd to serve as is, pile into tart cases or balance the sweetness atop a pavlova. It’s on my to-do list.

In the vegie patch: Sow another patch of beetroot. Use the leaves of thinned seedlings in salads.

What else:

  • hothouse grown eggplant is glossy and perfect; fieldgrown is often scratched but comes in at a bargain price and tastes just as good.
  • cumquats are available, but not widely. Jam makers should ask their greengrocer to get them in.
  • the early red-fleshed navel oranges are appearing. Don’t be fooled, these aren’t blood oranges.
  • how good is the rhubarb!
Other people's gardens

Mark Paul’s big ideas

Mark Paul’s house is built on a sandstone cliff. There was no soil for a garden. While the absence of growing medium might daunt many a would-be gardener, Paul’s expertise is in soil-free ecosystems, specifically green walls and green roofs. He founded the Greenwall company, the first of its kind in Australia, 25 years ago and and the first greenwall he built is still thriving. Consequently, the lack of soil at home was more of a challenge than a crisis. His solution combines engineering, horticulture and a fine appreciation of the movement and uses of water to create a garden of fascinating nooks and crannies, and plenty of exploratory and fun experiences for his two boys, including tadpoles, fish, a pool, vegetables, and a trampoline cleverly placed atop the chook run.

Mark Paul's garden on rock

Here is the deck, with the ponds overlooking the swimming pool, the rooftop planting visible, and the magnificent Queensland bottle tree, Brachychiton rupestris, wearing robes of Spanish moss and bromeliad brooches.

All the water that falls on the block is collected. Initially it runs from two roof slopes to a planted rooftop that supports some 240 plant species. This biodiverse terrain drains into rainwater tanks that are used for the very little irrigation required in the garden, as well as to flush the toilets and to fill the pond system. There are wetland ponds and rills and a deeper pond for waterlilies and carp. The plants remove excess nutrients from the water and are harvested a few times a year to feed the compost. And of course, there’s a greenwall, featuring 140 different species in a lush tapestry of texture and flower.

Green wall by Mark Paul

The green wall is the backdrop to the outdoor eating area.

It looks like a garden but it’s also an ecosystem and a blueprint for Paul’s inspiring ambition to build greener urban spaces. His passion is for the natural development of ecosystems. He first noticed the interactions of plant communities and creatures working as a marine biologist for the fisheries department. That same attention to the interactions and relationships of the natural world now feed into his design practice, which seems to be led by two questions – what is going on? and where is the water coming from?

The latter consideration has led him to currently be completing a greenwall system for a barristers’ chambers in Sydney that will be irrigated by drips collected from the air-conditioning units. He suspects they’ll end up with too much water. The former question leads to even bigger thinking. He startled the burghers of Melbourne recently with his observations about seagulls on disused warehouses around the docks. He noticed that the birds were essentially creating greenroofs by building nests. Fertilised by guano and watered by Melbourne weather they were very successful. Paul dug further and found that 250 mating pairs of seagulls would collect 14,500 tons of putrifying waste a year. What if instead of paying people to collect rubbish, you utilised the birds to make greenroofs and and to collect the city’s dropped chips!

Paul’s only half-joking about this. Provide the right conditions and ecosystems build themselves. Imagine if all those new buildings going up at Barangaroo and Darling Harbour weren’t cliff faces of steel and glass, but of biodiversity. The model is right there, in his garden.

Mark Paul's garden

One more shot showing the lush planting Mark has fitted in around the house despite the lack of soil.