Plants I love

Waratahs on fire

In the 17th century a popular theory held that God had marked plants with the nature of their usefulness. Brain-shaped walnuts were good for headaches; liverwort, with leaves spotted like a diseased liver, was good for liver problems. I remember the Signature of All Things theory when I see waratahs lighting up the bush. Skip the anthropocentric elements of and just look at how the waratah from afar looks like a fireball exploding, or up close like myriad red flames leaping from a grass fire! The nature of the plant is in its signature.


Waratahs love fire like vampires love blood – it rejuvenates them.When fire burns everything to the ground, the waratah responds by germinating long-dormant seeds, and sending new shoots from the heart of the plant, the lignotuber, buried beneath the surface. The new shoots flower in the second spring. They might continue to produce their fireballs of flower unless the canopy grows up and shuts out the sunlight. If that happens the waratahs close down and bide their time until the next fire.

Waratahs demand a perfectly drained site (mound up if necessary) on the acid side of the scale. Plenty of morning sun encourages flowering, but afternoon sun can scorch the foliage. A large container will do, as long as it is never allowed to dry out. Waratahs respond well to feeding with native plant fertiliser in spring and autumn. New plants need to be kept watered until established. For best flowering pray for rain in spring when they put on new growth, and again in late summer when they start to form buds.

Choose the right hybrid and the chance of success is much improved.  First, meet the family: the Sydney waratah, Telopea speciossima is the showy star. The Braidwood waratah, T. oreades, has smaller, but more plentiful flowers on a bushier shrub, as does the Gippsland waratah, T. mongeansis. The big sister is T. truncata, the Tasmanian waratah, which is at least 30 million years old. The parent of all four siblings, found as a fossilised pollen grain in Victoria, is dated to 70 million years ago, back when dinosaurs were walking around.

(I learnt this from reading Tim Low’s book about the inter-related evolution of Australian plants and birds, ‘Where Song Began’ (Viking). The real ‘der’ moment in the book for me was when Low mentioned in passing that Australian flowers like waratahs, banksias, grevilleas are so big and tough because they have to withstand the weight of the big honey-eating birds that pollinate them. Having seen what wattlebirds do to the cannas in my garden I felt a bit thick for not having put the two things together before.)


Anyway, when the showy Sydney waratah is paired with the less dramatic, but bushier and more prolific Gippsland or Braidwood waratahs, the resulting hybrids are dazzling. Look for Shady Lady cultivars, developed by Proteaflora Nursery in Victoria. Untrimmed, these make dramatic shrubs three metres high and wide. The best one I have ever seen is this one, at Cloudehill in the Dandenongs in Victoria. Jeremy Francis has it glowing against copper beech, with spires of Echium candicans (Pride of Madiera) highlighting the blue tones of the blood-red waratah blooms.


There are a couple of reds, and a white, in the Shady Lady range. Only one white waratah has ever been found in the bush, and every white cultivar in cultivation stems from it. Maintenance men working for the Sydney Water Board stumbled across the freak of nature in 1967. They kept its position a secret until convinced by Sydney botanist Thistle Harris to reveal its whereabouts. She successfully propagated cuttings, which she passed on to enthusiasts. This plant is known as ‘Wirrimbirra White’, after the wildflower sanctuary established by Harris in Bargo, near where the original was found. Hybrids of this white waratah are easier grow than the one Thistle had success with.


If your garden can’t take a waratah, get out into the bush in the next few weeks to marvel at those brilliant fiery heads. Try Manly Dam Reserve; the Waterfall end of the Royal National Park, Audley; the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah and Muogamarra Nature Reserve, Cowan.

In season

September 16

In now: The best blueberries from the northern rivers area of NSW start now.

At its best: NSW crops of broad beans are joining those of Queensland to swell supplies. Enjoy the bounty.

Best buy: Iceberg lettuce has a bargain moment in early spring. Use that refreshing crunch in a classic burger or with bang bang chicken; stir fry it with garlic; or cut it in wedges and drizzle with a salty creamy dressing, like anchovy aioli, blue cheese and buttermilk or fetta and yoghurt. To make the fetta dressing, put a wedge of fetta, a spoonful of thick natural yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon juice in the food processor with a teaspoon of sugar. Whizz to combine and then adjust flavours to suit your taste.

