When did tall flowering shrubs become the shoulder pads of horticultural fashion – derided and discarded? Now uncool and rarely seen, they used to provide essential structure to a garden, as well as doing what shoulder pads never did well – star in their own seasonal show. The glory of the flowering shrub is gorgeously expressed in the pleasure gardens of Vaucluse House, the early 19th century home of William and Sarah Wentworth.
The shrubs growing now aren’t original plantings, but have been selected from lists of colonial plants derived from Sydney’s 19th century nursery catalogues. Some of these old favourites deserve some modern love. Anita Rayner is head gardener for Sydney Living Museums, whose properties include the important gardens of Vaucluse House. Rayner nominates three durable and desirable flowering shrubs worthy of a fashion resurrection: dombeya, eupatorium and Hibiscus mutabilis.
Dombeya, (also called tropical hydrangea) has big heart-shaped leaves and show-stopping balls of bell-shaped flowers. These are white, pink or red and smell of teacake in the oven. They can be left to form a 4m tall shrub if views need to be hidden, or trimmed to let winter light in. Rayner goes in hard and cuts them to metre in late autumn.
The hibiscus looks a bit like the dombeya (they’re from the same family, Malvaceae) with big heart-shaped leaves, but the extraordinary double or single flowers of this plant bloom white and age through pale pink to deep rose. It too gets a big chop in autumn, which controls its size – and its weedy potential. (The down-side of plants that don’t need much assistance from a gardener is that they will grow anywhere. H. mutabilis has become a minor problem in southern Queensland.)
Imagine the little blue floss-flower annual called ageratum, scaled up to something from Land of the Giants. That’s eupatorium (now Bartlettina sordida). Huge blue flossy flower heads appear in September, and when they are finished, Rayner cuts the plant to the ground. This routine allows the new growth to harden up enough to support those huge flower heads in spring.
You’ll have to be quick to see these shrubs, as well as the fragrant white flowers and red-edged leaves of luculia, the blue trumpets of iochroma, and other old favourites, before Rayner’s autumn cut-off. But if you miss these, you’ll catch one of the flowering shrubs that has never slipped off Sydney’s must-have list – the camellia. The first camellia brought to Sydney was Camellia japonica ‘Ameniflora’, also called the waratah camellia. Horticulturist and plant-nut William Macarthur (son of sheep farmer John) brought it in from China in 1831. The original plant still grows and flowers by the house at Macarthur’s Camden Park. An 1850s cutting from that original is in the gardens at Vaucluse House, and is about to put on a brilliant show of red flowers.