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Teatree Time

Barbara Buchanan

A walk round the garden this evening after the second burst of heat this year - it is only January 10 - decided me to write and recapture the heady excitement of last spring and early summer before the grind of true summer gets me down.

There are quite a few shriveled and brown plants that I just don't want to acknowledge right now, time enough for that when the tally is complete after the autumn break. Instead I am going to recall the glory of the recent past.

We actually had slightly above the average rainfall in 2005 and as the autumn was very prolonged and dry it must have been even more above average once it did start. It took a while for the ground to become decently moist and planting was delayed until the soil was cold, never the best start for new plants. As there were bursts of unseasonable warmth mixed with the rain during spring, some plants suffered mildew attacks which led to some losses of young stock, but otherwise it was an ideal recipe for growth. There were early flowers on callistemons and a variety of other plants so that everything seemed to be in flower at once. My daughter who grows grapes just over the hill in very similar soil found they needed to apply potassium. Among other things potassium promotes flowering so I brought home some pellets and scattered them widely, but not too heavily. I prefer to err on the side of caution rather than add too much. In fact I used to think fertilisers unnecessary for Australian plants but now accept that our soil here is mineral deficient and it is silly to retard plant growth by not feeding them. Seeing the magnificent growth of Chamelaucium ciliatum growing over the fence beside a fertilized wheat crop near Esperance opened my eyes. I did not immediately recognize it as the same plant growing on the other side of the road. So now at planting I use old cow pats, mainly to provide organic matter because the dung beetles strip most readily available nutriments, ground limestone, a speck of magnesium as Epsom salts, a handful of native slow release pellets and a few potassium pellets. It is quite a rigmarole and then protection from grazing animals has to be added.

One can never be sure what it would be like without the additives, but I felt I could see an intensification of the green in the leaves in some plants after a general potassium application, and deeper, richer flower colour and many, many more flowers. Much is probably due to the rain, some to a pent up urge to flower, frustrated by the years of drought but some, surely to my gift of potassium. I hope so because then I will be able to repeat the effect regardless of season. Up to a point I am happy to accept good and bad seasons because a poor season for one plant may well be just what another relishes and it means every season is different, but I am not above wanting to lift all seasons to a higher level, to be like the one just past.

Some colourful teatrees for cultivation
Leptospermum rotundifolium
Leptospermum 'Outrageous'
Leptospermum 'Pink Cascade'
'Pink Cascade'
Leptospermum 'Merinda'
Photos: Peter Ollerenshaw, Brian Walters

I think I will remember it as the year of the leptospermums. These come in the second wave of blossom, after most of the wattles, boronias, phebaliums (aka leionemas), early daisies and prostantheras have begun to fade. I can't quite recall the exact order of flowering, but the season opened with the locals, Leptospermum grandifolium, L.lanigerum with wine dark foliage tips, and L.brevipes, a dainty reddish-foliaged weeper, plus the West Australians, L.sericeum and L.erubescens. L.sericeum is a lovely, grey foliaged plant with a graceful weeping habit and big flowers, opening deep pink and fading to white. L.erubescens is also a graceful weeper but both leaves and flowers are smaller, the leaves greener, the flowers whiter and the general habit more like an open sprawling multi-stemmed mallee in contrast to the solid umbrella image of L.sericeum.

Probably the remnant thickets of L.continentale growing in the gullies and damp areas of the paddocks flowered this year. I have to confess I don't walk much in the paddocks any more so I don't know, but I have observed that it is a shy and erratic flowerer.

Then it was the turn of the "showy selected forms and hybrids", strutting their stuff as never before: 'Merinda', which last year was disappointingly brief and 'Outrageous', for the first time flowering properly here, both a brilliant strong pink. 'Tickled Pink' which is still only a foot high gave a brave show and promise of future bounty with a very different soft pink. 'Pink Cascade' and 'Julie Anne' contributed pink and white low to the ground while a 'red' form of L.polygalifolia was an upright pillar of colour. 'Copper Sheen' another ground-hugger with a sprawling habit that benefits from gentle control has the red in the foliage and huge, for teatrees, flowers of a greeny creamy contrast. L.rotundifolium 'Jervis Bay' adds a touch of purpley shades, as will 'Lavender Queen' when it flowers next year.

'Rhiannon' comes in somewhere here with one of its parents L.spectabile following it closely. I'd been waiting for this to flower for a couple of years and am not disappointed. The dark red of the petals is as dark as any in the group with the added bonus of contrasting alternate whitish sepals and an elevated ring of stamens, making quite a dramatic flower. Seedlings from 'Pacific Beauty' smothered themselves in white, plain simple flowers, but equally valued for their own beauty.

'Rudolf' has red tips all year, and this year he also disappeared behind a wall of flowers, another rich pink. Then 'Copper Glow', which provides dark punctuation marks in the shrubbery suddenly became white, all five plants, which have not had more than about five flowers between them previously.

Some colourful teatrees for cultivation
Leptospermum 'Rhiannon'
Leptospermum lanigerum
Leptospermum spectabile
Leptospermum 'Tickled Pink'
'Tickled Pink'
Photos: Peter Ollerenshaw, Brian Walters

The most recent first time flowerers were L.brachyandrum which I first saw in a nursery in a group of plants designed for the cut flower trade. Its long fine silvery foliage caught my eye; it has developed a shiny pinkish trunk and now the flowers - well, they are not in the showy class like some of the earlier ones I have mentioned, being small and limey-green, but I find them appealing. The other is L.epacridoideum, with tiny dark green leaves, upright growth, and all unexpectedly on my smaller plant, great big white flowers with a reddish tinge at the base. The timing of the flowers makes them especially welcome; the heat has not obviously fazed them, perhaps, as plants from further north, they need it to flower profusely. I know L.petersonii appreciates it. I put this in the gully years ago and don't often get to check it. It is still too early for L.squarrosum, also down in the damp, to be flowering - that comes in the autumn.

We don't walk much in the gully these days, ever since the floods of 93 washed out large areas with their paths, but just walking along the lip we could see a magnificent display of prostantheras, a whole purple ribbon. And just this week I saw a brilliant splash of red on the other side, one of my Euc/Corymbia ficifolia plants that has never been visible before.

These are some of the things that give me heart to keep planting, and to dream about in the long hot afternoons when we don't venture out.

From Growing Australian, the newsletter of the Victorian Region of the Australian Plants Society, March 2006.

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