A trip to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden

Specifically, the succulent garden, which was among the largest by area of the “themed” sections.  Danger Garden, this is for you.

For your well-being we ask that you keep to the paths and avoid touching the plants, especially if you have children in your care.

The entire succulent garden is in raised beds and large planters made of what appears to be Cor-Ten steel or similar. That dark rusty color of course does wonders for the lovely silvery blues of agaves and cacti as well as bright orange aloe flowers.  Sydney has a humid subtropical climate and gets probably 50 inches of rain a year, so this seems like a good idea.

Agave geminiflora on the left, the twin-flowered agave, and the tag to the right says Melocactus ernestii. Looks like two have died but there’s one back there between the agaves that looks okay.

In the above photo with the big flower spike is Agave attenuata, an extremely common sight all around Sydney, more common than Yucca is here.  They practically grow in sidewalk cracks — or they would if they could fit! Here’s a grouping of them, along with what I think is A. americana.  This is along a street behind someone’s backyard fence, in what appeared to be an untended area:

Agave attenuata and A. americana (?)

While A. attenuata dominates the Sydney agave scene, others do pop up here and there.  This next picture looks like a couple different species, the largest possibly A. flexispina?  I found this just walking around Bondi:

One more, while we’re out and about, then we’ll go back to the botanic garden.  This thing is probably 10-12 feet tall at the highest point:

Agave americana var. marginata, with A. attenuata flower spike behind it

Ok back to the garden.  Even in this less-than-amazing iPhone photo, look how all the blue stuff just glows in front of that weathered steel wall!

A. attenuata, didn’t catch the cactus, sorry

This one let me get closer:

A. attenuata again


reminds me of a giant asparagus

I love how these guys are totally falling over with the weight of all their little keikis:

Couldn’t find the tag, Opuntia, I guess?



What do you suppose was going on in my mind that prevented me from taking a picture of the tags in the photo above? I mean, in a lot of cases the tags were nowhere to be seen, but I suspect that here, I probably thought, “I can never grow that so I don’t care” or similar.  Sigh.

I DID focus on the spikey bois on the left, though!

See? I wasn’t far off with that asparagus comment!

LOTS of these here.  In fact, if you do a Google image search for Agave flexispina, I’ll bet a third of the images are of the plants here.  You can tell by that red rock, which is used throughout the succulent garden.

Isn’t this just delicious?

A. flexispina

I don’t know what this guy is:


But he gave us some pretty nice close ups:


I don’t know about you but I really trip out on those indentations.  I think, aside from color, that’s my favorite thing about agaves.


Cleistocactus strausii, the silver torch cactus.  A native of southern Bolivia to Argentina.  On the far left in this photo is Cleistocactus tupizensis.

Cleistocactus strausii

Of course I didn’t get a photo of C. tupizensis because I am enamored of this particular color combination (silver and purple/rust).

I really enjoyed this vignette and its color palette is just lovely to me.  Unfortunately, none of these plants had visible labels.


NOID Agave, but aren’t they lovely? Update: Agave macroacantha, thanks Loree! 

Here I stopped and turned around and tried to get an overview.  I had to mess with this in Photoshop as it came out quite dark.  I very rarely edit photos at all, but the failing of the iPhone camera is its limited ability to adjust exposure when there is any amount of sky in the frame, and for this pic it was worth it to try to improve it.


Oh hello!

I think when I was there I just assumed this was a cultivar of A. attenuata but now I disagree.  How ’bout those pink filaments? I like the green/yellow/pink color combination.

This Crassula was interesting in that the stems? stalks? trunks? are rough and sort of shaggy, rather than smooth like the houseplants we are used to.  Jade plants are not uncommon outdoor plants in Sydney by the way.


See what I mean?

Big ol’ Agave hanging out with Crassula ground cover, and frangipani

This was a parking area divider zone in Bondi, just about to flower and over 3′ tall.  A hedge of jade:

Good ol’ Crassula ovata

Now we come to the Aloe garden which of course I really loved.  I have a bit of a thing for aloes, have no idea why.  Unfortunately, very few were tagged.  But isn’t this pretty with its glowing spines?

NOID Aloe, at least I *think* it’s Aloe?

