Plants I love


The story goes like this. Rebels in the Indian mutiny, having run out of ammunition but not ingenuity, loaded up their rifles with the pellet-like seeds of cannas instead, thereby giving the plant its common name, Indian shot. Sadly it’s not true, though in a botanical version of ‘Mythbusters’ a Californian botany professor fired canna seeds from 12-gauge shotgun into plywood targets and found many of the seeds were unaltered by the impact! The story is a geographical fail too. The canna is native to the West Indies and tropical America generally, rather than to the East Indies and tropical Asia. The single pellet of poetical truth in the common name is that the brilliant colours of canna do remind you of a vibrant Indian fabric market.

Red canna

An unnamed sensational red canna from my mum’s garden.

As evidence: currently blooming in my garden is a rich red; a hot pink; the bright orange with dark burgundy foliage called ‘Wyoming’; and a giant orange monster that towers more than 2m high. I also grow a few specifically for their fabulous foliage: an elegant version with purple-edged and striped leaves, which, unfurling, look like calla lilies; ‘Tropicanna’ in lurid sunset tones of purple, orange and pink stripes; and gold and lime striped ‘Bengal Tiger’. This last one looks fantastic backlit but has the downside of insipid orange flowers held on horribly clashing violet-pink stems. I cut them off whenever they appear.

Canna 'Bengal Tiger'

This is ‘Bengal Tiger’ at the size I like. Check the pic at the top of this post to see the nasty flower spike.

As you can tell from my mix of named and unnamed varieties, cannas are one of those easy-care plants shared anonymously between friends, as well as hunted down through mailorder specialists (try Canna Brae).

It’s estimated there are now several thousand canna cultivars in gardens around the world, which is quite the comeback. In the plant’s 19th century heyday a German catalogue listed 500 varieties and 76 beds of different cannas bloomed to rave reviews at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, but when the good taste brigade turned its back on Victorian-era excess cannas were caned. Now the chromatic clamour and tropical exoticism of the canna is back. The dwarf varieties are good in pots, and they go well in the garden with subtropical plants like bananas and gingers and palms, with contrasting foliage plants and with dahlias. That’s a combo made famous by English gardener Christopher Lloyd who gave the English garden world conniptions when he tore out a rose garden at iconic Great Dixter and replaced it with an exotic mix featuring plenty of cannas.


This is ‘Wyoming’, with dark burgundy, almost black foliage. The wattlebirds love this and stick their beaks so far into the flower their weight bends the flower spike towards to the ground, with the bird hanging upside down. The inevitable snap of the stem and ungraceful escape of the bird is a slow-motion accident you can’t stop watching.

Cannas like lots of sun, are drought-hardy once the clump gets established and look lushly gorgeous when it rains a lot. They respond really well to feeding, but don’t look bad without it. Dead flowers should be picked off the flower spike, and finished spikes trimmed. Don’t cut the whole stem down though, as a new flower spike will likely emerge from the side of the stem. Apart from baby snails chewing holes in the baby leaves, the single canna curse is rust. The powdery orange spots appear on the lower leaves first and quickly spread. Bin badly affected leaves, and control the spread of the fungus by spraying any outbreak, including the mulch surface around the plants, with Ecofungicide.

It’s a small amount of effort for massive effect as it’s not just the colour that appeals but the plant’s explosive growth. The clump shifts from zero to hero as soon as the weather warms, completely changing the sense of volume in the garden. When the cold sets in they start to look a bit shabby. I cut them down to a few centimetres above ground level and mulch with compost and manure. I just get used to the garden without their bulk, height and brilliant flashes of colour when they come booming back again.

'Summer Red' flowering gum
Plants I love

Flowering gum

The flowering gums have been dazzling this summer. The massive scarlet blooms and the brilliant heads of orange beat Christmas baubles for decorative value hands down. Flowering gums make cheerily flamboyant street trees and look amazing planted with other vibrant flowers in a total colour onslaught that makes a drag queen look dowdy by comparison.

The sight of these beauties colouring up our Christmas and New Year is relatively recent and due to sterling work by horticulturists. First on the list of those to toast is Stan Henry. Henry was frustrated that he couldn’t grow Western Australia’s glorious red-flowering gum in his Queensland garden. It would look like it was growing, offering tantalising anticipation, only to produce insipid flowers before dropping dead.

The problem was the weather. The WA native, Corymbia ficifolia, like so many other Western Australian plants, is no fan of humidity. Henry’s brilliant idea was to try hybridising the west Australian with one of his local swamp bloodwoods, Corymbia pthychocarpa. The successful result, now grown on grafted rootstock, is marketed as the ‘Summer’ series of flowering gums: ‘Summer Red’; ‘Summer Snow’, which has creamy blooms and ‘Summer Beauty’, which has peachy-pink flowers.

