“Down Under” Natives

| August 2, 2011 | 0 Comments

Mo Price spoke to the Mission Hills Garden Club in June about Australian native plants that thrive in our Mediterranean climate. Mediterranean climates are found in a very small portion of our planet. They appear on the west coast of the continents in areas with little rain. The areas that are considered to be Mediterranean are a strip along the southwest coast of California, the west coast of central Chile, the southwest and southern tips of Australia near Perth and Adelaide, a tiny area in the southern tip of Africa, and most of the area immediately adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea.

Price is passionate about Australian temperate climate-loving plants. She mentioned the four normal reasons to plant them: most 1) are drought tolerant, 2) are easy to grow, and 3) have unusual flowers and foliage, and 4) attract birds, butterflies, and bees. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said. Price likes them for the “WOW! factor.” From the pictures she showed us, these are definitely eye popping specimens.

These plants have modest needs. They prefer well-drained soil such as sand or decomposed granite. Clay soils, which most of us have, need to be amended with Perlite or pumice mixed in. Price plants Australian natives with California natives. Most of these need no fertilizer. They “are hardy and good at finding nutrients in the soil” and comfortable in harsh environments. In the wild, these hardy plants, such as protea, become inured to harsh conditions. Too much “care” destroys their hardiness; feeding them is like putting them on steroids and may result in sudden death.
Although hardy, they do not like to be moved. Their roots are very sensitive. In fact, Price advocates deciding where the plant should go before you put it into the soil. Most plants prefer to stay in one location where they have established roots. (Sound familiar? Most of us are like that too!)

Price’s gardening hints were great. “Fertilizer is not recommended,” she warns. Mulching is. There are some ground covers which make their own mulch when they shed leaves and flowers. This is economical and practical. Price advocates deep watering — 30 minutes weekly rather than 10 minutes three times a week.

Pruning is another good hint. Kangaroo paw, says Price, should be cut to the ground when it has finished blooming. To care for these popular plants, do not wet their leaves which may turn black. Cut black leaves away and spray with a fungicide, if you can. This is a serious condition. If the plant is very ill, cut it back to the ground. Kangaroo paw may be divided. Split the roots with a clean knife or saw before planting each section in a gallon bucket. Let the plants recover from shock and get reestablished before returning them to their beds.

Price showed us plants through slides and cuttings. The acacia flower is the national floral emblem. One species we saw is Acacia merointhrophora or the zigzag wattle whose leaves look like rick-rack trim and has a profusion of small yellow flowers. The tree may grow to 20 feet. Early Australian settlers used to cut them down and weave them with mud for shelter. “Isn’t that criminal?” asked Price. A voice in the back said, “Well, a lot of those settlers were criminals!”

Banksia, a showy plant, is available in all sizes, from ground covers to trees. The Banksia menziesii (firewood banksia) has a red protea-like flower. The yellow Banksia speciosa and the longer Banksia spinulosa ‘Shanapper point’, resemble Christmas trees with candles. Price wanted to plant seeds from the dried blooms, but they were embedded so deeply that no amount of shaking or banging released them. Finally a friend suggested baking them for an hour in a 400 degree oven. Voila! The seeds released.

Some of Price’s samples were soft and silky, not unlike a silky cat’s fur. While many of these plants are beautiful and certainly make great pet substitutes (no barking, no clean up, no boarding, no walks or litter boxes), several are actually shorter lived than cats and dogs. Some, like the red Boronia with profusion of hot pink delicate bell-shaped flowers, only live about five years. Price says that’s good because you have a good excuse to buy more. Price finds red baronia “a little fussy.” However, the Boronia credendula ‘ Shark Bay’, is less so. In the “fussy” category is Geraldton wax flower, Chamelaucium uncinatum. The more forgiving hybrid ‘My Sweet Sixteen’ is a better alternative. It changes from pinks to whites giving you a variety of flower colors on one plant.

A wonderful groundcover or busy plant to overflow a pot or wall is the Chorizema ‘Flame Pea’. It prefers a bit more water and some shade, but its bright orange and hot pink flowers are beautiful growing between two big rocks in a garden. Another good groundcover is Darwinia in the myrtle family. Non- invasive, it spreads its six inch height over an area about eight feet by eight feet. Correa ‘Dusky Bells’, an Australian fuchsia about two feet tall and five feet wide, blooms from late autumn until spring, brightening the winter garden. Sullya heterophylla even grows under eucalyptus trees. For a grassy plant with a pretty flower, Dainellla (blue fax lily) is clean. Avoid the Dianella tasmanica, as it is invasive.

Price is partial to Grevillea as they are easy to grow. Some are only a foot high but spread easily. Be careful which type you buy. One type of Grevillea, the silk oak, has beautiful yellow-gold blooms attracting migrating birds while it blooms. Beware: it grows quickly to 90 feet or more and sheds copiously. Grevillea Superb and Grevillea Robyn Gordon are good choices. Virtually disease free, they sport beautiful blooms all year long on their five by five foot frame.
I’m off to the nursery!

The church is remodeling so our next meeting is in September. All 2011 memberships will be good until September, 2012.

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Barbara Strona is a native Californian who grew up in the Mid-West and Los Angeles. She and her architect husband, Carl, came to San Diego in 1968 and have lived in Mission Hills since early 1971. Barbara received a Bachelor of Arts from Scripps College with a major in English, and a minor in Art. She attended UCLA graduate school and received a General Secondary Credential. She taught English in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and at Point Loma High School. She has been a Realtor specializing in residential sales since 1984. Her passions include her job, reading, writing, foreign languages and foreign countries, animals (feathered or furry), theatre, and her family: husband, two adult children and two grandsons.

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