I can only imagine the astonishment on Joseph Banks’s face when he first came ashore at Botany Bay and saw these striking cylindrical flowers for the first time. Coincidentally he arrived in April at the height of their flowering season, so he saw them at their best.
There are four different species of Banksias that are commonly found around Sydney. The one pictured, Banksia spinulosa, is perhaps the most versatile. It will grow in soils that vary from sandy to light clay as well as within a wide range of pH levels. It grows to about 1.5 metres and can make a nice informal hedge. As with all the Banksias, nectar and seed-feeding birds love them.
Also to be found on the coast is the aptly named ‘Coastal Banksia’ or Banksia integrifolia. These are well worth considering if you’re in the market for a small to medium tree. Their upright shape makes them a great option for smaller gardens. When the wind blows through them the silvery white underside of their leaves shimmers in the light and provides colour contrast and depth to any garden.
For real sandstone country Banksias, you can’t go past the famous ‘Old Man Banksia’ (Banksia serrata) and it’s little sister, ‘Heath-leaved Banksia’ (Banksia ericifolia). With its gnarly trunk and deeply serrated leaves, ‘Old Man Banksia’ is a quintessentially tough, take no prisoners, total survivor of a plant. No wonder May Gibbs gave it the role she did in ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’. I once played Richard Mills Ballet version of the novel for The Australian Ballet and remembered thinking his best music was for those grumpy old bastards!
Flowering into winter, little sister B. ericifolia, while initially appearing softer than B. serrata, is no less tough. She is often found tenaciously hanging onto life right on the coastal fringe. However, move her inland and B. ericifolia will happily spread her branches up to 4 metres. There is a hybrid on steroids available, ‘Giant Candles’, which has flowers up to 40cm long!
For soils that are more consistently wet, ‘Swamp Banksia’ (Banksia robur) is the one to go for. Growing to about 2 metres, its larger, fatter flowers sit on top of quite broad leaves that fan flat, like a dinner plate arranged beneath.
I’m often asked to design low maintenance gardens. Banksia’s are the perfect plant to meet this brief. Once established they need no extra watering or fertilizer and are pretty much pest and disease free. They also bring in birds and make a great long lasting cut flower. To my mind they are the perfect Australian native plant to have in your garden.