The Summer series trees get to 6m. Recent cultivars add size options to the flowering gum menu. ‘Baby Orange’, for instance, is a small tree, around 3m by 3m, with a dense canopy completely covered through summer and into autumn by brilliant orange blooms. ‘Baby Orange’ and its generation of cultivars aren’t hybridised but instead are the best selections of C. ficifolia, grafted onto a rootstock that allows them to thrive on the east coast. Siblings include ‘Calypso Queen’, with watermelon-pink flowers to a neighbour-screening 4m high and wide; and ‘Lollypops’ with candy-pink flowers on a tree that gets to 5m or so.

All of these flowering gums do best in full sun, and don’t like frost until they are well established. They aren’t needy garden plants, but to perform at their best they do require gardeners to get handy with the pruners. Tip pruning newly planted trees every couple of months is optional but will help develop a dense canopy. The single don’t-miss job is an annual prune as the flowers start to fade. You can start this early if you like by cutting flowers for the house – they look fantastic but don’t last. The aim is to prevent the tree putting energy into producing gumnuts, which has the effect of reducing flowering the following year. You can also control the height of the tree with this prune, removing up to 30 per cent of the plant if necessary. Follow the prune with a dose of low-phosphorus fertiliser designed for natives to promote new growth and more flowering next summer.

Plants I love

Grow a pineapple

The rough end of the pineapple is Aussie slang for a raw deal, but for gardeners the rough end of the pineapple is a bonus as it promises more pineapples.

Pineapples are members of the extended bromeliad clan, and the fruit forms atop a red and purple flower spike. To grow them you only need to cut the top off, remove as much flesh as you can, strip the lower leaves, let the cutting harden off for a few days, then plant into a pot filled with potting mix. Keep the soil moist until the cutting is well established and a couple of handspans tall, then move it on to garden bed or large pot.

Pineapple plant

Pineapple growing in the pineapple patch at Vaucluse House, Sydney


This ease of propagation is the reason that hybrid pineapples, bred for extra sweetness and low acid, are sold with their tops cut off. They are grown under license and removing their tops before distribution prevents unauthorised growing.

Europeans came across the pineapple in the Americas in the mid-17th century and it instantly became a prize. Charles II had himself painted receiving one as a gift, and they became fashionable as exotic motifs for furniture and fabrics. The most lavish example of this trend is the silver-coated oak table commissioned by William III for Kensington Palace in 1698. The table features a full-sized silver pineapple as a decorative feature. Dutch-born William was making a spiky insult to Louis XIV, reminding him that the Dutch beat the French in the race to fruit a pineapple in Europe.

Silver table by Andrew Moore, 1698-9 (Royal Collection Trust)

This is the completely over-the-top table, made by Andrew Moore, 1698-9 (Photo from Royal Collection Trust). If you love pineapple as decorative motif, book lunch or dinner at Ananas Brasserie in the Rocks. Food’s good too.

By the 19th century pineapples were something of a fixture in the temperate world. They had their own spot in the Sydney Botanic Gardens as early as 1828, but now Sydneysiders take them for granted, and rarely grow them.

One pineapple is something of an oddity but a mass can look great. Like other bromeliads, pineapples want good drainage, and don’t care about root competition, so you can plant them where other plants are hard to grow, on the sunny north side of trees, for instance. They are carefree plants, and require only a bit of water when the weather is very dry. Feed with an organic fertiliser sprinkled around the roots once in spring, summer and autumn.

Be patient. It will take two years before the flower spike appears, and then another four to six months for the fruit to slowly develop. When the side of the fruit facing the sun is fully yellow (the shaded side might stay green) use a sharp knife to cut it from the stalk. And as you celebrate that sweet golden flesh, the appropriate Aussie exclamation, given the pineapple’s royal history, is one of my dad’s favourites: ‘I wouldn’t call the king my uncle!’

Kangaroo paw
Plants I love

Kangaroo paws for any garden

Kangaroo paws are hot in California. In coastal gardens they share the sun with succulents, salvias, agapanthus and other heat and salt hardy plants. But here at home, instead of encouraging their fuzzy furry textures, bold, long-lasting colours and towering height into any garden, we tend to categorise them as belonging in a native garden, at home with grevilleas and banksia. It’s a habit of thought that drives Angus Stewart crazy.

Kangaroo paw

Stewart has been breeding kangaroo paws for more than 35 years and reckons he is finally starting to see a change in how local gardeners use them. “We’ve been giving our native plants this status as natives, and they’ve not been seen as garden plants. There’s been this idea that a proper garden is English in style, and perhaps there’s a bit of cultural cringe about including natives in that mix.”

Of course the English style flower garden has always been cheerfully multicultural, featuring plants from around the world, and Stewart thinks that we are finally taking the same approach in our gardens, making choices based on colour and form and texture and what a plant can add to our enjoyment of the garden rather than where it comes from.

As well as ghettoising Australian plants in native gardens, Stewart says we have also been guilty of assuming that native garden plants need no actual gardening. Like any plants, he says, they respond to proper pruning, watering and feeding regimes with better growth, more flowers and longer lives.

