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There's More To Australia Than Foster's Beer
updated: Mar 13, 2010, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Have you seen those old movies where the immigrant family is standing at the rail of the tramp steamer, leaving for Ellis Island and a new life? Tearful relatives stand sobbing on the dock and waving handkerchiefs, the conflicted look of envy mixed with loneliness and trepidation washing across their faces.

I have a similar movie in my head, except its 200 million years ago (you can tell because I still have a full head of hair) and I'm standing on one of the tectonic fault lines of supercontinent Pangaea. As the plates part, forming new continents, little Australia, all by its lonesome, is bravely shouting, "I'll be fine on my own! I have a lot of stuff to work out and I need my space."

And go it alone little Australia did, assembling a flora of more than 20,000 vascular plants-ferns, flowering plants, conifers, etc. That's pretty good for a measly little landmass of 3 million square miles.

Evolution in isolation is a pretty good thing if you're looking for out-of-the-ordinary plants for your garden. In Australia's case, the result of evolution is a palette of breathtakingly beautiful but tough as nails plants.

You already know a lot of Aussie plants, the most notable being eucalyptus trees. Other Santa Barbara favorites include tree fern, tea tree, bottlebrush, and eugenia.

They're Really A Lot Like Us (if you don't listen too closely)

Parts of the Australian continent share the same Mediterranean climate as southern California. That means a lot of their plants are well adapted to our wet winters, dry summers and moderate temperatures. Most prefer good drainage, but can do well in clay as long as the roots aren't kept soggy.

I've been on an Australian plant binge lately, thanks to my good friend, Jo O'Connell, owner of the Australian Native Plant Nursery in Casitas Springs. (That's Jo, above, wearing my stingy brim hat.) She grows some of the familiar Aussies, but there are a few I'm just starting to work into my garden designs with great success. These are some of my faves. I think there are a few that belong in your garden as well…

Leucadendron 'Safari Sunset'

Ah, what a shrub! The first things that catches your eye are the sultry burgundy-tinged leaves surrounding upward sweeping branches and ending in a cup-like formation. 'Safari Sunset' tops out between six and eight feet tall and remain relatively compact with annual tip pruning. The long, gently sweeping branches make great filler in floral arrangements and last for weeks. L. 'Gold Strike' is similar but with yellow coloration.

Look for a beautiful planting of 'Safari Sunset' at the intersection of W. Micheltorena and Robbins streets on the Westside.

Acacia saligna - Golden Wreath Wattle

In the corner of Jo's nursery was a brilliantly yellow-flowering mass that screamed, "Hey, look at ME!" This wattle can grow to the size of a small tree, but its form is really more like a shrub on steroids, with multiple trunks and a dense canopy. That makes it a good windbreak.

I think it would look ab fab among big shrubs with burgundy foliage, like purple hopseed bush (Dodonaea viscosa 'Purpurea' - another Aussie) to contrast the wattle's sunny flowers.

This isn't a tree for every yard - it's rough, rugged, erosion controlling and a bit messy. But if you need a tough as nails large-scale screen and slope protector, this one's a winter/spring stunner. Most of the references I've seen say it grows 20 to 30 feet high.

Grevillea lanigera 'Coastal Gem' - Woolly Grevillea

I don't usually use the word cute, but this shrubby groundcover has a Hello Kitty quality about it. You think it has anything to do with the curly-cue hot pink flowers?

This compact variety of the L. lanigera makes a great plant for parkways, as long as it won't get stepped on. At five feet wide, it's a perfect fit, needing no pruning. The narrow, dark green needle-like foliage reminds me of rosemary, but much more orderly and symmetrical. (It reminds me of Sideshow Bob's hair on The Simpsons.)

Like most plants in the Proteaceae family, it likes a slightly acid soil, so if the leaves start to yellow, hit it with an iron supplement and you're good to go.

Xanthorrhoea preissii: Grass Tree

If you're looking for something exotic as a focal point, look no further than this odd perennial. Despite the common name, it's not related to real grasses. It slowly develops a two to three foot tall trunk, but it's the massive six-foot flower spikes that command attention. Early European settlers thought they looked like aboriginals toting long spears.

Xanthorrhoea grows about anywhere, wants very little water and appreciates decent drainage. This shot was taken at the Taft Garden in the mountains behind Ojai. Locally, there are a few 100-year-old specimens on the west-facing side of Franceschi House.

Looking Forward to "The Big One"

There's a standing joke about how after the next big California quake, we'll break off from the mainland and drift out to sea, making Las Vegas a beachside resort. Tragic as that might be for a whole lot of reasons, imagine what a few hundred million years of botanical isolation might bring to California's flora: Man-eating Goleta lemons, anyone?

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