Natives imprisoned in the bush

Natives are having a hard time escaping from the bush.  The best of the 1970’s bush gardens by Gordon Ford and Ellis Stones were magical – you know the kind of the thing – huge boulders swelling up through lacy groundcover beneath a dancing canopy held aloft by creamy-barked eucalypt trunks.  But like most garden styles derived direct from nature, the bush garden doesn’t really work on a small scale.  The same can be said of European woodland or North American prairie – fabulous if you’ve got acres to spare, but largely irrelevant to the suburban gardener.

And isn’t it just plain unimaginative?  I can’t think of any other flora that is as restricted as ours to being used in an emulation of (actually, lets be fully honest here, and call it a romanticisation of) it’s natural setting.

Why can’t we do stuff with our native plants that is unapologetically gardened, or unequivocally designed?

The only place I can think of that’s doing anything with our plants that is a deviation from the bush garden cliché is the RBG Cranbourne,  and for that reason alone, all the pics in this post were taken there.  I with there was an abundance of locations like this, but there isn’t.

Part of the problem has been the selection of plants dished up to us.  In the 70’s, the only natives available were trees and shrubs.  Now I’d challenge anyone to make a really satisfying garden from trees and shrubs alone from any part of the world.  The trouble is that woody plants alone are irritatingly static.  They need to be animated by the play of more seasonal, ephemeral stuff around them, and no such native plants were then offered.  Now, at least, there’s almost a glut of strappy foliage plants and grasses that go a long way to filling the gap.

Five or so years ago, Cranbourne dished up this fabulous planting of Rhodanthe – without doubt the most original use of annuals I’ve seen in at least 20 years.

But this was a rare occurence, and Australian native ephemerals like annuals, or bulbs like native lilies, remain virtually unavailable.  To be fair, this isn’t just lack of imagination or marketing.  They’re very particular about their needs, which isn’t surprising when you think that most of our native annuals are of desert origin.  They’re not easily managed in a cultivated setting.

Contemporary garden design also leans towards plants of strong form or inner line.  Our native flora isn’t big on these plants.  Thankfully there’s a few notable exceptions, like the gymea lily, which ticks just about every design box you can think of, with outrageously tall, dead-vertical flowerheads of large blood-red flowers above a handsome mount of evergreen sword-like foliage.  To the right is Doryanthes exelsa, and in the foreground of the above vertical-format pic is a near-horizontal flowerhead of Doryanthus palmeri.  At Melbourne Botanic Gardens about there’s an peachy- pink form of the latter.  I’ll stick a pic of that at the end of the post.

The grass trees are also the designers dream, but are really restricted to minimalist, austere, xeroscaping.

Angus Stewart is, of course, a great hero of our native flora, and it was fabulous being able to talk with him over a Ross Garden Tours dinner last week.  I was really chuffed to find that he shares the frustration I have that natives are imprisoned in their bushland setting – and shares the genuine conviction that so much more could be done with them.   They’re brimming with potential.  Last week he put a post on Garden Drum (find it here) showing some of our undervalued plants, along with some of his own breeding such as the miniature Kangaroo paws.  Anigozanthos ‘Bush Pearl’ looks incredible!  Over dinner, he kept referring to them collectively (and very endearingly) as ‘the paws’.  It was like he was talking about a favourite cuddly pet, which only made me want to grow them more.

The truth is that garden designers are nearly always restricted to doing what they know will work, practically and aesthetically.  They’re rarely the ones forging new paths.  It’s up to we home gardeners.  I’m feeling like it’s time I did my bit.  How about you?

The promised gymea lily..

For more fabulous pics of this garden by Kim Woods Rabbidge, check out the blog entry at


  1. This is really a tricky one. Having been inspired by the natural gardens in the gully across the road, where Banksia serrata (the particularly fluffy kind you find in the mid Blue Mountains) and giant Xanthorea marginata? (a particularly strappy type of grass tree) are a match made in heaven, and don’t get me started on the Angophora’s that twist their way towards the sky, I have made some pretty bad attempts to garden with natives. First killing quite a few seedling grass trees of the wrong sort. Then trying to introduce scores of waratahs that were going to astonish passers-by by there lush growth and splendid floral display – alah the giant Shady Lady at Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens. Sadly all dead bar one. I really did not understood a few things about my aspect and soil and may have been just a little over zealous in my care of them in my desperation to succeed. I have had some success with Gymea Lilies and now am the parent of seven fantastic flower spikes. The Banksia’s have also grown. The ones from the local plant rescue have the look of the ones in the gully. The others I got from the large hardware store nursery look a lot more like the ones I have seen on the coast and don’t really belong. Gahnia’s that I planted as tube stock have also been swordaliscious, bringing native finches into the garden in droves. These growing successes, sadly, are not part of an integrated design that gives a visitor, family or me much satisfaction. Is it just my crappy design sensibility? Is it trying to garden with these inspiring plants around the existing exotics, that I also love, that throws the picture out? Is it the pedantry that so many natives seem to live their lives by? Or is it just the eon it takes for many of the plants to reach the wow moment? I look forward to more posts on this topic Michael and hope you can solve all these problems and more.
    PS think Angus Stewart is a genius but have killed far to many Kangaroo Paw to think about.

    1. Mmmm.. reminds me of an astonishing plant community just north of Sydney, with nothing but bare rock, Angophora trunk and Gymea lily. So incredibly restrained and designer-ly. Not dissimilar in impact – the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see cover of tree ferns under the untapering, unbranched candles of mountain ash on the Black Spur just out of Healesville, Victoria, and the repeated crowns of cycads in Eucalypt woodland in southern NSW. Utterly, totally, mind-blowingly, magical.

      As for solving the problems you bring up, I appreciate the vote of confidence. But the only guarantee I’ll make is that if you keep reading, you’ll end up with more questions, not less.

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