PLANT OF THE WEEK #27: Xanthorrhoea australis

A master gardener’s quest to find the perfect, pivotal plant…

Grow  what?  Where?  Why???

There would not be many Australian households who would not have owned a copy of the book ‘Grow what where’ in the 70’s and 80’s when native gardens were in mode. Perhaps the heart of this movement was expressing our desire to confirm our Australian identity, disassociating ourselves from our rich heritage of English gardens. 

However such enthusiasm had repercussions. Grow what? Where? A Eucalyptus globulus ssp bicostata or a Eucalyptus nicholli in the small front garden of a terraced house in Carlton turns into an expensive removal exercise forty years later, when vigorous root systems undermine the solid foundations of our elegant terraces.

Grow what?  Why?  Creating a planting scene is a convoluted process. It is a work of composition, and every plant contributes, and relates, to its neighbours and its context. Is it then arrogance or ignorance to expect that at times there will be only one plant that is the right choice? A seeming inevitability?  I had occasion to present myself with such a question last month when I was preparing a planting scheme for a garden in Kyneton.

My client had contracted landscapers to build a long retaining wall of rusty steel panels. Rather than a single high wall, which would have been rather imposing and cloistering given its proximity to the house (the living space and kitchen have huge north facing double glazed windows that passively heat the house even in cold Kyneton), two shorter walls, parallel with and running the length of the windows, created a garden bed of some 22m long and 2 m wide.  These are generous proportions, providing enough space to play with. It was imperative that the proposed planting obstruct no precious sunshine,  but the built structure desperately needed to be softened.

After some discussion a repetition of cushiony forms in silver, green and burgundy evolved as the theme.  Cultivars that have that natural form were selected, rather than those that require shaping, as the effect is softer and less regular.  We then decided to include some plants that would provide the element of movement. So often that element is overlooked – the swaying and bending of plants that respond to a gentle breeze, in contrast with those that remain inert. Anyone who grows Miscanthus will appreciate that dimension.

As far as this job was concerned I may have been out of my depth, as natives are not my specialty.  I started to visualise individual components and each plant’s relationship to its neighbour. It was fun! Building the composition came easily , falling into place like a jigsaw.  Or so I thought !

Until one winters day I was walking in our local messmate forests. It was a grey and cloudy day but the sun broke through sharply as the wind disarrayed the perfect domes of the Xanthorrhoea australis that dominate the understory in this patch of the forest. I was completely overtaken with a conviction that I had to include one in this planting scheme. The decision rested so convincingly that the Xanthorrhoea became the focal, crucial , pivotal component of the scheme 

Most Xanthorrhoea presented in nurseries are aged specimens (maybe 500 yrs old) with burnt and contorted trunks that are retrieved from the Western Australia tingle and Kauri forests as the subdivisions of Perth advance south along the coast.  However I wanted a young specimen, acauline (no stem, just the dome of needles) that would have been grown from seed.

This tale ends in happiness as such a plant was found, and though the most expensive item in the project, the client can see its merit and everyday looks out the window at her focal-crucial, pivotal dome of movement, and awaits with anticipation the rest of the planting growing to frame and substantiate this inevitable choice. 

Cathy Newing left a career in Microbiology to pursue a passion for gardening, eventuating in head gardener roles at both Hascombe (Mt Macedon) and St. Erth (Blackwood). She now enjoys working at a nursery in Kyneton where the emphasis is on plant choice and local knowledge.


  1. I was at the local Markets in Port Macquarie because “Spring has sprung”. A nursery man comes from Kempsey with a great supply of goodies on his truck. We were both having a garden chat when a woman came up wanting to buy a Bangalow palm for an indoor plant. Luckily she was steered to something more suitable by nursery man’s daughter but as we were having a discreet chuckle I was able to tell him about our new neighbours who migrated from Europe some years ago and have taken to our sub-tropical climate with gusto by planting three choko plants in a small yard.”They haven’t a clue” was the comment.

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