Helen Curran calls her garden in Seven Hills Tropical Breeze and it was living up to its name the afternoon I visited. Under lush shade cooled by a frangipani-scented breeze coming off the waterfall and pool, a remarkable collection of tropical plants was flourishing, while out in the street wavy lines of heat were rising from the bitumen.
That the plants grow so beautifully in distinctly untropical western Sydney is not as odd as it first appears. The water-holding capacity of the clay soil helps and so does the shady canopy. Many of the plants in the garden are advertised as preferring full sun and do indeed grow out in the open in the tropics, but a full-sun position in Sydney is fierce. “In the tropics the heat of the sun is ameliorated by the humidity in the air,” explains Helen. “But when we get a really hot day it’s dry as well.” That dry heat burns in a way that wet heat doesn’t. So Helen grows plants like hibiscus, acalphya, ixora and croton under a canopy of dappled shade provided in large part by clumps of golden cane palm, Dypsis lutescens. “The golden canes are good because it’s easy to control the size of the clump.” She keeps hers to a few stems, removing shoots and keeping the first few metres of stem clear. As well as the arching fronds of the golden canes, shelter is provided by a collection of different-coloured brugmansia (Angel’s trumpet) and frangipani.
Helen’s interest in tropical plants started with foliage plants, then she fell in love with flowers and started travelling far afield to collect new treasures. One of her favourite nurseries is outside Humpty Doo, 45km south of Darwin. Given her her kaleidoscopic collection and huge experience of tropical gardening in Sydney, I asked her to nominate 5 tropical/sub-tropical plants she thinks should be more widely grown in modern Sydney gardens. Start pestering your local garden centre for these gems:
Its common name, Brazilian plume flower, clues you in to the shape of the flowers which come in soft pink, white and yellow. There’s also a deep pink, which has burgundy-backed leaves as a nice contrast. Sizes range from a bit over a metre to just a smidgeon under two metres. They all tend to be a bit loose in form so work well to fill in gaps in the garden. Give them some shade.
Like J. carnea, this has been grown in Sydney since the early days of the colony, and likewise has been washed through fashion’s cycle more than once. Time to bring it back again. It’s best known as shrimp plant because its most common form has droopy chains of brick-red bracts that look a bit like a cooked prawn. It also comes in lime green, crimson and a multi-coloured variety called ‘Fruit Cocktail’, shown here with a variegated draecena. (Note the weird spelling, a consequence of being named after the fabulously-labelled American botanist and plant collector Townshend Stith Brandegee.)
Angel’s trumpet is a tall multi-stemmed shrub that can be pruned to a single stem. The fragrant flowers are shades of yellow, apricot, pink and white. More on this beauty next week. (This picture is from my garden, not Helen’s as her weren’t in flower when I visited.)
You often see these in old gardens, and even in neglected gardens, which is always a clue to a useful plant. They are grown for their foliage, which is multi-coloured and often twisted in pleasing ways. They are easy to propagate from tip cuttings if you find something you like in a friend’s garden, and are best grown with shelter from hot winds. Surprisingly drought-tolerant once established.
Though this plant’s spikes of lilac flower are pretty enough, they barely rate a mention in comparison to the fantastic foliage. A wide array of brilliant markings colour leaves that might be scalloped, or ruffled or toothed or crumpled. They like a bit of shade, and if those flower spikes are pinched out can be encouraged to grow reasonably bushy. Some are more low-growing than others, but none get over about 45cm. They are growing here with crotons, another of Helen’s favourite foliage plants.
Helen has been a regular in Open Garden Australia, but with the demise of the scheme, she thinks this weekend might be the last time she opens the garden to the general public. Take up the opportunity! February 7 and 8, 10am to 4.30pm, 24 Johnson Ave, Seven Hills, Sydney.