Stewart’s new book, ‘The Australian Native Garden: A Practical Guide’ co-written with Melbourne writer A.B Bishop, published this week by Murdoch, addresses some of those cultivation issues. It also offers handy advice on the best available cultivars. When it comes to kangaroo paws, Stewart’s recommendation is for his 2015 releases, called the ‘Landscaper series’. His goal for these plants was ‘tall and tough’. There is one with a lime green flower, an orange with red stems, a yellow with red stems, a two-tone pink and a lovely soft silvery lilac on deeper purple stems. All will tower 1.5-2m.

Kangaroo paw 'Landscape Lilac' by Angus Stewart

This is ‘Landscape Lilac’, photographed by Angus Stewart in Linda Ross’ garden.

When the flowers are finished the stems should be cut down to ground level, along with the fan of leaves supporting than stem. In fact the whole plant can be cut down to the ground in late summer to allow for new fresh clean growth. They’ll flower regardless, but give a great show if fed with a slow-release fertiliser formulated for natives in autumn and coming into spring. The only thing that will slow them down is when the clump becomes overcrowded, so every five years or so, it’s a good idea to divide the clump, replant and use the remainder to repeat the effect in other parts of the garden, or share with friends, especially those who don’t have a native garden.

Plants I love

Hoyas for Sydney

So now I know I did the exact wrong thing. Last summer, charmed on the way to the compost bin by the vanilla sweet scent of the Hoya carnosa blooming deliciously in the lattice fence, I picked a flower stem. Hoya carnosa you might know better as wax flower. Your gran probably grew it in the shade house. The blooms are globes of multiple tiny pink waxy star flowers with a white centre, like a fairy disco ball. I put the flower stem in a little ceramic sake jug and admired it for a week.

Rookie error. It turns out that most hoyas flower on the same bud nodes year after year so having picked the flower I’ve wrecked any opportunity of having flowers on that stem this year. It was Wes Vidler who gave me the bad news. Wes and his wife Lorraine own Weslor Nursery, which specialises in climbing plants and hoyas. They grow more than 90 of the 250 hoya species, so are well on the way to collecting the set. Wes and Lorraine grow their hoyas at Imbril, an hour west of Noosa, but plenty of hoyas do well in the frost-free gardens, balconies, courtyards and houses of Sydney. They grow on trellis, up trees, pillars and tripods, as groundcovers, and in hanging baskets.
Hoya kerrii ‘Sweetheart’ is a favourite for baskets for its distinctly heart shaped leaves. It also has pale pink flowers and says Wes, ‘flowers its guts out’. ‘Hoya Bella’ has pointy foliage and pink-starred, white fragrant flowers. In its native North India it cascades from the crooks of trees, and is consequently stunning hanging from a pot.

Hoya kerrii

This is Hoya kerrii, photo courtesy of Wes Vidler. As I said, I picked my Hoya carnosa, didn’t take a picture of it, so have nothing to show til it flowers again.

I was calling Wes for a recommendation for a hoya to grow up a tripod. His first suggestion was the one currently astonishing visitors on his front balcony. It is Hoya Macgillvray, native to Cape York, with the most extraordinary dark purple flowers that look like bats with outstretched wings.

Hoya macgillivaryii 'Langkelly Creek' 7 jpg

This is Wes’ Hoya macgillivaryii ‘Langkelly Creek.

It’s too cold in Sydney to have this beauty outdoors, but Wes thinks it would be fine in a bright spot by a window inside. A better bet for a filtered sun position in the garden is Hoya australis, another native, with a loose globe of white flowers in autumn.

Hoya australis ssp. australis

Hoya australis, also by Wes.

Hoyas are mostly epiphtytic and like growing in a tight spot. They should only be potted up when totally root bound, and then only into a pot the next size up. They don’t need much water, and only in the growing season, not in winter. A warm season regular feed of weak foliar fertiliser will promote growth and flowers, but the real trick to flowers is enough light. They prefer morning sun and the dappled light under trees. You can often find them, not always named, at Bunnings and at garden centres. Better is to buy from the experts. The Vidlers mailorder at, and will have a stall at Collectors’ Plant Fair at Clarendon in April.

Tropical water lily
Plants I love


When I say waterlilies do you think first of the flower, or of the paintings by Claude Monet? More than any other flower waterlilies are intricately linked with a single gardener. Monet’s willow-edged pond at Giverny, with its wisteria-looped, arching bridge and floating lilies has been much-copied, while his paintings of the pond are loved to the point of reverence. (In the Monet room of the Chichu Art Museum on Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima this reverence takes on a spiritual solemnity. There is ritual involved: first you wait, in silence, to take your turn as one of the limited number of viewers allowed in the presence of the works, then remove your shoes and put on a pair of clean cotton slippers before slipping through panels to a large light-filled room built to display the five large light-filled paintings. The sussurant sounds of the slippers, the light, the scale of the works and their shimmering surfaces combine in an art moment like no other.)

water lily

Monet’s pond garden timing was perfect. Until 1879 the only hardy waterlily was a large-flowered white one. Then Joseph Latour-Marliac started crossing that white with colourful tropical water lilies he imported from the hot southern states of the US. In his garden near Bordeaux he meticulously selected and bred for colour and in 1889 caused a sensation when he displayed his amazing coloured lilies at Bagatelle in Paris. Two years later Monet took on the lease at Giverny and when he acquired the extra land for his pond, he ordered his pond plants from Latour-Marliac. The two corresponded about lilies and lotus and after Latour-Marliac visited Giverny, he created one of the first copies of Monet’s Japanese bridge in his own garden.

