If you’ve ever contemplated planting banksias in your garden, then I would suggest doing it now, because this is the best time of the year to plant them. The hot sticky weather of the wet-season has come to an end, and the rains are more of a welcome re-hydration for the garden than a flooding nuisance that washes away your mulch. Tropical banksias like a bit of rain, but what they don’t like is having wet feet for weeks on end.
Of all the native Australian plants, I’d have to say the Banksias are probably my favourite. And I know there are many other people out there who are Banksia fans, eager to collect as many species as possible. The only downside is that living up here in the tropics we are limited to growing only those species that can handle our very humid wet season. If you’ve ever tried growing a Southern species or worse still, one from W.A. you would have learnt that they do very well in the dry season, but once the wet-season starts, they go down-hill very quickly until all that’s left are some soggy black leaves around a desiccated stem. The good news is that there are a number of very diverse species that grow very well up here in the Far North. These are our own tropical Banksias which people down south or in WA have trouble growing.
At last count I’ve planted more than 70 banksias in my garden. I have to admit, most of these are local varieties of the Hair-pin Banksia (Banksia spinulosa) but that’s simply because these are my all-time favourites. Even though they can be neglected and left un-pruned, they’ll grow into a decent shape and reward you with spectacular showy flowers each year. I should also point out that the local birds will appreciate the abundance of nectar they produce. In my opinion they are almost the perfect native plant for the home garden. They’re small, require very little maintenance, are drought tolerant, will grow in poor soils and on difficult rocky sites. They’ll even attract birds with their large spectacular flower spikes. What more could you want? They are even a curious plant because if they’re grown from wild collected seed like the ones at Yuruga Nursery, you won’t know what colour the flowers are going to be until they come into bloom. Colours normally vary from orange to yellow, but very occasionally a red or white flowering plant will appear in the mix.
There are a handful of other Banksia species that have proven to grow well in the tropics. The Hinchinbrook Banksia, (Banksia plagiocarpa) which as the name implies comes from Hinchinbrook Island. It’s a medium sized shrub or small tree that may grow as tall as 4 meters in cultivation. The most interesting feature of this plant is the colour of its flowers, they are a sort of blue grey which has lead to it also being called the Blue Banksia. Though I have to say, recognising the blue in their flowers does require some imagination. Of all the banksias in my garden, this one definitely has the most consistent flowering, in fact it appears to produce flowers all year. If you’re after a more rugged Australiana look in your garden you should consider planting a Swamp Banksia (Banksia robur). It’s not what I would call a beautiful plant but rather one with lots of character. Its branches are rarely straight, and its very large leaves are more rigid than you would expect. The flowers aren’t colourful but they are big and solid, and won’t move under the weight of even the most gorged honeyeater. Banksia dentata has the least imaginative name of all the Northern Banksias. It’s simply known as the Tropical Banksia. An appropriate name as this species even occurs in New Guinea, and that makes it the only Banksia to grow naturally outside Australia. There are two more species which are worth considering. The Coastal Banksia (Banksia integrifolia) from south of the tropics grows well in costal conditions. And Banksia aquilonia which grows more as a rainforest tree than the small shrubs we associate with banksias.
To be quite frank, if you live in the tropics I wouldn’t even bother with the remaining 72 banksia species unless you’re after a real challenge and don’t mind frequent failure. The six species I’ve written about have a good track record in local gardens, and furthermore they are varied in size, growth habit and flower colour, which means you’re not missing out on anything either. So, go on and do yourself and the local wildlife a favour by planting a local Banksia today.
(Published in Cairns City Life magazine, May 2009)