In the vegie patch: Plant watermelon seeds now for melons before New Year.

What else:

  • parsnips are cheap for another few weeks
  • grey zucchini are just as delicious as black
  • cucumbers are as pricey as mangoes for another week or so
  • broccoli is still a bargain
Myles Baldwin AGSS 2014
Other people's gardens

Pavilion or gazebo?

The gazebo has lost its mojo. Some time at the end of last century it was overtaken by the pavilion. The gazebo’s Chinese origins, fine-lined turrets, odd shapes and lacy trims devolved into something you could buy at a camping store, and contemporary gardens turned to the pavilion. The two outdoor structures originated in different impulses. The gazebo added human scale to a landscape, a place to escape to, taking on a meditative air. The pavilion, on the contrary, was always focused outwards. It was for feasts and dances and drama. No surprise then that a gazebo has become a kind of tent and the pavilion is where we entertain.

Best in Show AGSS 2014

I was thinking about the demise of the gazebo while standing in the lovely pavilion designed by Myles Baldwin for his garden at Australian Garden Show Sydney. (The rain was falling and the light was failing at the media preview of the show: and the rain just kept falling all weekend. Goes to show how much Sydneysiders love a garden that so many ventured out in the horrible weather.)

Baldwin’s wasn’t the only pavilion on display in the Inspiration gardens, there was this one by Peta Donaldson, conjuring Don and Megan Draper’s place if only Don had stayed on the west coast:

Peta Donaldson AGSS 2014

This one had a stark sophistication – and I love the plunge pool/water feature – but Baldwin’s was the one I wanted to be in.  His garden won gold and Best in Show and drew crowds of admirers to stand in the muddy bog that formed a moat around it, all imagining themselves relaxing with friends in that airy construction.

Myles Baldwin AGSS 2014

Baldwin reckons that Australian designers lead the world in pavilion architecture. You see it in the work of high-profile architects, he says, as well as in large and small domestic gardens. Baldwin’s pavilion for AGSS was built of steel and vertical red cedar batons that framed one view, disguised others and created louvered shadows across the floor in the intermittent periods of sunshine. The garden was on two levels, taking advantage of the sloping site in this part of Centennial Park’s Brazilian Fields, and allowing the pavilion to float over a sandstone-edged pool on the lower terrace.

While the pavilion was much loved, there were mutterings in the crowd about the planting, which challenged convention: it wasn’t lushly green, and it wasn’t confined to garden beds. Instead of lawn, a compacted gravel bed was laid with strips of stone to form a path to the pavilion.

Best in show AGSS 2014Planting was loosely triangular, wonderfully textural and not captured in garden beds. Here you can see whorls of kangaroo grass, silver-leafed teucrium and Pittosporum tobira ‘Miss Muffett’. This forms green lumpy hedges of the kind Baldwin especailly likes, with the bonus of creamy spring flowers. It handles the coastal conditions that his other favourite mounding shrub Viburnum tinus turns up its toes at.

Escaping conventional garden border, corokia seemed to be rushing to the embrace of cloudy mounds of Viburnum tinus. Corokia is a New Zealand native whose loose lump of zigzagging branches makes it look like something that blew in from the desert. It formed part of the textural palette of the garden, its suggestive spikiness contrasting with feathery soft pillows of kangaroo grass and leathery viburnum and raphiolepis.

Viburnum tinus and corokia

The corokia was also intrinsic to the colour palette, which took its key from the cedar in the pavilion. The wood has a pinky-red blush when fresh and new but will age to silver. Its present and future were highlighted in the plantings. The integration between structure and garden, each echoing the other, reminded me why we have embraced the pavilion, and disdained the gazebo. It’s not just that we’re party people; we also love a unity between outside and inside.

In season

September 9

In now: Loquats are the first new fruits of spring. Find them in bunches on the stem in Asian supermarkets, or loose in boxes elsewhere.