Most waterlilies are sun worshippers. They like it hot and keep the kinds of hours dermatologists advise against, waking when the sun is high, shining brightly through the hottest part of the day and closing up again at about drink-in-the-garden time. So to grow waterlilies you need to offer them at least six hours of direct sun. The other must-have is still water. They don’t like moving water, or water splashing on their leaves. The still water can be in a container rather than a built-in pond, but it needs to be a big one. Most waterlilies need a depth of about 50cm, though there are miniature varieties that only need to be planted a hand-span beneath the surface.

Tropical water lily

The hardy waterlilies that Latour-Marliac developed and Monet painted float on the surface of the water, flower from October to April in Sydney and come in white, pink, deep red and yellow. The tropical water lilies, which Latour-Marliac used as his colour genes, hold their flowers on tall stalks that stand above the water. They flower into winter, add violet and purple to the colour options and are often intensely fragrant. Some tropical lilies are exceptions in loving the sun but flowering at night. These usually open at sunset and close at morning teatime the following day. They prefer water temperatures of about 24 degrees, and tend to have a larger-leaf spread so are best for larger ponds.

Tropical water lily

If you can find no room for waterlilies in garden, courtyard or balcony, buy them as cut flowers. They last well, as long as they are submerged up their necks in water. They’ll close up at night, and dazzle for days with a heady fragrance.


White spider orchid, Caladenia longicauda
Plants I love

Orchid hunt

I’m on an orchid hunt in south-west Western Australia. Our quarries are tiny, delicately detailed ground orchids. Of the thousand species of ground orchids in Australia, almost half are found here. It’s not just orchids that are over-represented here either. The numbers of plant species is boggling: more than 8000 different flowering natives, with more being discovered every year.

I’m on the southern edge of the region, in the Stirling Ranges, and I only need to look at my feet to appreciate that diversity. Around me I count at least 12 species before being distracted. That’s a pretty pathetic effort. Botanists typically find 25 species in a 10m by 10m quadrant in the south west, with the record being 110, in Lesuer National Park north of Perth. I gave up counting when I noticed a twining, twinkling sundew. These carnivorous plants catch insects in sticky ‘dew’ that sparkles like a ring of diamonds. Sure enough, when I lean close enough I see a tiny green wasp trapped, and slowly being absorbed into the plant.

But we’re not here for the micro brutality of the sundews. John Byrne is leading us to orchids. Byrne jokes that he farms cattle, crops and caravans on his Mount Trio property. The caravans started turning up in when he set up a bush camp for travellers on the wildflower trail and he now offers guided walks every morning.

This morning we are heading for an old gravel pit worked in the ‘60s and never remediated. The orchids grow where the topsoil was scraped into mounds. Most obvious are glowing communities of cowslip orchid, Caladenia flava.

Cowslip orchid, Caldenia flava

Cowslip orchid, Caladenia flava, is the most common of WA’s spider orchids. It often grows together in colonies in which all plants are clones of each other. 

Nearby are the shiny enamel orchids, Elythranthera emarginata, glossy as a freshly painted fingernail, and white spider orchids with long trailing petals.

Enamel orchid, Elythranthera emarginata

Purple enamel orchid, Elythranthera brunonsis. The backs of the petals have a fantastic snake-skin pattern.

They are highly desirable and not coming to a garden near you any time soon. These plants have exceptionally specialized growing requirements evolved over millions of years in infertile soils. The adaptations are bizarre. Each orchid species must be infected with a specific fungi that supplies carbohydrate in exchange for water, nitrogen and phosphates.

White spider orchid, Caladenia longicauda

White spider orchid, Caladenia longicauda.

As well as specific fungi, the ground orchids have evolved with a specific pollinator, and many cheat and lie to lure them in. The spider orchids, for instance, emit a perfume that smells like the pheromone a particular female wasp uses to signal sexual availability. To double the deceit, part of the flower looks like a female wasp. The deluded male flies from flower to flower transferring pollen in a fruitless search for a sexual partner.

Dancing spider orchid, Caladenia discoidea

Dancing spider orchid, Caladenia discoidea

Our hunt is more successful than that of the hapless pollinator wasps. We spot a dozen of the 54 different species John has identified on the property. All have a fragile appearance and a fascinating story, going part way to explaining why some orchid hunters are driven to collect the full set.

