“Cultural Cringe” and our national garden identity

Clive Blazey explores nativism, garden-worthy trees and planting in different climate zones

Black Booyong

Nativism and cultural cringe

Many Australian’s favourite native plants are eucalypts and many people think that “the Australian garden” should contain largely native plants.

But then native plants don’t provide us with the vegetables, fruit and flowers we wish to cultivate so our garden plantings are somewhat schizophrenic.

At Heronswood we have been following a different planting path and our rainforest tree plantings are as old as the ones in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. My favourite Australian plants are not from the bush, but from our rainforests in Tasmania and Mt Lamington in northern NSW.

Trees like the Black Booyong (Argyrodendron actinophyllum) which we have growing at Heronswood, and the Nothofagus in Tasmania as well as Richea pandanafolia and Richea scoparia are, to me, the most beautiful plants in the world.

The cloud forest on the top of Mount Gower on Lord Howe Island is a place of incredible beauty, but I store it as a memory only.

You see, when I look out my garden window I don’t want to see the bush. I want a cool and refreshing garden to enjoy during hot, summer days. Most of my favourite plants will not suit a scorching Victorian summer and are best enjoyed in the wild. There are, however, enough native trees from our rainforests that will survive our brutal summers and also produce outstandingly refreshing coolness in foliage.

We have extended our native tree plantings at Heronswood beyond the original Moreton Bay fig, the Flame tree and Cook’s pine by choosing Ficus hillii as an avenue, and today most of our shade comes not from the bush but from our native rainforest selections.

Can a garden style evolve with non-native plants?

The English Garden is defined by the absence of indigenous plants!

Many Australians still hunger for a view of England out the front door, but the English garden has hardly any native trees and most of its flowers and shrubs come from China! Isn’t a garden a totally artificial construct designed to create our own sense of beauty, separate from the familiarity of native plants?

And to confuse the nativists amongst us, with the movement of tectonic plates, trees like the Gingko (Gingko biloba) were growing near Alice Springs during the time of Pangea before the continents split, when there was but one continent.

Native is a shifting concept in both time and space.

Learning from the Japanese

The Australian garden is in its infancy on the path towards establishing a gardening tradition.

Australian gardening gained momentum 150 years ago when our botanic gardens were planted, whilst gardening in China and Japan stretches back at least 1,700 years.

Although Australians are infants in the history of gardening, so too are the French, English and even the Italians in comparison. The Japanese (and the Italians) were blessed with indigenous plants worthy of planting around a villa or modern day house. Think of shapely Japanese maples with their feathery leaves arranged in layers, or evergreen pines pruned into structural sculptures, not to mention azaleas clipped of flower to bring form to the miniaturisation of the their iconic mountains, rocks and water.

The Japanese revere longevity and tree shaping is of the highest priority. After thousands of years of settlement about 67 % of Japan is still covered in forest trees compared with only 20% in Australia.

Being one 30th of the size of Australia, almost all of Japan is located in the same climate zone whilst Australia stretches from the alps to the desert and into the tropics.

We get homesick for our beloved gum trees and plant them around us, but isn’t it time we asked the question about their “garden-worthiness”?

Revering our tree inheritance

We will never establish an Australian garden tradition until our choice of trees is settled. Choosing the right trees is the most important planting choice gardeners can make and we continually get it wrong.

We are not only ignorant of our precious tree inheritance; we have a mining mentality, turning our precious Tasmanian rainforests into woodchips, thereby allowing the Japanese to preserve theirs.

Planting native trees for shade

Eucalypts provide lousy shade, (their leaves hang down), and the roots poison the soil. “Eucalyptic” is a great way to describe the tree’s danger, both in rising summer temps (we lost our restaurant due to a “eucalyptic” bush fire) and as a result of their propensity to suddenly drop limbs. Eucalyptus may be extraordinarily beautiful in the bush, but they’re not garden-worthy in the city!

In fact, if you walked around the Royal Botanic Garden in Melbourne (which has the best collections of so-called natives and exotic trees, many over a hundred years old) as if it was the first time, I think you would conclude eucalyptus are the least interesting group of all the trees growing.

Of course with such a range of climates there will be no single garden form but many, reflecting our diverse climates.

More

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Clive Blazey tells how prodigious tree growth is dependent on fungal mycorrhizae in the soil

The Bunya Pine: a tale as old as time

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The National Arboretum of Doom

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Trees for small backyards

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Clive Blazey

Clive is the founder of The Diggers Club, a pioneer in the rescue of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties and author of seven books on flower, vegetable and fruit gardening.
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