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Gardening with Jackie French: Winter flowers

There is a reason why so many native shrubs bloom in winter: there is a better chance of their seed making it safely into spring and the soil, possibly via the digestive tract of a bird or fruit bat, than if they bloom in sizzling hot summers. European and northern Asian shrubs, on the other hand, tend to wait for a spring flowering.

The most dramatic bloomer right now, in a total knock your chilly socks off way, is hardenbergia that is supposed to be a climber but is even more stunning as a ground cover.

Hardenbergia accept frost, deep frost, slopes, shallow soil, good soil, gardeners who cosset them with mulch and those ...
Hardenbergia accept frost, deep frost, slopes, shallow soil, good soil, gardeners who cosset them with mulch and those who plant and ignore them. Photo:

The mauve wild form here won’t bloom for another couple of months, but the improved and cultivated dark purple, blue and white forms, as well as the white and purple and white form Free and Easy flower earlier, longer and far more dramatically, though the wild ones are still gorgeous and you find yourself saying, “It’s time to go for a walk up the steep mountain just because they are glorious.”

Hardenbergia accept frost, deep frost, slopes, shallow soil, good soil, gardeners who cosset them with mulch and those who plant and ignore them. They must have good drainage, but other than that, they grow themselves. The one drawback is that somehow the black-tailed wallabies can tell a new cultivar from a wild plant – they don’t eat the native variety here, but bound out to munch the cultivated forms about two minutes after they have been planted.

Maybe they just love new tastes. I grew our last hardenbergia up a narrow tube of netting so they spilled over in a wonderful tumble, till the wallabies were particularly hungry in the last drought and gave them  one more nibble than they could cope with. The drought probably didn’t help either. 

The heath (Epacris impressa) is blooming now too. I love the word “heath”, all Wuthering Heights, and native heath tolerates a good deal of wuthering, as well as heights. There are really late and medium flowering ones, singles and doubles, white, pinks and mauves and a deep red. The flowers are tiny, but there are so many of them that the bush looks fabulous, and many bushes even more fabulous, though only in winter. They are, admittedly a bit boring in summer, but at least inconspicuous, unlike, say, rhododendron that just look large and dull and gloomy when not blooming.

But the true star of winter-flowering native bloomers has to be Banksia praemorsa or cut leaf Banksia. They are BIG – each flower about 35 cm long by 10 cm in diameter – not around – the diameter! The bush is beautiful both in flower and not, with its sculptural shape and elegantly toothed leaves. It comes in vague yellow, spectacular butter yellow, and a flagrant purpley-red which I don’t yet have and badly want, please Father Christmas.

Banksia also need perfect drainage, or even too perfect drainage i.e. the kind of rocky sand that other plants die in. They do best watered often, again assuming that you have planted them in a spot with excellent drainage, and a little feeding to start them off. Birds adore them – I feel guilty every time I pick one of ours, as if a mob of honeyeaters is mourning as I carry them into the house. (Almost) needless to say they look incredible in a vase: big, bold, beautiful, dramatic, even melodramatic, and as if you have paid a florist some extraordinary sum to provide and arrange them.

Winter is also supposed to be the time many grevilleas bloom, and they do in slightly warmer climates than ours. Here they just sit tight till spring, which means that in revenge I am not going to name the blighters. Grevilleas blooming in winter are beautiful, but added to spring’s crabapples here, and other fruit trees, they are a distinct non-entity. But if you have a sunny and heat-soaked courtyard, by all means try them but don’t assume that if they are flowering in the nursery they’ll bloom for you next year, unless you’ve seen them put out their flowers for a neighbour. It’s all very well some hopeful horticulturalists labelling a plant “Winter Glory”. Try telling a stubborn grevillea it has to bloom. Now.

Meanwhile I am going to hunt for one of those red banksias. Or maybe six of them, so I don’t feel like I’m depriving the honeyeaters. Though the more we plant, the more honeyeaters we assist to breed. An extremely good reason for me to be extravagant with some banksias.

This week I am:

  • trying to find the time to be extravagant and find those banksias;
  • eating home-grown winter lettuces, incredibly crisp and sweet, though they are a gift from a neighbour’s vegie garden, not from ours;
  • picking some not-as- spectacular banksias as the ones above, but still with a true wow factor
  • smugly noting that the grafted avocado that bore a single fruit this year is now eight years old, and thus slower to fruit than most of our seedlings;
  • listening to a dozen birds calling from the loquat trees, or rather one lyrebird copying all the others, and improving on most of them; and
  • watching as Wild Whiskers chews her way through the dead hop vines from last season. She’s munching them because she can hear me tapping on my computer 60 centimetres away and assuming I will bribe her with carrots so she’ll stop. She doesn’t realise that the dead vines need cutting back before spring, and that she’s actually doing some excellent garden tidying for me. Please don’t tell her.

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