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Native plants to attract wildlife

By Leigh Murray

Proven plant magnets

Some Australian native plants have proven ability to attract wildlife.

They seem to have a magnetic attraction for birds, butterflies and bees at both our home in Queanbeyan (near Canberra) and our newish holiday house at Tuross Head (on the New South Wales South Coast).

I’ve found that the most effective drawcards are those that not only have highly attractive flowers but also are long flowering.

When selecting plants to attract wildlife in YOUR garden, ensure you select those that will survive and thrive in your conditions – climate, soils and aspect.

Kangaroo paws are clear wildlife attractors

Anigozanthos flavidus (tall kangaroo paw) must be one of the most powerful of all magnets for wattlebirds. We have 4 sizeable A. flavidus plants at Tuross Head (planted as tubestock a year ago), and when these plants flowered last summer we had birds repeatedly crossing back and forth over a busy road to get to the flowers.

And what a sight it was: birds dangling from flowers at the ends of 2-metre stems (well clear of the half-metre high foliage). This is clearly one of the best native plants to attract wildlife.

So far, neither of the hybrid kangaroo paws I’ve tried (‘Bush Gold’ and ‘Bush Ranger’, both of which have A. flavidus in their parentage) have had anything like the bird-attractive quality of the plain-vanilla Anigozanthos flavidus. The flowers of the hybrids certainly look more striking (with stronger, deeper colours) but they attract only the odd diner – whereas with the plain “Anigo flavs”, it’s dangling room only!

Eucalyptus leucoxylon rosea and other Eucs attract wildlife

Eucalyptus leucoxylon subsp. megalocarpa is a humdinger of a tree at attracting birds. And it looks terrific too.

This form (often available under the horticultural name “Rosea”) has beautiful and abundant cerise flowers for many months starting in autumn and going right through winter into spring.

A prominent birdsound at our place each spring is a noise like the creak of a rusty gate, emitted by a Red Wattlebird that seems to spend almost all day every day in that straggly bush.

Eastern Spinebills also fancy the flowers, and drop in for a feast whenever they get the chance. Our mailbox is surrounded by Grevillea arenaria (which is now about 1.5m high and wide). It is the oval-leaf form, frost hardy and very drought tolerant. It withstands the coastal conditions at Tuross (with strong, occasionally salt-laden winds), and it pulls in the birds there too.

More grevilleas and banksias to attract wildlife

Grevillea ‘Coastal Glow’ (G. barklyana ssp. macleayana x either G. asplenifolia or G. longifolia) are also great native plants for wildlife. It is a great favourite with the birds. This shrub has been a raging success at Tuross and it also grows well in Queanbeyan (where it came through last winter’s frosty minus 7 degrees with nary a blink).

‘Coastal Glow’ grows quickly into a large shrub of about 3m x 3m. With plenty of tip-pruning, ours have already formed a dense screen at Tuross where they’ve proven very attractive to Wattlebirds and Spinebills. They’ve also attracted the only Noisy Friarbirds in the area. Several of these wonderful characters were practically resident in the ‘Coastal Glows’ for weeks, sipping from flower after flower and chortling their dear little bald heads off.

Grevillea jephcottii is very popular with Crimson Rosellas. They nip off the flowers to get to the nectar. Wattlebirds and Spinebills love the flowers too. G. jephcottii forms a rather open, grey-foliaged bush of less than 2m x 2m, with inconspicuous greenish spider flowers that the birds adore.

Banksia spinulosa is an excellent bird attractor, in flower for months during autumn and winter. Wattlebirds and Spinebills are the chief diners, but rosellas visit occasionally too. Nearly all the banksias are excellent native plants to attract wildlife – birds, bees and insects.

Westringia to attract butterflies

Westringia has proven highly attractive to butterflies at both Queanbeyan and Tuross. A shrub of about 1.5 – 2m high with a similar spread, it is remarkably hardy to frost, drought and sea air. And it is unusually long flowering for a westringia.

Unlike its parents, it bears its lilac flowers virtually all year round (in our gardens, it outperforms its parents in all respects.) To maintain a neat, dense appearance, it’s a good idea to tip-prune regularly; this also increases the number of flowers (a good tip-prune is positively inspirational!) which, of course, is better for the butterflies.

A few plants that are often mentioned as attracting butterflies but which have not yet done so for me are Olearia phlogopappa, Chrysocephalum semipapposum, Pultenea pedunculata, and Hardenbergia violacea. (Graham Pizzey, described Hardenbergia as a top class attractant. Perhaps it is butterfly-attractive in Victoria I’ve not found so in New South Wales – some plants are like that).

Bees like nearly everything!

Grevillea ‘Poorinda Jennifer Joy’ is a very attractive little hybrid grevillea (G. linearifolia x G. speciosa ssp. speciosa) which has beautiful pinky-mauve spider flowers almost all of the year, and the bushes are usually alive with bees.

Grevillea sericea also attracts bees – but birds have shown no interest at all in either of these grevilleas.

Adapted from the newsletter of ASGAP’s former Wildlife and Native Plants Study Group, Spring 2001, edited and images Heather Miles, additional images Warren Sheather