At its best: Blood oranges are at their most vibrantly coloured. Add to cocktails, ice creams, sorbets, or simple sliced strawberries.

Best buy: Spinach takes off with the warm weather so bargains can be found, especially in full-grown bunches.

In the vegie patch: Hang fruit fly traps to catch and kill male fruit flies. If males are about so are females that lay eggs in developing fruit. Start an organic spray program with eco-naturalure. Here’s more on dealing with fruit fly.

What else:

  • if you love a choko now is the time
  • make a salad with pomelo, herbs, peanuts and a sweet chilli dressing. Here’s one if you don’t want to make up your own.
  • there are some early season Australian grapes around, but most are imported. Shop with care
  • the melon to look for is Piel de Sapo, also called Spanish Frog melon


Clivia miniata
Plants I love


What would you say were the typical green ingredients in a Sydney garden? Murraya, camellia, agapanthus? (I’m not counting buxus because that’s usually more furniture than plant.)  And definitely clivia. Cilvia arrived in Sydney on the good ship Arachne in 1844, via its homes in South Africa and Swaziland. We’ve loved it ever since for its stoic determination to look magnificent in that most difficult position – dry shade. That first arrival was nobilis, the droopy-headed member of the family.

Clivia nobilis

Nobilis had been the first clivia to be collected and named by western science. Kew’s John Lindley paid the honour to Lady Charlotte Clive. As well as being Duchess of Northumberland, governess of the future Queen Victoria and granddaughter of Clive of India, Lady Charlotte was a keen plantswoman and the first to grow and flower clivia in England. She’s the reason clivia doesn’t rhyme with trivia.

While nobilis is still much sought after, the clivia most familiar to Sydney gardeners is miniata. The original had orange flowers with a green throat, edging to yellow.

Clivia miniata

Over the past century hydridisers have worked their magic on miniata so that she now comes in yellow, peach, salmon, green, almost-white and various shadings in between. The dark orange, wide-leaved varieties are called Belgian hybrids. There’s a great collection of them in the grounds of Sydney University. The most impressive clivia garden in Sydney though, is surely the Lover’s Walk garden at Bronte House.

Leo Schofield, who rehabilitated the garden at Bronte House when he lived there in the 1990s, wanted to plant C. nobilis in this shady, dry, rocky spot. It was impossible to find in the numbers he needed, so he instead planted 3,500 miniata, sprinkled with a mix of Belgian hybrids and species. Carla Pettit now manages the garden and says the only annoying thing about the clivia section is that it looks spectacular and draws Open Day visitors to gasp in admiration, despite being the area where she does the least work. “I’m listening to them and thinking ‘What about the area around the house that I spent countless hours preparing!’” The only effort the clivias demand is a twice-weekly watering (they might manage drought, but they prefer regular water, as long is it gets away quickly and doesn’t bog them down), and the removal of spent flower stems after flowering.

The clivias of Bronte House are remaining under wraps this year as Waverly Council takes on restoration of the building, not due to be finished until October, so the great clivia shows this year will be under the palms in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney; edging the fronts of garden beds all over the North Shore; and in shady garden spots all through the city.

In season

September 2

In now: Spring launches our asparagus season. Most is grown in Koo Wee Rup in the West Gippsland area of Victoria. Pickers are out at dawn to supply the freshest possible stems. Don’t waste their efforts: buy to eat.

Last chance: Last of the quinces, and the end of the custard apples. Want to do something extraordinary with the last of the custard apples? Peter Gilmour’s Snow egg: custard apple ice cream inside a poached meringue egg, coated with a crunchy shell, atop sorbet and granita of varying tropical fruits. This version matches the egg with strawberry guava.

Best buy: Red capsicum is the current bargain. Barbecue to black and blistered, sweat in plastic to loosen the skin, then peel and store strips of flesh in olive oil. Use on bruschetta, and in salads and sauces.

In the vegie patch: Replant the herb garden with new basil seedlings.

What else:

  • the local avocado season is a dud this year, expect fruit from New Zealand
  • Afourer is the mandarin of the moment
  • artichokes are at their best
  • figs from US and Queensland are available, but hang on til summer for better quality fruit.