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Are Native Plants and Australian Gardens Increasing in Popularity?

Jeff Howes

Australian native plants have been popular for along time, one only has to look at the many beautiful examples of furniture, pottery, stained glass and art produced during the period leading up to and after Australia's Federation (circa 1880 to 1910).

   Anigozanthos manglesii
   Anigozanthos manglesii
Painted 1912 by Constance Miller (1889-1968)
From the Australian National Botanic Gardens' website

My copy of Vol 1, No1 (Dec 1959) of 'Australian Plants' was wholly devoted to Telopea speciosissima - the NSW Waratah and floral emblem *. There were articles on how to grow them, germination of seed and nutrition requirements just to name a few of the articles. Interestingly they listed four suppliers of native seeds and ten native plant nurseries (six in New South Wales and four in Victoria). What a good plant to write about in the first edition. I imagine it was a very popular plant then and still is today, although in my case I still have not managed to grow one successfully in the ground or in a pot and I have been trying for a long time!

During the 1970s there was a surge in popularity of native plants and this led to many desirable plants from Western Australia being introduced to the public, even though many were unsuitable for growing in the more humid eastern states. This, with the then popular slogan of "plant and forget' set back the growing of native plants for many years and it was not until recently that that I started to see the popularity of growing native plants returning. This is due, I believe, to the availability of better plants and more detailed information on how to select and grow them but more importantly a new awareness of how some of our native plants can survive a long drought and limited water supply. The excellent prologue to Diana Snape's book "The Australian Garden" is a great read on the concept of Australian plants and gardens over the years.

What made me think about the popularity of Australian gardens and native plant use, was a visit to one of Sydney's largest wholesale nursery and a chance meeting with an old friend of mine who until recently, owned for many years, a large retail native plant nursery in north west Sydney. He stated that you need to "know native plants" to be able to grow them successfully. Apart from undertaking research about the native plants that you would like to grow, the only real way that you can "understand" them, is to plant them and see how they go and accept the inevitable loss along the way. He did not think that native plants were any more popular than 20 to 25 years ago - an interesting statement.

The other reason I thought about native plant popularity was a talk with a new Australian Plants Society member who was explaining the difficulty of buying native tube stock plants in Sydney, as she was not impressed with the lack of variety at the big retail nurseries that she had visited.

While at this large wholesale nursery I was impressed with the large variety of native plants for sale even thought most of them would not appear on my list of hardy native plants that can be grown with little care in my local area. It appears that there is a greater demand from people asking their landscape designers to use native plants. This would explain the increase in variety and volume of native plants at this wholesaler. What concerns me and my friend, is that many of these plants may be lost due to lack of understanding and care by their new owner.

In summary I think I have not really answered my own question. On one hand I think that there is a much greater awareness of why we should all be growing "suitable" native plants for our local area. Then on the other hand there is a problem purchasing (In Sydney at least) a wider range of native plants for our gardens.

Perhaps some of our many professional members who are working in the industry can comment on how popular native plants are. Is this an opportunity for the Australian Plants Society (NSW) to use some of it funds and work with the other States Native Plant Societies and perhaps even the Nursery Industry Association, to produce, print and distribute to all nurseries a pamphlet on planting and ongoing care and maintenance of native plants after you take them home. This may help reduce any negative opinions on our fabulous native plants.

* See "Growing the Sydney Waratah" in the November 2008 update to Australian Plants online.

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Australian Plants online - 2008
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants