Monday, February 05, 2007

Flashy Aussies

Eucalytpus ficifolia
Some years ago a friend told me a story involving a case of misleading advertising. He told me he had seen a house advertised for sale in the columns of his local newspaper. One of the strong selling points was that the property was covered with “near native trees”. He was intrigued about this so he went to view the property. And what were the “near native trees?”
They were Eucalypts. The house was sited in the middle of a huge plantation of gum trees.
We both had a big laugh at the sheer audacity of the real estate agent, while acknowledging that, while there was a case for calling plants of our nearest large neighbour “near natives”, it was a bit cheeky.
Turns out, though, that the realtor knew more than we did – either that, or they fluked a lucky guess. Palaeontologists have kicked in behind the real estate industry by reporting that at one time, there were indeed species of Eucalyptus flourishing in New Zealand, albeit about 50 million years ago.
They died out, of course. Perhaps out climate was just too wet for them and they could not find too much room in our ecosystem. Their cousins, the ratas and pohutukawas, certainly managed to fill niches throughout most of New Zealand so maybe they blocked the Aussie imports.
When pakeha settled New Zealand it did not take them long to realise the potential uses for gum trees and they were soon scattered throughout the islands. Their main use, of course, was for shelter and timber, but many species that have made their way into our gardens too.
At the moment there are some wonderful examples of that brightest of all Australian plants, the red flowering gum, Eucalyptus ficifolia. This is the spectacular Western Australian with fig-like leaves and the blazing flowers of red and orange in its best forms.
This makes a wonderfully shaped small tree when mature – often (but not always) single-trunked, but always with a rounded crown of dark green leaves. These leaves are covered with the large bunches of flowers, usually red, for periods in mid-summer. This is not a huge growing tree like a Sydney Blue Gum – it will probably only grow to about seven metres.
This species is usually grown from seed, and is inclined to be a little bit variable, but the flowers are usually from deep red to orange. Pink and white forms sometimes occur in the wild, and garden grown plants sometimes have flowers in this colour range. I do not think they are anywhere as attractive as the brighter forms. In Australia grafted plants of named varieties are available, but I don’t think they are in the trade in New Zealand at the moment.
There is one problem with this spectacular small tree for those of us who garden inland – it is frost tender. Once established it will cope with most frosts in our part of the world so a bit of care during the first couple of winters will be well repaid. Funnily enough, for a plant from Western Australia, this plant actually prefers to grow in a reasonable wet area as it grows in part of the state with naturally high rainfall.
There is another gum with attractively coloured flowers, once often planted but not so popular nowadays with our smaller gardens, the Pink Ironbark, E. sideroxylon ‘Rosea.’ This is much hardier than the foregoing, but it is also much taller and less colourful, and comes from a much drier climate – you just cannot win sometimes.
My grandparents had one of these in their Masterton garden. It grew to at least 15 metres tall (and might get taller in the right place I would think) and it made a great feature for that part of the garden. Their form had lovely deep pink flowers, but again this can be variable. The flowering time is from late autumn through to late spring, so a generous flowering can be expected over winter. This has the delightful effect of providing nectar for homey-eating birds, including of course the tui.
The foliage on this species is nowhere near as dark as the red flowering gum, and the tree is more branched and lighter foliaged. My grandparents grew plants at the base of their tree – you would struggle to do that with a mature E. ficifolia – so it can be an attractive option for the larger garden.
If you are keen to help bring birds into the garden, there are other Australian options. The winter-flowering Banksia intergrifolia is often used as a shelter tree, largely because it is very wind tolerant, even withstanding salt-lade sea winds. The leaves are dark green above but silvery underneath, so they are very pretty when they shift in the wind.
The flowers are bottlebrush shaped and an attractive shade of greenish-yellow.
This is quite hardy and will cope with quite a few degrees of frost. It is not the most stunning of plants but if you have a bit of room, it is worth planting for the sake of the birds.
There is another summer flowering tree that will also provide food for the birds, the stunning silk tree, Albizia julibrisin ‘Rosea.’ This Oriental favourite – it grows wild from Japan through to Iran – has a lot to recommend it. The light foliage makes this an easy tree to grow other plants (including lawn) underneath and its spreading habit of growth means it is still appealing when it has lost its leaves fort winter.
At this time of the year, the branches are covered with silky carmine-red flowers.
I think this is the perfect tree for the backyard as it provides a nice light shade over summer but is clear for the winter. It will grow in any well-drained soil and needs no special care.

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