Banksias in Garden Design

Diana Snape

Diana Snape is a former leader of the Society's Garden Design Study Group. The following article is reproduced from the October 1993 issue of the Group's Newsletter.

Small trees rather than forest giants are appropriate for most suburban gardens. A selection may be made from many Australian species, with a wide range of qualities and appeal. Banksias, though used infrequently as small trees, have great character and interest. Generally slower growing than ever-popular eucalypts and acacias, and comfortingly long-lived, they maintain a more modest size than many of the speedy growers. Banksias have a solid presence; they have shapely trunks, often gnarled, and heavier foliage of characteristic profile interspersed with intriguing, definite forms of cones at different stages of maturity. Banksia serrata (saw banksia) with its serrated foliage and "old man banksia" cones is the archetype for most Australians.

   Banksia 'Birthday Candles'
   Banksia spinulosa 'Birthday Candles'
Photo: Brian Walters

Recently in a Melbourne garden I admired three small, mature banksia trees. Coast banksia (B.integrifolia), about 20 years old, grew very close to a wall of the house, its trunk bending nicely to avoid the gutter and its modest canopy at roof level. Seen from below the backlit silver underside of the foliage looked very beautiful. Of similar age was the rare Banksia conferta var. penicillata from the Blue Mountains near Sydney. With its shapely, symmetrical crown and rather formal appearance, I could picture it in the centre of an open area surrounded by paving, mulch or lawn. The third tree, B.ericifolia (heath banksia) had something of the archetypical character of B.serrata, but very different in detail with its long flower spikes and fine foliage. Its trunk was massive and (aged 35 years) it looked very old and almost oriental in its structure.

Banksias are tolerant of pruning and can be shaped to achieve a suitable form, for example near a path. You can choose to soften or emphasise any asymmetry or angularity. Two other attractive possibilities for small trees would be B.marginata (silver banksia) and B.aemula (wallum banksia), closely related to B.serrata but smaller. All those I have mentioned are from eastern Australia, but there are also other striking banksias from the west for the adventurous to try.

Most banksias grow as shrubs of all different sizes, often spherical or spreading rather than upright in form. During the winter months their flowers provide a constant, rich source of nectar and they attract honey-eating birds and, if you are lucky in where you live, small mammals such as pygmy possums. Their flower colours range from bright gold, orange and red to more subtle shades of lime, green, buff and brown.

   Banksia gardneri
   A prostrate banksia, Banksia gardneri
Photo: Brian Walters

A Banksia shrub on its own can be a striking specimen plant and potentially a focal point in the garden. Alternatively one species can be repeated, possibly with the delightful variation provided by, for example, the different forms of hairpin banksia (B.spinulosa). One or more species can be used in an informal hedge or screen, or grouped so their foliage creates a wonderful massed effect. The smaller leaves of B.spinulosa and B.ericifolia link in well with those of callistemons, melaleucas, some acacias and many other Australian natives. The more substantial leaves of other banksias contrast strongly with fine foliage, showing similarity to the foliage of waratahs and some dryandras, grevilleas and hakeas. Some banksias like moisture, though not bad drainage, particularly B.robur (swamp banksia) and B.aemula.

A number of prostrate banksias from Western Australia grow successfully in suitable conditions; B.blechnifolia, B.petiolaris and B.repens can all spread vigorously to provide ground cover on a grand scale. These plants are excellent on slopes and banks and, with upright flower spikes and cones and attractive foliage (beautifully coloured when new), their ornate texture is fascinating. A fourth species B.gardneri is less vigorous. In addition to these naturally occurring species, prostrate forms of other banksias such as B.spinulosa, B.ericifolia and B.serrata are now available from nurseries. These combine well with paving or rock shelves and other distinctive foliage such as tufted plants or the horizontal strata of Homoranthus species, and also extensive areas of softer groundcovers in similar tonings. As is true for the shrubs and trees, these prostrate banksias are conspicuous in the garden, not shy and retiring, so selecting their position requires a little thought. It is well worthwhile for their unique offering.

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