This next pic isn’t great because I used the zoom on my iPhone camera before I realized the birds weren’t particularly fearful.  But I’m including it because it shows some background plants and you get a sense of the drama of the scene.  The building here is the Maiden Theatre, built in 1899 and named for Joseph Henry Maiden, a previous director of the Botanic Garden.  The building was an herbarium until 1982, at which point the collection was moved to the Robert Brown Building, where it still exists.

Honeyeaters, noisy miners to be exact: Manorina melanocephala

Once I realized they weren’t afraid of me I could get closer.


So I guess these birds are the ecological-niche-equivalent of hummingbirds, which are not present in Australia at all.  As for the aloe, I really kind of like how these seem to flop at rakish angles as they open.  To me it conveys movement in an interesting way.

unlabeled Aloe. Or is that its tag on the left?

I loved this dramatic little Aloe but I couldn’t get closer to it without hopping up into the raised bed and I felt like I probably shouldn’t do that.  But now that I look at this picture again, so many questions come to mind! What is that thing that looks like it fell over (Aloe)? What is the staked trunk? It’s a palm Pachypodium but what kind? Is that a papaya in the background on the left? (yes).


Above, more NOID Aloe with some variegated Sansevieria up in with them.  I love this Aloe’s green-to-coral inflorescence coloration.

While we’re on Aloe, here’s one I found in another part of the garden and it actually had a tag! Ha!

Aloe ‘Super Red’


I wonder if my house falls under “tough landscaping conditions”?

Hey look! A whole ‘nother planting of these guys:

A. flexispina


Lots of littlies


flowering Agave attenuata.

In the above photo, the larger sign on left is the one in the very first photo in this post.  I think you’re supposed to see that when you first come in? I, of course, came in through some apparent back door and only found this sign toward the end of my tour here.

Next up is an Agave we found extremely satisfying.  I love it in the same way I love cabbage plants.


I took another picture with David for scale.  I’m not sure if that’s helpful because he’s not right next to it.  By the way I though the rock wall was quite nice, with the blues and purples. That yellow cactus looks pretty good against those colors, doesn’t it?


Were you eyeing those little perfectly neat pincushions of agave-ness right in front of David? I was too.



It’s annoying to me to think that people would intentionally put rocks in them, but I can’t imagine how else these got there.  Grr.

I’m not sure what these are but I took a photo because they were HUGE.  Some kind of Yucca? Something else entirely?  Their leaves are like 10-foot-long spears…


Oh look, another cute little pile of Agave attenuata.  Seriously these are everywhere.  It must be the best species for this climate. I appreciate their softness.

Not sure on this one, but I liked it.  It seems to allllmost have a lighter stripe down the center of each leaf.


Agave vandalism.  Incest? I find that an odd word for a tag.  This photo was taken June 16, 2017 so this carving is over a year old.

Here’s another plant I had to zoom in to photograph.  I took this pic to ID this thing just because it’s the weirdest plant ever.  Pretty sure it’s Cereus peruvianus var monstrosus.  I’m not 100% sure that’s how that name should be written, but it gets the point across well enough.

Cereus peruvianus var monstrosus

This cactus is an absolutely arresting plant and I really wish I could have gone up there and gotten closer to it.  It’s really interesting, and quite blue.  It was also the last plant I photographed in the succulent garden, and since I can’t stand ending a post with a crappy zoomed-in iPhone photo, I;ll send you off with an orchid from the glasshouse.  I’m not an orchid person at all, but I did find this rather exquisite and I think the genus name is hilarious: Epicattleya.  I can’t decide if it’s epic, or it’s bovine, or what…

Epicattleya ‘Gerardus Staal’, a cross between Epidendrum pseudepidendrum and Cattleya schilleriana.

I hope you enjoyed the succulent garden.  Thanks for reading!






Fall Planting: Part 1

(Of however many parts it takes)

This is my third year gardening at my current house. The first year, the focus was on establishing vegetable gardening beds.  The second year, we did a little more of that, and started the process of eliminating lawn.  Now we have a total of 11 rectangular vegetable beds (4′ x 10′) which are edged with cedar to keep the clover and creepy grass out.  This year the focus is ornamental plants.

