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A Feast of Banksias

Gwyn Clarke

I stood on a track surrounded by Banksia integrifolia, Banksia grandis, Banksia serrata, Banksia speciosa and Banksia praemorsa; all large banksias, some Western Australian, some from the east, some with colourful fruits, others with attractive flowers and Banksia grandis with soft pink new growth. What a mind blowing place! Where was I? At the Banksia Farm in Mt. Barker north of Albany in Western Australia. Geoff, Cindy and I had arrived to spend a day there.

The owner is Kevin Collins who talked to us about the buildings, (he's a stonemason as well as a banksia fanatic), and the plantings. The aim was to grow all the banksias (to date over 73 species have been found) - those from the east as well - and Kevin had achieved this aim. Our aim was to explore the gardens and see as many of the banksias as we could. Kevin gave us a map with helpful hints about the banksias in flower, but of course there were banksias in bud, with new leaves, with young fruits and old fruits as well. Banksias are always presenting us with new and interesting features to look at and I believe this is what makes them such popular garden plants.

Just outside the gallery where we had listened to Kevin, was B. meisneri (WA) in full flower. This is a small banksia looking just like a Christmas decoration with its dainty lemon yellow styles and apricot centres. It was a certain candidate for the three photographers (even I had brought along a digital camera). Then we plunged into the nearby shrubbery and there I was in my magical spot with B. praemorsa (WA) before me. This is one of my favourite banksias and it was a very large shrub, (all of the 4 metres height given for it in The Banksia Book), with the flowers not fully open. In the shadows the flowers had a luminous quality; the maroon of the styles contrasting with the yellow of the pollen presenter. We were to see this plant later in its natural habitat on the coast near Albany. With the ocean in the background it was stunning.

A Feast of Banksias
Banksia nutans
Banksia nutans
Nodding banksia
Banksia meisneri
Banksia meisneri
Banksia grossa
Banksia grossa
Banksia blechnifolia - foliage
Banksia blechnifolia
New foliage
Banksia plagiocarpa
Banksia sphaerocarpa

Fox banksia
Banksia lemanniana
Banksia praemorsa
Banksia menziesii
Banksia menziesii
Menzies' banksia
Photos: All Gwyn Clarke except B.nutans (Geoff Clarke)

The banksias on this first path seemed very close at first, but just ahead was a clearing and I found myself looking up at some of the tallest banksias I have ever seen. B. seminuda (WA) is a tree to 25 metres and though these specimens were not yet fully grown they were certainly well on the way. They were an impressive sight even though not in flower. The eastern states' B. integrifolia also reaches 25 metres, however I don't think I have seen one that size.

Beyond these large banksias were some smaller new plantings. These were young B. robur (NSW, Qld) with soft, rust coloured, velvety new growth. My attention was then drawn to B. ilicifolia (WA). I don't know why, but when you look at pictures in books the size of plants does not really hit home. I had always thought of B. ilicifolia as a small plant. Imagine my surprise to find it taller than Geoff. It had delightful, almost globular, yellow flowers which turned pink as they aged. While Geoff and Cindy took photos of these flowers I took one of them. It certainly demonstrates that B. ilicifolia is a tall plant (tree to 10 metres, though not there yet.)

After this there were a couple of banksias, one of which I didn't know at all. The first was B. telmatiaea (WA) commonly known as the Swamp Fox Banksia. Its species name means 'of a marsh'. It had a developing golden bud, oval in shape. The other was B. sphaerocarpa var sphaerocarpa (WA). It is known as Fox Banksia, has longer blue green leaves and purply brown globular flowers. These were both small young plants (in the wild they both grow to 2 metres high) and apparently B. telmatiaea is not often seen in cultivation. We later found B. grossa (WA), a small plant to 1 metre high, which is related to B. sphaerocarpa var. sphaerocarpa. Here it was happily growing and showing off its coppery coloured flowerheads. This would be a great plant for pot culture because of its small size and attractive flowers.

Banksia illicifolia

A break for lunch and we were back with B. saxicola (Grampians). This plant had various stages of flower to fruit development from young buds to fluffy young fruits; the pale grey furry fruits against the red brown of the old flowerhead made a great picture. Just opposite was B. integrifolia var. compar (NSW) with lovely red young fruits against a grey-green background. Mixed in with the banksias were other interesting plants and every so often I'd be sidetracked by something else. Regelia velutina was one of such sidetrackers. A decorative plant from the Myrtaceae family, it has bright red flowers and hairy leaves giving them a silvery grey look. It grows on East Mount Barren in Fitzgerald River National Park and was flowering prolifically when we visited in November.

I also find the banksias that have pendulous flowers and fruits charming but it was quite late in the day before we came across B. lemanniana which had young buds and a flower. Later we were to find more of these pendant banksias. I think that B. nutans and B. caleyi were my favourites. B. nutans is another small banksia often found tucked under larger shrubs. Its showy red brown flowers and bright green new fruits would make it a great pot plant in any climate.

Banksia coccinea (WA) was obviously being grown for the cut flower trade with hundreds of plants in long rows. Even though peak flowering was over there were still flowers in all stages of growth. We found one plant with yellow flowers, but I think I still prefer the red ones. In this area there were also experimental plots. In one we found B. ericifolia var macrantha, a very attractive banksia from the north coast of New South Wales. While it can have red or orange flowerheads they are bigger and more colourful than their southern counterpart B. ericifolia var ericifolia.

Banksia saxicola - fruit   Banksia menziesii - fruit
The fruiting cones of Banksia saxicola (left)
and Banksia menziesii (right).

Photos: Gwyn Clarke

We were coming to the end of a long but successful day; however there was one banksia we still wanted to see. This was B. plagiocarpa from Hinchinbrook Island off the coast of Queensland. Kevin told us we would find one in flower near the front gate. Sure enough there was a young plant about 1.5-2 metres high with beautiful bronze pink new growth and unopened soft grey flowerheads. (It grows to 5 metres high.) As we are unlikely ever to see this in the wild it was quite a treat.

I seem to have omitted the prostrate banksias of Western Australia. In the east some of the larger banksias have prostrate forms, but in Western Australia they have some that are only prostrate. The leaves grow up out of the sandy soil and branch like stems run across the ground with the flowers sitting upright at the end. At the farm there were no prostrate forms in flower, but we had found B. repens in flower near the Porongerups (a granite mountain range near Mt Barker.) These are very showy plants and three of the group have grown well at the Australian national Botanic Gardens in Canberra - B. blechnifolia, B. petiolaris and B. repens.

How can you grow some of these delightful plants? If you would like to grow your own it is quite easy to grow them from seed. For WA plants I place the seed on top of a seed raising mix and lightly cover with sand, and then I place in a sunny place and water each day as I am watering the pot plants. Depending on the time of year the seed germinates within 6-8 weeks. I germinate most eastern states species in a Petri dish (this is a small shal- low glass dish with a lid) on paper towel. I keep the Petri dishes in a warm light spot out of direct sunlight. Keep the paper towel damp (not wet) until the root shoot appears. It is then placed in a pot and watered as for pot plants. Both these treatments seem to avoid damping off of seedlings (which is caused by a fungus.) Seed can be obtained from Nindethana Seed Service in Western Australia and also from the Banksia Farm in Mt Barker. Both supply a seed list. If you grow banksias from seed it does take a few years for the plants to flower so don't be impatient.

The Banksia Farm was only one of the special places we visited in Western Australia. If you ever have the chance to visit the West take it. You will never see a greater range of Aussie plants anywhere.

From the newsletter of the Canberra Region of the Australian Native Plants Society, September 2006.

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