A jacaranda in full bloom looks like a giant ruffled crinoline of the kind that Scarlett O’Hara’s cousin may have worn to the ball. The sight of these giant skirts forming a cotillion of purple around the harbour never fails to lift my spirits. Sadly for some Sydney-siders, the site of a jacaranda in full flower brings nothing but sweaty palms and a racing heart. The jac-fest coincides with exam time, at both HSC and tertiary level, so for some those purple domes will forever be associated with a feeling of being not quite prepared. (Help may be at hand: research from climate change watchers suggests that jacaranda blooming is shifting forwards. It may soon signal the football grand final rather than education’s grand finale.)
These natives of South America look magnificent paired against the golden combs of the native silky oak, Grevillea robusta, or the striking scarlet buds and blooms of the Illawarra flame tree, Brachychiton acerifolius. Flame trees and jacaranadas both flower on bare wood, having dropped their leaves in early spring, and this accentuates the colour shock. The bad news: you need plenty space to create painterly effects with these trees. Jacarandas will develop a crown of 10-15 metres wide and a height about the same. That makes them the wrong choice for a small backyard. Equally, a fence-side planting is unlikely to impress the neighbours. In 2011 a woman took her neighbour to the Land and Environment Court complaining that the overhanging branches of his jacaranda were ruining her washing. The court ultimately ruled that birds rather than the tree caused the stains on her laundry. The tree may have flourished, but it’s doubtful whether neighbourly relations did.
For most urban gardeners jacarandas are best enjoyed beyond the home garden. Hunters Hill offers especially good jac-viewing from the water. On land, Paddington and Balmain do a lovely line in purple-fringed Victoriana and the leafy north shore colours purple in November. (That northern lilac haze has often been credited to a nursing matron at the Mater Hospital who is said to have handed out jacaranda seedlings with babies. This fabulous story sadly has no evidence to support it.)
If you do have room for a jacaranda, bequeath to future generations a wonderful shape by careful positioning (backlit in early morning or late afternoon is particularly photogenic) and judicious early pruning. Every three years for the first 15 cut any competing trunks at the base, to maintain a single trunk. Thin the canopy to develop stronger branches, removing crossing branches and those at odd angles, but never removing more than 20 per cent of the growth; always cutting just outside the branch collar; and only ever in the dead of winter. Bad pruning results in ugly vertical growth, which will be on view wherever jacarandas have lost the argument with the electricity wires.