When we first moved here, I had “food forest” ideas – for a time, we wanted every single plant to produce something edible.  My, how experience changes things! After living in an apartment building for 10 years with only a tiny garden space, we were delusional in our enthusiasm.  It’s not that we can’t eat all the things that come out of the garden, it’s that we run out of time to prepare and preserve.

Besides, I want to grow cool stuff. So here are a few of the plants that went in the ground today, all front yard.

Cupressus glabra ‘Sulphurea’ – sooo excited to find this at Xera Plants the other day

The idea with the cypress here is to be a color/form contrast to the Japanese maple, which wants to be a blob. This spot was begging me for something light-colored and upright in form.  I tried a Lomatia myricoides first, but it died quickly because I planted it into some imported soil that turned out to be really high in every nutrient – Lomatia, like all members of the family Proteaceae, can’t tolerate excessive phosphorus in the soil.  Hopefully the cypress will enjoy it (and, it’s next to that soil but not exactly in it).

I’ve known for a while that Proteaceae members don’t like extra phosphorus, and presumed this is simply because Australian soils tend to be very low in it.  I came across a very interesting publication that detailed what is actually going on.  Rather than try to distill it, I’ll quote:

Many Proteaceae, including Banksia and Hakea species, but not Embothrium coccineum , are readily killed by phosphorus fertilisation; they are highly sensitive to slightly enhanced soil phosphorus levels. They tend to accumulate phosphorus in their leaves, to concentrations that would be severely toxic to any plant (typically ≥ 1% of the dry mass). However, other plants rarely achieve such high concentrations in their leaves, even when heavily fertilised with phosphorus. That is because most plants reduce their phosphorus-uptake capacity when supplied with high phosphorus concentrations in the soil or nutrient solution. They close the doors through which phosphorus enters the roots when a big crowd of phosphorus molecules is waiting to move in. We discovered that the extreme sensitivity of H. prostrata and other Proteaceae is due to a very low capacity to reduce their phosphorus-uptake systems when elevated phosphorus levels are present in the soil. Some time, during the course of millions of years of evolution on severely phosphorus-impoverished soils, for many Proteaceae this trait disappeared.

Right right, millions of years.  Not gonna undo that, now are we? But wait, there’s more:

Having discovered the physiological cause of the phosphorus sensitivity of some Proteaceae, we made a wider survey of related species. Interestingly, some plants that are closely related to hakeas, e.g. , Grevillea crithmifolia , also belonging to the Proteaceae, do not suffer from phosphorus toxicity, even when exposed to phosphorus levels that are much higher than those that kill some Hakea or Banksia species. This grevillea closes its doors through which phosphorus moves in when supplied with a lot of phosphorus. We have also discovered that these traits apply to various species of South African Proteaceae. Relatively P-insensitive Proteaceae species are typically associated with soils that contain more plan-available phosphorus, e.g. , those derived from more nutrient-rich parent material. The sheer diversity of traits adopted by various Proteaceae from Australia, South America and South Africa offers enormous potential for breeders who are keen to develop new cultivars in the Proteaceae. It should not be too difficult to cross phosphorus insensitivity into new cultivars, which could then be grown without the risk of phosphorus poisoning in our gardens.

Well how do you like that? So now all we need to do is find Proteaceae species that have this door-closing ability that are also cold-tolerant, and breed away.  Great! I’m on it! Just kidding.  Anyway I thought it was interesting, and it does give me some hope that someone someday will come up with a P-tolerant river lomatia.

A couple of manzanitas:

Arctostaphylos mewukka ‘Motley Crue’, from Cistus Nursery. The Origanum is from Xera, I think I got it last year.


Arctostaphylos silvicola ‘Ghostly’, from Xera

By the way, the stakes on this manzanita and the cypress are because I tend to try to wash all the container medium off the roots (or most of it anyway) for two reasons: one, roots almost always end up getting all twisted and tangled, which just goes with the territory of container life.  I like to spread them out like a fan when planting, rather than digging a deep hole and having them all go down-ish.  Reason two is that I want the plant to have native soil around all its roots.  Too many times I’ve found weird pockets of some kind of peat-and-perlite in the ground, the size of some poor plant’s pot, where the plant was long dead because the peat got hydrophobic and the plant never got a chance to move its roots into the surrounding soil… I hate that. Anyway when you spread roots out like a fan, generally they’ll need a stake for a while.


