Ten years ago, when we cleared out what was accurately called ‘The Snake Pit’- to make the New Garden, completing the wrapping of the garden round the house, I planted a small Grevillea ‘Canberra Gem’. As we did the annual bramble attack 10 days ago on a lone sunny day, I realised once again that it really is a gem of a plant. Evergreen, with fine needle-like leaves, it makes a solid, but not too solid, presence now measuring nearly 3m by 3m. It starts to flower round now, with tiny red spidery flowers that open out from claw-shaped buds, and it flowers in a big flush now until about May or June, then sporadically after that. It requires nothing from us. And we are so used to it, that it can easily be forgotten- but that’s our fault, not it’s.
In Australia, the Grevillea is a seriously important group of plants, both wild and cultivated. Ranging from the ‘toothbrush’ group which includes Grevillea hookeriana pictured above, to tiny spidery flowers and fat waxy leaves, to slim, fern-like foliage and firework-shaped flowers- the Grevillea is a workhorse plant, coping with hot, dry conditions as well as occasional flooding- and there may be much more interest in the Grevillea from Europe as climate change continues to bite. While there, I became more than a bit obsessed by finding them as we travelled.
Joseph Banks, travelling with Captain Cook, on his first voyage of discovery in 1768-71, was the first to collect seed and specimens of Australian native plants, which were all collated back at Kew Gardens in London. The plant pictured at the top of the post, Grevillea hookeriana, pays tribute in name to Richard Greville, co-founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, and William Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew at the beginning of the 19th century. Australian plants, including Grevillea, had a period of intense fashionable interest, which lasted until the growth of the temperate glasshouse and the switch of fashion to tropical plants from other parts of the world. In some ways, European interest in Grevilleas has remained at the specialist rather than popular interest ever since.
Grevillea monticola is a smaller plant, about 1.5m all round- and with interesting holly- like prickly leaves and a delicate, creamy yellow inflorescence. Grevillea steiglitziana similarly has holly-like prickly leaves, and this fabulous firework-style flower, so intricate and such a piece of natural engineering. This is a rare shrub, native to the Brisbane ranges. It grows in rocky gullies and dry forest and was only formally identified in 1956.
Grevillea Poorinda Royal Mantle could be a real doer for us in Europe. A sprawling, low-lying groundcover plant, with finely shaped leaves and the ‘toothbrush’ flower, it is frost-tolerant, drought-tolerant, and will spread quickly to 6m. According to Shoot, it has a cautious H4 frost rating, which would do for most gardens in Europe except at altitude.
Grevillea capitellata is another low-lying shrub, but grows in poorly drained soil and swamp margins south of Sydney. It is considered a good plant for revegetation, and, again, in Australian terms is hardy- but probably untested as yet in a European context.
Grevillea longistyla is a native plant that is a hot contender for horticultural use, largely because of it’s neat, open habit, the almost fern-meets-seaweed foliage, and the flowers. Growing to about 2m high and wide, it’s a garden-sized plant.
Grevillea speciosa was first cultivated in the UK in 1809- many thanks to the Australian Native Plants Society for their very useful paper on Grevilleas. Trouble-free for the gardener, but like mine, able to fill a difficult hole with ease. Most Grevilleas are also excellent food sources for birds and insects, which make them really worth considering from the ecological perspective.
Look out for them. The juniperina and rosmarinifolia varieties are thought to be the toughest in terms of frost hardiness in the UK, but maybe more varieties will be made available from Australia as we learn to appreciate a different aesthetic with global warming.