Heberle's spider orchid, Caladenia heberleana

Heberle’s spider orchid, Caladenia heberleana. Just look where this is growing!

***Exciting news!
I’m leading a garden tour of Holland and Belgium next spring with Viking cruises. We’ll enjoy the ease and comfort of a river cruise, (love that unpack once thing!) with plenty of great garden moments at the height of tulip season. It will be just a small group and we’ll have a ball. Read the full itinerary on the brochure:
Spring blooms with Robin Powell

Plants I love

Plant sale

One of the big draws of the Growing Friends plant sale at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney next weekend is the cabbage on a stick plant, Brihamia insignis. The lure isn’t its good looks. The 1-2m tall succulent stem is topped by a rosette of fleshy, spoon-shaped leaves (hence cabbage on a stick). Clusters of tubular, yellow flowers bloom in winter and smell like honeysuckle.

Odd, rather than gorgeous, the real draw is this plant’s endangered status. Its only pollinator is a now-extinct moth, so the handful of individuals left on its native Hawaiian islands are hand-pollinated by botanists abseiling down the cliff faces. Introducing Brihamia into gardens is the backup plan to stave off extinction, and plant collectors are keen to help out. All proceeds from sales of the plant go to assist groundwork and conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai.

Molokai from helicopter

I don’t have a shot of the Brihamia, so this is just to set the scene – Molokai from a helicopter. Great fun!

A rare find isn’t unusual at the Growing Friends nursery. It’s the go-to spot for gardeners hunting out the horticultural hard-to-find: a daily adjunct to the biannual plant fairs, Collectors Plant Fair in April, and Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong in September.

Growing Friends is not-for-profit. The money raised goes towards travel scholarships for Gardens botanists, research support and infrastructure. It is manned by volunteers who propagate plants from those grown in the public areas of the RBG. The plant list fills gaps in what is commercially available. “There are plants that have gone out of fashion but work well in Sydney, or tube stock sizes of plants you can only buy commercially in large and expensive sizes, as well as the rare and unusual and endangered stuff,” explains Greg Lamont. Lamont recently started working with Growing Friends as horticultural consultant. He comes from a background in plant research (he was first to launch garden-friendly varieties of Geraldton wax back in the ‘80s) and commercial plant and cut flower production, and his experience and expertise is improving propagation and growth rates in the Growing Friends stock.

Angel wing begonia and calathea

Angel wing begonia and calathea, Tropical Breeze, Seven Hills, Sydney

Best-sellers at Growing Friends include the myriad members of the begonia family, blue ginger, the silver-rimmed Japanese chrysanthemum, Ajana pacifica and rhipsalis, which is hipster-chic in hanging baskets, green walls and indoor plants. My personal favourites are the coleus. These foliage fillers for shade can be found in commercial nurseries, but not in the brilliant array of colours and patterns seen on the Growing Friends benches. Lamont says they have been working on the coleus collection, improving its uniformity and quality and increasing the range. Hunt up frilled, curled and ruffled leaves in solid burgundy and lime green, as well as complex variations of two or more colours in patterns mad enough to make a tropical fish look underdressed.

Coleus, solenostemon

Why I love coleus, more correctly now Solenostemon.

Joining them on the desirables list for the spring plant sale is a rare bronze form of Alcanterea imperialis. This grand bromeliad was popularised by the modernist Brazilian landscaper Roberto Burle Marx, and this form comes from his own garden. Like the Brihamia, this gem will have the enthusiasts arriving early.

Plants I love

Some salvias

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much joy the common red salvia has given me over winter. For there is nothing rare or even particularly interesting about this plant. It is a modern hybrid of a Brazilian native, Salvia splendens, which was taken to Europe in 1822, and turned into a dwarf bedding plant. It is so resilient in the face of abuse and neglect it has become the number one choice of councils and shopping malls. Being overly familiar I held it in a certain amount of contempt until, burdened by indecision and poor choice at Bunnings one day last December, I bought a tray of seedlings.

They started flowering almost immediately, making splashes of red that unexpectedly linked cannas and gloriosa lilies and an old species fuchsia into a sinuous red ribbon. Where the garden is hot they shone, and where it is shady they glowed. And they kept it up all through winter. What was intended to be a quick stopgap, I now find I don’t want to do without, and so they have been cut back in anticipation of a new burst of growth and flower. Though marketed as annuals, I reckon I’ll get a few seasons from them.

Salvia splendens

Here they are, growing in almost total shade at the end of April.

There are two new members of the Salvia splendens family available this season: ‘Go Go Scarlet’ and ‘Go Go Purple’. They will grow to about 1.2 metres high and a metre wide, so are more substantial than my skinny red ribbons. The flower spikes are large and will cover the plants all year, as long as spent flowers are snipped off. These German-bred salvias are fine plants but they can’t beat the story behind the Australian salvia success story, the ‘Wish’ collection.