Amsonia ciliata ‘Halfway to Arkansas’ , from Pomarius Nursery

This is out front by the street, an area which is supposed to be a no-summer-water zone.  I’m curious to see how this Amsonia handles it.  The plant with green leaves on the left is indeed a calla, one with shockingly black flowers that came with the house, and it does quite well, believe it or not.  I’ll move the Amsonia if I have to, I just liked this texture for this spot.

Helichrysum tianshanicum, from Xera

Have you ever bought a plant and almost immediately realized you should have bought three of them? This is one of those, for me.  I love this plant and I’d like to repeat it a few times.

Callistemon viridiflorus ‘Shamrock’, from Xera

I am really looking forward to seeing this thing make a bunch of gatorade-colored bottlebrush flowers against the house.  By the way can you guess what my favorite plant nursery is?

Now let’s go out to the hot/dry zone, by the street.  My favorite area…

Sempervivum, from Pomarius

I picked up 4 of these cuties a few weeks ago because they were absolutely irresistible. I already had some right here by the curb and the’re really happy and don’t care about moles, so I’m just going to sort of line the curb with them.  They are rather shocking in flower, in a good way. This next one is my favorite.


Sempervivum, also from Pomarius

As I was planting these, I started noticing that there is an awful lot of silvery-blue foliage happening in my front yard and I LOVE IT.  So I took some pictures of that.

Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’, came with the house. I like this next to that chartreuse Santolina


Cabbage ‘January King’, seeds from Territorial

Lest you forget I am one of those front-yard vegetable gardeners.  This is probably my favorite cabbage right now.  I start these from seed indoors in June, set them out in August, and they mature January-March.  Although last year we had one that got really huge and we ended up harvesting it in July – I think that was because I started them too late, in July rather than June, and it didn’t get enough growing done before the winter to mature in the cool months.  The result was a somewhat bitter taste, so it went into the slow cooker rather than becoming slaw or salad.

NOID lavender and Liriodendron and dogwood leaves

My neighbor’s Liriodendron is a great tree.  Gives us many leaves and nice things to look at, like this.

Lastly, I felt the need to record what Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ is doing.  I have wanted one of these, specifically this cultivar, for a very long time and when I was up at Cistus in May of this year, I think it was the day after my birthday, I found one with a really nice tall, open, arching form.  It’s 8′ tall now.  I’d show you the whole tree but it’s sunny now so absolutely impossible to photograph.  And it was super windy this morning, which also makes for challenging photgraphy! Anyway, the point is the leaf color:

Weird, no? This tree had a lot of mole activity around/under it this year, and of course I filled in those mole tunnels with that same super-rich soil that killed the Lomatia.  I wonder if that is why the leaf color is still so very green?

That’s all the pictures I took but I planted a lot more stuff, including:

Santolina virens ‘Lemon Fizz’ from Ace Hardware on Woodstock, great garden store in the back!
Geranium cinererum ‘Lawrence Flatman’, Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’, Garrya elliptica, and Crithmum maritimum, all from Xera Plants
Oxalis oregana ‘Klamath Ruby’ and Vancouveria hexandra, from Cistus Nursery tough love sale

Happy fall planting! The weather is off-the-charts awesome for it.


Australia, June 2017

Years ago if you’d asked me, “What’s your favorite garden aesthetic?” I probably would have said something about lush, tropicalesque, big foliage, dramatic plants, etc.  Over the course of the last couple years that has all changed, in part because of lovely things I’ve seen on the internet, three years of experience and observation in my current garden, and then this trip down under.

I’d been to Australia twice before, both times to subtropical Sydney.  The first time I was maybe 11 or 12 and I was just floored by the fact that everyone had houseplants growing in their front yards.  Aside from that though, those trips weren’t particularly inspiring with regard to outdoor gardening.  I realize not everyone is like this but for me, plants I can never grow are only interesting to a point.  The practical gardener wins out over the curious botanist.

But this trip, we went up to the mountains and spent some time in Leura.  You can get there by train, takes 2 hours. My aunt Ann and her partner Ross have a house that is literally across the street from the Blue Mountains National Park.  And there are trails! Wonderful trails! But first:

Sandstone plateaus and the forested valleys between them.

