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Roger's Tree Pick: banksia from Australia


Last updated 3/15/2007 at Noon

I bring to you this month some very interesting, beautiful and unique plants for you to enjoy from the continent down under, Australia. The banksia genus has about 80 different species in the very interesting Proteaeace family.

These unusual plants can vary in size from some very prostrate woody shrubs of 24 inches that hug the earth up to towering sentinel-type trees 60 feet in stature.

The banksia clan is found around the coastal belt of Australia, where the climate is very similar to that of Southern California with its Mediterranean-type seasons.

I have always been in awe of and appreciate the different structural leaf patterns that this family of plants has, for it is almost as if the foliage was formed by serrating the margins of the leaves with its zigzag pattern. The color range of the flowers includes gold, yellow, chartreuse, red, pink, green, cream, brown and all variations of blending some of those colors together. The flowers are shaped like large fat candles, with bristle-like stamens and anthers surrounding the conical-shaped blossoms.

The blooming season of these stately flowers, if you stage your banksia collection correctly, can be almost throughout the entire year for your garden.

Banksia trees and shrubs like to grow in full sunlight with excellent soil and air drainage and minimum water once established. In general, if you think about a very large oleander-shaped shrub, that is what most of these banksia plants look like, with a few exceptions on both ends.

Some of the banksia species that do extremely well here in the gardens of San Diego County are banksia integrifolia, B. ashbyi, B. speciosa, B. baxteri, B. menzesii, B. prinotes and B. coccinea, to mention just a few. Besides being such a long-lasting cut flower in the vase, they also are great in dried arrangements. Try making a fresh-cut banksia wreath with assorted cut banksia foliage and dry naturally; the wreath can then be enjoyed throughout the year.

Perhaps the best known written reference to banksia is the “Big Bad Banksia Men” story from Australian author May Gibbs’ children’s book with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Gibbs’ “banksia men” are modeled on the appearance of aged, twisted, distorted banksia cones, with follicles for eyes and other facial scary features. When viewing the different seed cones of the banksia clan, you can just envision what these strange cones might appear like to some adventuresome young kids out in the bush of an Australian banksia forest just at dusk of day’s end.

So as I stroll through my own aging banksia glen, I share this children’s story with my granddaughter, Linnea. As her eyes glow with fascination and wonderment at these make-believe characters, I say to myself, “This is a good thing.”

As I have always firmly believed, “The time is always ripe to plant something,” even if it’s a dream or a story into a child’s mind.

If you’re looking for a wonderful family of plants to have some horticultural fun with and grow for the future, just give one or two of these banksias a try. And when you go visiting to a friend house, there’s no need to bring a dozen stems of any flower, for just one stem of a cut banksia will say it all… “G’day, mate.”

Roger Boddaert is an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist whose uniquely designed gardens dot the Southern California landscape.


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