Wizards of Oz

Australian plants are like the ultimate self-sacrificing mother: They give and give (certain trees can reach 20 feet in just a few years and flower for six weeks or more) but ask so little in return. (Fertilizer? Rain? If you insist.) Their fantastical forms, however — including sculptural, hairy, or waxy blooms in neon colors — are anything but matronly.       

“They have a star quality that really makes them candidates for use as feature plants,” says Australian-born landscape designer Bernard Trainor, now based in Monterey, California. “But you have to handle them with care,” Trainor warns, which includes being sure not to crowd them. “Make them count.”     

“I’ll use plants from Oz simply for their sheer exoticness,” says Joseph Marek, a landscape architect in Santa Monica, California. Marek’s a fan of banksia, a genus of about 170 species that seem to have reimagined blossoms and leaves, possibly while under the influence of a hallucinogen. “You just can’t believe they’re real,” he says.     

And yet they are, as Aussie expatriate and horticulturist Jo O’Connell has proven to Americans for the last 21 years, since she and her husband, Byron Cox, opened the Australian Native Plants Nursery in Ventura, California. O’Connell, who supplied the specimens shown here, is probably this country’s leading provider of Australian plants for landscaping, although a handful of nurseries in regions with hospitable hot and/or dry climes (such as Texas, Arizona, and Florida) have built up small inventories of them as well.      

O’Connell is definitely an Aussie evangelist, given to sighing when asked to describe her favorites, such as Prostanthera magnifica, a western Australia native O’Connell only recently introduced to the United States. The long-flowering, low, and slender mint-scented bush has a lovely, two-tone purple flower, but it doesn’t just get by on good looks.      

“This is a good indicator plant,” she says. “If your garden’s dry, it tends to droop and let you know it needs watering.” O’Connell says the plants she sells are generally not fussy. Many are drought- and pest-tolerant, and most developed efficient nutrient-grabbing root clusters that sit just below the surface of the soil, requiring little fertilizer beyond a good mulching and the nutrition they convert from their own fallen leaves.      

If you must add something, O’Connell says, use cottonseed meal, fish emulsion, or a slow-release fertilizer that’s low in phosphorus. Be sure your climate can support the plant you choose, since some can’t tolerate high humidity or precipitation, and in Northern regions, be prepared to bring it inside during the cold season if you want it to serve as more than an annual.      

Potting these plants often makes sense, not only for mobility but also to keep their growth in check. If they’re happy, they’ll let you know it, which is at least one attribute that sets them apart from that aforementioned long-suffering genus, the mater selfsacrificanda

This article was first published in Garden Design July/August 2012
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