Ross is an outdoorsman, although he might have a different title for himself, that’s my impression and it’s meant as an honorable term. He is really fun to talk with — he has great knowledge of history, botany, ecology, gardening, and more I am certain I have yet to discover.  He told me stories about people going missing in these mountains (happens all the time).  One guy who proved particularly elusive was finally found caught in a tree – he had fallen, presumably, off one of these sheer cliffs or into one of the numerous narrow slot canyons, and landed in the branches of a Eucalypt. *shudder*

Eucalyptus oreadea, E. piperita, E. sieberi, E. sclerophylla, and Angophora costata seemed to be the main Eucalypts here, comprising the highest canopy layer.

I think it’s interesting how similar the overall forest canopy color is to ours at home, when viewed from afar/above.  But these trees are not pointy conifers, so the texture is quite different.

One of the first things I saw when we got off the train was – what? – familiar plants.  Hydrangea, Bergenia, little jonquils, some kind of prostrate Juniper.  Where in the world AM I?

It was June, so akin to our December I suppose, and look who is flowering!


Oh-HO, how did YOU get here?!?

Garrya elliptica!

Well it turns out (depending on who you ask, really) European-descended Australians have this long-standing historical aversion to their native plants.  Until more recently, there has been an alignment toward European and North American plants, probably something to do with original white settlers being so incredibly distanced from anything familiar at all, and feeling a strong need for the comforts — and plants — of home.   Another story might say that there wasn’t contempt for the bush but rather a fascination, but at the same time an unfamiliarity, and an interest in finding out what plants from home (the UK) might survive in OZ.  I’m no anthropologist, so correct me if you have a better story.

All that said, in 2017, the 100th anniversary of my Nan’s birth (my stepfather is from Australia and Nan is his mum), walking through the neighborhoods of Leura I saw laurel hedges, camellias everywhere, Japanese maples, junipers and cypresses, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, azaleas, hellebores, English ivy even and OMG that Garrya elliptica! And a scant few native Australian plants.  You would hardly have known you weren’t in the Pacific Northwest but for everyone driving on the left side of the road.  I guess I get it – I mean part of the reason I feel so compelled to plant Australian plants in my garden is to remind myself of the place, and people I love there.

Side note: at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney  (to which I made three visits despite earlier proclamation of lack of interest in subtropical can’t-grow-em plants), there was a rather fascinating exhibit? planting? what do you call it? Section of the garden that included a lot of plants that Indigenous Australians used for various purposes such as food, medicine, material, shelter, etc., and some plantings that I can only describe as re-enactments of the first attempts at gardening by Europeans upon arrival.  I learned that they were so bereft of understanding and experience with Australian climate, weather, and soils, that they failed miserably in all aspects of food production and had to send ships to South Africa to bring food, at least until they started figuring it out.  Wow guys. But wait, what does this mean for PNW gardeners who like Australian plants? I’ll tell you.  The soil is basically 50% less fertile than our native volcanic mudflow loamy stuff.  FIFTY PERCENT LESS.  That’s what Proteaceae and Eucalyptus want.  Cheap dates, right? Nice work if you can get it…

Anyway back to Leura.

I picked up a book titled Native Plants of the Blue Mountains, which is a brief but fascinating handbook which covers about 220 plants and divides them into several habitat types, which were very apparent on our hikes.  We started with what is called “heath” – this is the habitat on the tops of the sandstone mesas, which has incredibly thin, almost nonexistent soil (it’s really just sandstone), and is dominated by Banksia and Hakea as the largest overstory.

Epacris pulchella, I think. After flowering, which would be midsummer-ish.

I took almost every single photo in portrait mode which I would not have done if I’d been planning on blogging … Sorry for the inevitable long scroll.

In this photo, see all the black stuff? Banksia branches and seed pods.  This area experienced a fire about 5 years ago.  Fire is necessary and rejuvenative and scary as hell for humans who live here in OZ.  Same as for us in the North American west. Also, Banksia seeds only open when burned, just like some of our pines.

Styphelia tubiflora. And do you see the brilliant color on the tip growth of that little Epacris shoot there? I think that’s just astonishing.



Baeckea utilis?

This little Baeckea was a fairly common sight.  Always sort of rangy, like so many Australian shrubs.  Look at all those Banksia serrata leaves on the ground. That’s the most common Banksia here.

