Marin Master Gardeners
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Aussie love affair keeps blooming

May 21, 2011
Gail Mason

THERE SEEMS TO BE two types of gardeners: those who live for flowers, and those who relish the texture and intrigue of foliage. For me, the leaves win.

Don't get me wrong, flowers are fantastic. But there's nothing like eye-popping foliage combinations to keep the garden interesting. It's sort of like finding the perfect mate. If you fall for that gorgeous show-off, you may find that your love affair is short-lived. But if you find someone who's consistently engaging, you may have just found yourself a keeper.

In keeping with this sensibility, I have fallen in love with Australian plants, where flowers are often strange or outlandish, but rarely the reason one has planted that particular plant to begin with.

My love affair began somewhere along the way at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arboretum. While walking through the Australian section I became entranced with the gorgeous drapery
created by a large and graceful weeping ovens wattle (acacia pravissima), then charmed by the adjacent Seuss-like royal hakea (hakea victoria), looking like a startled cabbage. Turning around I saw lush groupings of some mysterious dark green, thick-leaved plants with bright blue berries on display and wondered to myself, "Can I try growing these at home?" My heart was captured.

You know how it is when you're in love. I wanted to know everything about Australian plants. It turns out Marin shares the same Mediterranean climate with western and southwestern Australia and yes, Australian plants grow effortlessly in our gardens. They must have good drainage — plant them high or in a raised bed in porous soil — and as long as they get sun, a little water and NO phosphorus fertilizer, they'll be happy. And who can resist planting something called kangaroo paws or woollybush?

More and more Australian plants are finding their way into our nurseries and demonstration gardens. It is essential, of course, to import only noninvasive plants that play nicely with our natives and other  Mediterranean climate plants. Purchasing plants from a responsible source
is paramount.

Australian plants have much to offer Marin gardeners. Many of the plants are nonthirsty, a huge plus given our boom or bust rainfall. They attract bees and hummingbirds and provide homes for many welcome insects. Many are wildly fast growing, often they are winter blooming, providing a colorful punch during the greyest days. They are capable of holding up hillsides, offering tough windbreaks, and living in terrible soil. What's not to love? As an added bonus, many are fabulous in cut flower  arrangements, so your pruning can produce wonderful table decorations.

Here is a guide to some Australian plants that may be useful in your garden:

Tired of rosemary but want similarly fragrant, drought-tolerant shrubs? Tuck in a lovely variegated Australian mint bush (prostanthera).

What if you're looking for something a little larger, perhaps a small tree? I've developed a particular affection for the hugely misunderstood acacia, or wattle, as they say Down Under. Say the word Acacia and many people shrink back in horror, visions of tissue boxes and invasive yellow plants coming to mind. The California Invasive Plant Council) lists only two species, silver wattle (acacia dealbata) and Australian blackwood (acacia melanoxylon) to be invasive here. There are more than 1,000 species of these beautiful shrubs and trees, many of them gorgeous, noninvasive, low water use and not necessarily allergenic. Olives and pines tend to be a more common source of allergens. Pines start releasing pollen at the same time Acacia blooms, thereby perpetuating another myth associated with
Acacia.

The color, shape and variety of wattle is absolutely stunning. Blue bush wattle (acacia conveyi) is an extraordinarily fast-growing plant that will quickly reach 15 or 20 feet and can be used as a windbreak. Its softly blue-grey and has a jaunty uplifted appearance. How about replacing that thirsty willow with the equally weeping, but much less thirsty, river wattle (acacia cognata)?

Looking for a quick way to screen out an unattractive view? Instead of using the often uncontrollable and messy bamboo, why not try a wispy and delicate willow wattle (acacia iteaphylla)? They move with the slightest breeze, creating a softly dynamic element to the garden.

If you have a problem area where there is lots of heat but not much water, try the grassy dwarf mat rush (lomandra longifolia), used in Australia  alongside the freeways and only watered by winter rains. Forming a bright evergreen weeping mound, it's handsome planted in groupings and is absolutely indestructible.

Check out Australian plants, and you might fall in love as well.

LEARN MORE

• Falkirk Cultural Center, San Rafael, www.falkirkculturalcenter.org;
485-3328

• San Francisco Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arboretum, www.sfbotanicalgarden.org;
564-3239.

• UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, Santa Cruz, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu; 831-427-2998 

• UC Botanical Gardens at Berkeley, http://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu;
510-643-2755

• Australian Native Plants Nursery, www.australianplants.com

• "Australian Native Plants (Fifth Edition)" by John W. Wrigley and
Murray Fagg (Reed New Holland)

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