Australia has an amazing variety of native plants to offer the home gardener, however it is a resource that is still undervalued and underutilised. Back in 2005 a study compiled by the Department of the Environment and Heritage found between 19,000 and 21,000 species of native Australian flowering plants, however this number excludes horticultural cultivars, pine trees, ferns, mosses and any other non-flowering plants, so the total number of plants is actually even higher than that figure.
Details aside, that’s an impressively big number and it means we have a lot of plants to choose from when it comes to what we put in our gardens. Even if pessimists suggest only a quarter of these plants can be grown in the home garden that still leaves more than 5000 different natives to play with. In my opinion, national pride should also spill over into the Aussie garden. When we’re shopping and we are presented with a choice between Australian made and imported, the majority of us will show favouritism towards the Australian product because we feel better buying it. Why should plants be any different? Certainly you can’t get any more Australian than gumtrees, banksias, grasstrees and spinifex.
I’ve left the most fundamental reason for growing native plants until last because it’s a little predictable. Native plants are better for our environment. They are the plants that belong on this continent. Native animals rely on them as a source of food and shelter, and by introducing exotic species we seriously risk disrupting these natural systems. Even something as simple as planting the exotic Dutchman’s Pipe instead of the native ones can have adverse results. You see, the native is the host plant for the Cairns Birdwing butterfly, however caterpillars who feed on the exotic Dutchman’s Pipe die because it is toxic to them. Down south blackberries can make bushwalking a struggle, up here in the tropics Lantana smothers native vegetation, Paterson’s Curse can make pastures unusable and Singapore Daisies are almost impossible to get rid of from your garden.
The list of weeds is getting longer ever year and most of these weeds started their existence in Australia as garden plants that were introduced by well meaning green thumbs. Little did they know how destructive their pretty plants would become or how much it was going to cost the nation in the long run. And I don’t think anyone wants to be remembered for introducing a new weed into an area. For me, planting native species in my garden gives me piece of mind, and that’s probably my greatest motivation.
(Published in Cairns City Life magazine, September 2008)