Salivia GoGo Purple

This is the new S. splendens called Go go purple.

A few years ago salvia enthusiast and collector Wendy Smith found a new salvia growing in her garden in Rosebud, Victoria. The plant grew to a 80cm x 80cm dome-shaped shrub covered in bright pink flowers with burgundy bracts and stems. Smith decided to donate part of the plant sales to the children’s charity Make-a-Wish. When Plant Management Australia, which negotiated the rights to supply ‘Wendy’s Wish’, developed a coral and bronze version, it auctioned the rights to name it. The winners named it for their children, Emma and Brett Shegog, who both died from a rare degenerative disease. Proceeds of the auction, and a portion of plant sales of ‘Ember’s Wish’ go to Make-A-Wish.

Salvia love and wishes

The latest in the wish series of saliva, ‘Love and Wishes’.


Newest to the collection is ‘Love and Wishes’, a deep purple cultivar, developed by a hobby plant breeder John Fisher, in Orange, NSW. A portion of the proceeds from sales of this plant also go to Make-A-Wish. The wish salvias are great garden plants. In fact ‘Love and Wishes’ was a finalist in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plant of the Year at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, and took home the bronze medal. The three wishes are fast-growing, long-flowering, dry-tolerant and easy-care. And the joy they offer spreads beyond the garden.

Grevillea 'Flamingo'
Plants I love

Growing grevilleas in Sydney

There are more grevillea species in Australia than there are days in the year, and every year a few more join the gang as botanists and dedicated volunteers find previously undescribed plants. In the Sydney basin alone there are more than 30 different species, most coming into their peak flower period about now. You can see them, and a few hundred other grevillea species, hybrids and cultivars at the Illawarra Grevillea Park. Ray Brown is the energy behind the park, which is maintained by volunteers, and opened to the public a few weekends a year.

Brown is a member of the Australian Plants Society’s Grevillea Study Group. Together with other enthusiasts he collects plant material and specimens in the wild, experiments with propagating and grafting plants, and trials them in the gardens at the Grevillea Park. There is plenty to learn. After 200 years what we don’t know about Australian flora totally outweighs what we do know.

One thing we know is that it is much easier to grow grevillea cultivars in the garden than the species. The garden-proven, large-flowered grevilleas are great garden plants for screening or for standing tall at the back of a border. Most popular are cultivars such as bronze-orange ‘Honey Gem’; pink ‘Peaches and Cream’ and ‘Flamingo’; yellow ‘Moonlight’ and red ‘Robyn Gordon’. ‘Robyn Gordon’ has a notorious reputation for causing screaming allergic reactions, but she shouldn’t be singled out. Gardeners who are sensitive to the tiny hairs on grevilleas will be sensitive to all of them and should stay well away, or cover up completely. Those of us who don’t come out in a rash around grevilleas can welcome these plants into gardens for the dramatic, nectar-dripping, almost-year-round flowers, and the birds they attract.

Grevillea 'Flamingo'

The key to having them look good in the garden is to prune annually, which will also extend the life of the plant. At the end of September cut off all the flowers and put them in a vase, then cut the plant back to waist or chest height; knee-height for ‘Robyn Gordon’. You’ll see new growth within a fortnight and the plant will soon be flowering again. Plants that have been left to grow unpruned and have become lank and straggly can be given a rejuvenation prune in spring, right back into hard wood at chest height. The only rule, says Brown, is to avoid pruning when the weather is wet or very hot.


Grevilleas, like other members of the proteaceae family, are highly sensitive to phosphorus, the plant nutrient that boosts development of flowers, fruit and seeds in common garden plants. So feed them with a low-phosphorus slow-release fertiliser developed for native plants, and water during very dry weather in the growing season.

The Illawarra Grevillea Park is open September 5-6 and 12-13. Grevillea Park Road, Bulli. There will be plants for sale, including ‘Bulli Beauty’, which appeared in the park as a seedling and has dense ferny foliage and pink toothbrush flowers. Details:

Dracaena, bromiliad, bougainvillea
Plants I love

Plant trios that sing

In the nursery I’m a pushover for a showy flower. But in the garden, my own or others peoples’, what charms is not a stand-alone stunner, but plants in satisfying combinations. Beauty is in the harmonious way they all work together. And it’s harder than it looks. Plants I think are going to be compatible neighbours sometimes end up as lonely individuals rather than a happy community. To cu down on trial and error, professional designers develop favourite go-to combos that have proven themselves to be visually complementary as well as demanding the same kind of conditions and care.

Rob Willis, a consummate plantsman who used to own Belrose Nursery and now designs gardens as Woodside Gardens, says that every garden he works on starts with a combination of three plants. “Depending on the size of the garden we either repeat that or extend it with complementary or contrasting plants.” A classic Willis combo is the purple flowers and purple-backed foliage of cherry pie, Heliotrope ‘Lord Roberts’, matched with feathery, silver-leafed Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’ and striped, grass-like society garlic, Tulbaghia violaceae. Want shade and flowers? What about the big purple floss-flowered Bartlettina sordida (which used to be called Eupatorium), Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ and ‘Stripey White’ liriope. Willis has plans for pots too. Try a copper-coloured carex grass with coral diascia and a tumble of purple-silver sedum.

