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Aussie Oddities

Brian Walters

The Australian flora comprises at least 15,000 different species, about 85% of which occur nowhere else. Despite the increased popularity of growing Australian plants in gardens since the mid 1970s, only relatively few of this number are seen in cultivation.

Even when we add the many named cultivars and hybrids to the list, it still amounts to a small fraction.

This is not to suggest that we could ever expect all of Australia's flora to become widely available for cultivation. For one thing, where would we put them all? But among the ones that we could expect to grow successfully in gardens are a number which are regularly overlooked.

These are the "Aussie Oddities"; they are not so much odd as unusual in general cultivation. They don't belong to the "fashionable" genera such as Banksia, Grevillea or Callistemon and consequently are overlooked. Many are grown by native plant enthusiasts but ignored by the wider gardening public.

Here are ten (well, eleven, actually....) that are not impossible to find but you'll probably have to search for them. It will be worth the effort!

Archirhodomyrtus beckleri. Well, with a name like that it's no wonder that it's not well known! Commonly known as rose myrtle, this is a quality plant which is slowly (very slowly) becoming better known. It has even been sighted occasionally in garden centres.

Although of rainforest origin, rose myrtle isn't worried by dry positions. Some years ago I moved a plant of this species for an article I wrote on restoring old gardens. The plant was unceremoniously plonked in a new location under a large eucalypt and only watered when I remembered to do so (which wasn't often, I'm ashamed to confess). Despite the lack of any significant rainfall for six months following transplanting, the plant not only survived, it quickly produced new growth and flowered in its new location.

Archirhodomyrtus beckleri is a medium to large shrub which produces masses of pink, five-petalled flowers in late spring and is followed by edible berries in Autumn. The foliage is glossy, green and aromatic.

Conostylis candicans. The genus Conostylis comprises about 30 species all confined to Western Australia. They are rhizomous plants, closely related to the kangaroo paws. C.candicans is one of the hardiest of the genus and it usually consists of a small clump of grey, strap-like leaves and clusters of yellow flowers on short stems. The flowers appear in winter and spring.

Unfortunately, most Conostylis species have proved difficult to propagate and this probably accounts for their scarcity. Mature plants can be divided but whereas most kangaroo paws can be divided into clumps of one or two shoots, Conostylis species seem less able to cope with such vigorous division.

Archirhodomyrtus beckleri
Conostylis candicans
Phebalium glandulosum
Homoranthus darwinioides

Phebalium glandulosum. This plant shares the same curse as many "phebaliums" - they aren't grown anything like as much as they deserve, even by enthusiasts. The plant belongs to the Boronia family and, like many in that family it has highly aromatic foliage. The leaves are small with prominent wart-like glands and are silvery on the under-surface.

The bright yellow flowers are individually small but occur in clusters. They make a spectacular display in spring. The plant prefers a well drained, sunny position and is drought tolerant.

Homoranthus darwinioides. Here's another with an unfriendly name and to make matters worse, it doesn't even have a recognised common name. It's a member of the myrtle family and it too has very aromatic foliage. This is one of my personal favourites and it forms a shrub to about 0.5 x 0.5 metres. The small, fringed bell-shaped flowers open white during winter and age to pink or red (the colour of the aged flowers seems to be a deeper red if the winter is particularly cold).

The plant is fairly rare in nature occurring in the central west of New South Wales. In cultivation it seems adaptable to all but poorly drained soils and it will tolerate full sun or partial shade.

Ricinocarpos pinifolius. This one is probably the best known member of these "oddities". It is commonly known as wedding bush because of the prolific pure white flowers. In full bloom the flowers almost totally obscure the foliage making the plant shine like a beacon. The species is widespread particularly along the New South Wales and Victorian coasts.

If it were not for the fact that the plant is difficult to propagate, wedding bush would be widely cultivated...and not just in native gardens. It is that good! If you can find one, put it in a well drained position which receives some dappled overhead protection.

Ricinocarpos pinifolius
Thomasia macrocarpa
Lysiosepalum involucratum
Podolobium scandens

Thomasia macrocarpa. Thomasias are mostly (but not totally) confined naturally to Western Australia. As a group they are almost totally ignored horticulturally but there are quite a few that are worth a place in any garden. This one is a small shrub to about one metre with large, velvety leaves. The open, bell shaped flowers are also large (up to 25 mm diameter) although they tend to hide their beauty a little within the foliage and are best appreciated from below.

Despite its western origin, it is reasonably hardy in the eastern states in a well drained position.

Thomasia petalocalyx is another one worth growing. It has much smaller flowers but forms an attractive, semi-prostrate clump that is an ideal foreground plant in a native garden bed.

Lysiosepalum involucratum. This is another one badly in need of a common name! It's related to Thomasia and has similar flowers. It forms a compact shrub up to 0.5 metres high by about 1 metre wide. The flowers appear in spring and are pink to mauve - the petals are very small and the sepals provide the colourful parts of the flowers.

Although native to a dry summer climate, L.involucratum is hardy in well drained soils in most temperate areas. It tolerates extended dry conditions once established.

Podolobium scandens. This is a reasonably common plant of dry forests of eastern New South Wales. It's one of those plants that is easily overlooked in the bush but which is an excellent garden plant. It is a trailing species, rarely covering more than about one metre diameter, and which is ideal as a "spill-over" plant to soften the edges of pathways and steps.

It was previously known as Oxylobium scandens.

Symphionema montanum
Jacksonia scoparia
Gastrolobium sericeum


Symphionema montanum. This is a beautiful little shrub native to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. It's a member of the Protea family (like Banksia and Grevillea) but it doesn't really look like those better known genera. The foliage is divided into segments and is light green in colour. The clusters of small, white flowers appear in spring in racemes at the ends of the branches.

The plant rarely exceeds more than 0.5 x 0.5 metres. It is best suited to cooler climates but is reasonably adaptable. Plants perform best in a well drained, semi-shaded position which is not allowed to dry out.

Jacksonia scoparia. Known as "dogwood" for reasons that remain obscure, this is a beautiful large shrub to about 3-4 metres high, with an open and often weeping habit of growth and greyish foliage. The leaves are usually reduced to scales although true leaves will sometimes be seen on young plants or on regrowth after damage to the plant. The yellow 'pea'-type flowers occur in late spring and summer in racemes from the upper branches.

Occasionally available from specialist native plant nurseries, this is definitely one to seek out.

Gastrolobium sericeum. This one is reasonably well known in cultivation so it's not all that 'odd' - except for one unusual form that has black flowers. Now that's weird, don't you think?

This species was previously known as Brachysema sericea and may still be called by the older name in nurseries. The black-flowered form is a small, spreading shrub up to half a metre in height by a similar width. Leaves are elliptical in shape and are about 50 mm long. The plant seems to be reasonably adaptable to a wide range of soils, provided they are well drained, in sun or semi shade and it will grow in humid areas of the Australian east coast where many other plants from Western Australian do not thrive.

Based on an article published in the March/April 1993 issue of "Gardens and Backyards" magazine.
Photos: Brian Walters; Barbara Henderson

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