By the way this is more or less the order in which I took these pics, so it’s kind of like you’re just taking a walk with me along this trail.

Caustis flexuosa, a very charming and brilliant green sedge.  I’d grow that, wouldn’t you?

As with any ecosystem where fire is part of the cycle, Australia has pioneer species, and this Pittosporum undulatum is one of them.  It’s actually a pretty nice shrub to small tree with the appearance and habit you’d expect from a fairly large Pittosporum (they pronounce it “pit-TOSS-prum” so now I do too because I like it that way).


Moss! Rock walls dripping with water! This was not uncommon at all.  I think yes, they do drip all year. This is not a summer-drought climate at all.  It is warm temperate eastern maritime (we are about 70 miles west of the Pacific Ocean), and rainfall is about 60 inches a year.


The first Banksia I saw is B. ericifolia. Difficult to photograph, so you get two pictures.  First, the flower in all its glory.

How big is it? Like a 12-oz beer can.

And here we see its typical open branching habit. This is a young plant, probably sprouted from seed right after that fire which would make it 5 years old.


Banksia serrata front-center and the blackened tree on left. Smooth lanceolate leaves are Acacia melanoxylon. Caustis flexuosa and Allocausarina nana knit the whole scene together.


Acacia terminalis, Allocausarina nana, and the blackened skeletons of Banksia serrata. I love this so, so much.


Dead old men! They have done their duty.


Pimelea linifolia subsp. linoides. The fine foliage belongs to Dillwynia retorta, I think.


Pimelea linifolia subsp. linoides again, this time with Allocausarina nana and this combination was significantly more stunning in person.


The trail.  Those gleaming stark white Eucalpytus branches in the distance…


Mmmm geology.  More of the trail.  Seeping cliffside.

Epacris reclinata grows out of the wall.

Oh hello, what are you? The thing on left I haven’t figured out.  The smaller on on the right is Dracophyllum secundum.


We came to a slot canyon.  Fortunately, there’s a bridge across it!

Those are not small trees down there. It goes down maybe 100 feet.


These next two photos are an attempt to get a sense of what this part feels like.  It is quite dense through here.


Eucalyptus sclerophylla I think, and Banksia spinulosa.

Here’s why they call it “scribbly gum”. Insect larvae do this.  The one on the left is the clearest example where you can see it start out narrower (down lower), and then the trail gets wider as the larvae continues burrowing and eating and growing.

This has got to be Angophora costata.

In here somewhere I decided to look at the soil.  It’s almost nothing but sandstone! Very gritty.  My hand looks very pink, probably because it was somewhat cold.


Look at this B. spinulosa flower.  I should say inflorescence.  This species tends to make a very handsome shrub with a denser habit than most Banksias, though this plant was growing in full shade so it had a much more open habit.  Those black hairpins just kill me.


Now in a wetter, closed forest, there was a bank of Blechnum wattsii along the trail.  This one frond in particular stood out.  Note the shreds of Eucalypt bark all over the place.

Tasmannia insipida here.  See how much darker, and wetter, and fernier it is down here? This is what it’s like in the bottom of those deep canyons.

Wish I had taken more photos down there.  I think my phone died.

Back up out of the canyon, next day, here’s one of my favorites! Lambertia formosa, the Mountain Devil.  I failed to photograph the seed pods, which look like little horned monster-heads, but I did bring a couple of them home (ssh!). It’s super-neato flowers start out hot pink with lighter pink ruffly bits at the ends, then they fade to this orange-ish color, then finally they dry out and turn a beautiful rusty burnt sienna color.

This can be none other than Xanthorrhoea media.  The mullein of the Blue Mountains, in so many ways.  They make a big tall flower spike like mullein, too, 7 or 8 feet tall.






Banksia serrata


Grevillea aspleniifolia, this would have been planted (it’s near an info center/restaurant/gift shop)


Bauera rubioides


I really love this plant.  Allocasuarina distyla? I’m not sure.


And this is .. I have no idea but isn’t it lovely?  There’s a Banksia out there in the distance, probably B. spinulosa by the habit, and that’s Ross over there on the trail with the hat.  I’ll let this be my parting shot.


If you got this far, I’m grateful and you’re a plant nerd.  I hope you enjoyed it.