Alternathera, teucrium, miscanthus

A trio for sun from Rob Willis: Miscanthus ‘Adagio’, teucrium and Alternathera ‘Little Ruby’.

Designer Peter Fudge’s modern go-to trio elegantly suits the current desire for low water-use, low-maintenance gardens: shiny green Crassula ovate with felty Kalanchoe ‘Silver Spoons’, and the fine-leaf of westringia ‘Jervis Gem’ or a rosemary. All are hot sun-hardy and look great in groups interspersed through gravel. This particular westringia makes a neat sphere without pruning, and the crassula prunings can be simply stuck in the ground to extend the planting.

Peter Fudge garden

In Peter Fudge’s front garden wavy-leafed crassula pairs up with felty kalanchoe and small-leafed westringia and rosemary. All can deal with the hot west-facing position, and demand no extra water.

In subtropical gardens Nicola Cameron of Pepo Botanic Design puts together a native gang. Waterhousia ‘Sweeper’, which is a weeping form of lillypilly with rippled foliage that makes a great tall screen, contrasts with the dwarf form of the native frangipani, Hymenosporum flavum ‘Gold Nugget’ which forms a low shrub with gorgeously scented gold flowers in summer, and the native grass Dianella ‘Emerald Arch’.

So what are the rules here? Willis says he wishes he knew for sure. “It’s something about contrasting, but not contrasting everything,” he suggests. Start by not being sucked in by those dazzling flowers or other ephemera and focus instead on creating contrasts and complements in forms (mounds, mats, fountains, columns), textures (glossy, felty, leathery, feathery, smooth, puckered, large, small), foliage colour (gold, green, blue, grey, silver, burgundy, purple, striped, splodged, splashed) and density (airy, frothy, dense). Ensure the chosen few like the same conditions and then see if they work. If so, repeat or extend the gang as needed. Simple, right!

Cherry tomatoes
Plants I love

Grow tomatoes

Two of the country’s most passionate and experienced gardeners are on opposite sides of the tomato stake when it comes to the benefits of heirloom versus hybrid seed for growing tomatoes at home. On the heirloom end of the stick is Clive Blazey of Diggers Seeds. Diggers sells heirloom seeds. Blazey believes that generations of gardeners can’t be wrong and have saved the seed of the tomatoes worth growing.

David Glenn of Lambley Nursery doesn’t discredit the great flavour of heirlooms but argues that there’s no point in great flavour if your plant doesn’t live long enough to fruit. He stakes his claim on the last two decades of scientific plant breeding (not-GM modifications) that has delivered tomatoes with high germination rates and high disease resistance, as well as flavour.

Choose your side and sow seed now into seed raising mix in a punnet or tray. You’ll need just two seeds per cell. Pluck out the weakest seedling to allow the other enough space to grow. Keep the soil moist but not sodden and keep the tray or punnet somewhere warm and brightly lit. When the seedlings are a bit taller than your longest finger they’ll need to be transplanted into bigger pots. If you live a frosty area, keep them indoors until the weather improves, but if you live in a mild area, they can be planted out. Expect fruit 7 – 10 weeks from transplant.

You can skip the seed-sowing bit and simply buy grafted plants in garden centres in spring, but what you save in effort you lose in choice. Those Spanish, green-skinned tomato flavour bombs? Find them in Lambleys catalogue, called ‘Montenegro F1’. Winner of the inaugural tomato taste test at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, the magnificently named ‘Wapsipinicon Peach’? Find it in Diggers catalogue.

Sowing seed also allows time for preparing the tomato patch by digging in compost to a spade’s depth. Choose a different spot from where you grew them last year as some tomato diseases can linger in the soil for four years. Add a handful of garden lime if soil is acidic as acidic soils prevents the uptake of calcium and calcium deficiency is a risk factor for blossom end rot. (The best way to know if your soil is acidic is to test it, but a strong clue is thriving azaleas and gardenias, which prefer acidic conditions.) If there’s no garden room, choose a big pot or a dwarf cherry tomato.

Tomatoes aren’t set-and-forget crops. They demand regular watering and feeding, a sharp eye out for pests and diseases, and a program for dealing with fruit fly. But don’t be put off. No one squirting juice down their chin from biting into a sun-warmed, just-plucked, flavourful ripe tomato, grown with their own fair hands, ever complains.

Indoor plants
Plants I love

How not to kill an indoor plant

The Queensland Garden Expo, which is held each July in Nambour, features the usual mouth-watering plant stalls and a busy programme of expert talks. I planned ahead and made sure I was in the right place at the right time to catch fern grower Peter Heaton give his tips for looking after ferns and other indoor plants. The room was packed, and when pushed most of us confessed to being serial killers of indoor plants.

