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Winter down under

by Fiona Ogilvie
The Mediterranean Garden No 30 October 2002

Winter is a wonderful time for gardeners in warm climates. It might lack the cooler climates’ carpets of multi-coloured leaves and glitter of hips and berries, but its compensations are great. Sunny, still days mean more flowers and indeed more time for gardening, rather than sitting trapped behind double-glazing looking at bare branches and wondering if it will ever stop raining. Sure, cool temperate climates produce sensational gardens: few things compare to emerald lawns, cascading roses and bosomy herbaceous borders. But never forget the endless drizzle that keeps them that way.

Australian gardeners are lucky in that many native shrubs flower in winter. I'm always a bit twitchy about recommending Australian flora to Mediterranean gardeners as so much of it arises on acid soil, but taken to its logical conclusion this attitude means that no one is ever going to hear about it in the first place. If you really fancy something, give it a go. After all you have nothing to lose but the plant, and most of us lose plenty of those anyway, for all sorts of reasons other than unsuitable soil. Also, we do have some calcareous soils, most notably in South and Western Australia. It's always worth checking a plant's provenance: you never know, you might be lucky.

Many species of acacia or wattle (Mimosaceae) bloom in winter. Acacia uncinata, sometimes known as Weeping Wattle, is the first sign of autumn in our garden on the New South Wales tablelands. It has tiny, greenish-grey leaves (technically phyllodes) and lemony-yellow, fluffy flower balls at the ends of the stems. In its natural habitat of open woodland on sandstone it can reach three metres, and flowers in spring and summer. However ours flower in May. We grew them from seed beside a lane, in granite soil on a fairly exposed ridge above the garden where they are never watered. Like many Australian shrubs they are open and rather untidy in appearance, so benefit hugely from tip pruning, especially when young. The Barrier Range Wattle, A. beckleri from western NSW and South Australia, is another shrubby wattle (also to three metres), worth growing for its foliage alone, quite apart from its bright yellow mid-winter flowers. It has striking, blue green, narrow leaves, about ten centimetres in length, which may be straight or slightly curved. Scented flowers appear both singly and in terminal clusters and the plant has a graceful shape and a powerful presence. Another beautiful wattle is I. iteaphyllodes, whose name speaks for itself. A dense, weeping shrub (to about five metres), it has drooping, narrow, glaucous grey leaves with mauve tips, and pale, scented yellow flowers in autumn and winter followed by silvery pods. It comes from the Flinders Ranges (South Australia) and (as far as I know) tolerates lime.

Hakeas (Proteaceae) are another family of hardy shrubs and small trees with interesting flowers and foliage. Although their flowers vary considerably in form, hakeas are easily identified by their woody seed cases, which hang around on the plant until dried or burnt. Pincushion Hakea from Western Australia, Hakea laurina, is a somewhat twiggy, open shrub to about six metres with eye-catching, round, dark crimson flowers with protruding white styles. These look exactly like big pincushions and cover the plant in late autumn and winter. H. laurina makes a good light screen or windbreak and its flowers last well when cut.

Correas (Rutaceae) are appealing little foreground shrubs and several flower in winter. Correa pulchella from South Australia has grey-green leaves and is covered in hanging, bell-shaped flowers from May to September. It varies a lot in cultivation - always a good thing - from almost prostrate to about one metre high and wide, with pink, orange, red or even white flowers. Chance seedlings have arisen with larger bells, sometimes neatly edged in a narrow band of contrasting colour, many of which are becoming increasingly available in nurseries.

Incidentally, both Hakea laurina and Corea pulchella are moderately lime-tolerant. Readers in Mediterranean regions with alkaline soils may indeed be interested in the paperback book Grow What Where by the Australian Plant Study Group (Nelson, Melbourne, 1980 and updated several times), since it contains quite useful lists of lime-tolerant Australian species.

This hardly touches the vast subject of winter flowering Australian plants but at least it's a start. All of the above will take frost down to -5° Celsius and are reasonably drought-resistant; I think their ability to tolerate drought would depend to some extent on aspect and depth of topsoil.

NOTE. Seed of up to 3000 Australian plants is available from Nindethana Seed Service. For online international ordering see
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