When the victim is an indoor plant, the number one cause of death is too much water. The number two cause of death is not enough water. The twin perils of under and over-watering force many indoor plant lovers toward plants that can safely be watered about as often as baristas get a beard trim– sanseveria (mother-in-law’s tongue), bromeliads, aspidistra. As lovely and tolerant of neglect as these plants are, they look even better when lovingly tended, and when accompanied by other less hardy plants.

Heaton was understanding. The difficulty with watering indoor plants, he explained, is that there are too many variables. How much water a plant needs depends on its size; the size of the pot it’s in; the composition of the potting mix; the airflow; the temperature and the humidity.

Because that’s an algorithm worthy of Fermat, Heaton recommends putting plants in pots on a saucer. Water from the top of the pot til there is water in the saucer and don’t water again until the saucer is dry. The plant roots will take up water from the saucer as needed. If it takes more than a week for the saucer to dry out, it’s too big for the size of the pot, and root rot is a risk. Scale back the saucer.

Fill the saucer with dark gravel. This disguises the weak tea colour of water leached through the potting mix. Evaporation from the pebble-filled saucer will supply all the humidity needed to keep plants happy, including ferns. Misting is not just unnecessary, says Heaton, but a bad idea, as damp foliage is a good environment for the growth of fungus.

So that’s the watering sorted. The other issue is feeding. Heaton says we are mistaken in thinking of our potted plants as mini gardens. Better to consider them hydroponic systems, with the pot there just to hold them up. Which means you need to not only water but to feed. Heaton advocates a not-much-often regime. Add fertiliser to the watering can every time you water, at one-quarter strength of the recommended rate, alternating an all-purpose soluble food such as Thrive or Aquasol with a seaweed solution like Seasol.

Every year refresh the potting mix by taking the plant out of its pot, composting the old mix and repotting into fresh, high-quality mix, with a sprinkle of slow-release fertiliser at the bottom of the root ball and just under the surface of the mix. Add an occasional spray with the hose outdoors to rinse off dust for a total care regime that Heaton promises results in stress-free, thriving indoor plants.

Plants I love

Love a tree

It’s time to think about trees because tomorrow, July 26, is National Tree Day. There are all kinds of tree-planting activities you can get involved in, but the best is to plant a tree at home. There’s no need to turn the page just because you garden on a balcony, in a courtyard or on a suburban block already given over to swimming pool, trampoline and outdoor kitchen. My suggestions here are edible trees, some of them small and some perfectly content in a pot.

Olives in James Basson Chelsea garden

James Basson included a little grove of olives in his garden for l’Occitane at Chelsea this year.

Good evergreen options on the small and edible menu include citrus and olives. The olives won’t need much assistance once established, though harvests are greater if they are regularly fed and watered, and annually pruned. They can be grown in the ground or in pots, but make sure it’s a big pot. Citrus are a bit more demanding. They want regular food and water and an eye out for pests. They are perfectly happy in pots if bought as plants grafted on to dwarf Flying Dragon rootstock, but if you have the space, what about a grove?

Potted lemons, Villa Gamberaia

The potted lemons at Villa Gamberaia outside Florence.

Where a deciduous tree is a better choice, consider figs, which respond well to hard pruning. Like lemons, figs are good subjects for espaliering against a wall if space is at a premium. You could celebrate Sydney’s horti-history with a Granny Smith apple. Granny Smith herself lived in Eastwood, where she cut corners on composting by simply throwing the cores of the French crabapples she was cooking out the kitchen window. Out of that fragrant mulch grew the apple subsequently named after her. Her namesake, like other apples, do best in Sydney’s cooler areas.


Persimmon, which are best grown in-ground, offer glowing autumn fruit and brilliant foliage. There are two types, the original astringent ones, whose fruit must be really soft to be edible; and the ‘fuyu’ or sweet persimmons, which can be eaten crisp or soft. The fruit will be especially tasty in areas that get some frost, as flavour in persimmons builds in response to the difference between day and night-time temperatures. (The same is true of blood oranges, which build the best colour in conditions with warm sunny days and cold frosty nights.)

White mulberry

With a bit more space you could grow a mulberry. Choose a white one if there is paving or washing nearby that might be stained by falling fruit. If you have plenty of room a macadamia is a beautiful tree. They can get to 20m in the rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland that are their home, but are much smaller in cultivation. Make sure of it by choosing a dwarf variety, grafted for faster fruit. There are lovely sprays of pink or white flowers in spring, followed by the nuts.

Tree canopy

If you can’t celebrate National Tree Day by planting a tree, mark the day by admiring them. Even better, get your loved ones to stare up at the canopy of large trees with you. The researchers who study these things have shown that looking up at trees offers an altruism bonus. The awe inspired by trees, they say, makes us less egocentric and more empathetic.

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.