Flowers of Australia

When Captain Cook reached Australia on his first voyage, the two botanists who had joined the expedition, Dr Solander and Joseph Banks, were amazed at the richness of the flora they discovered and gave the name Botany Bay to their main anchorage. They soon realized that many of the plants they found were quite unlike anything they had seen before, while even those which belonged to recognized botanical families were native species and unknown elsewhere.

Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, although botanically in the same area, show considerable differences from each other. The climate ranges from tropical to temperate and the flora is as varied as the geography, which includes tropical rain forest, high mountains, fertile plains and vast stretches of arid desert country.

A great many of the Australian plants are specially adapted to withstand the rigours of a climate with long periods of drought. Most of the wattles for example do not have true leaves, but flattened leaf stalks instead which evaporate less moisture. Many other shrubs have either very small or thin needle-shaped leaves, and the foliage is often tough and leathery or covered in a woolly coating to prevent shrivelling.

The flowers are seldom large in size, but often very numerous. They produce a mass of pollen and plenty of nectar to attract bees, like the clustered blooms of the so-called bottle-brush shrubs and the extraordinary cylindrical flower heads of the banksias. Two other unique Australian plants are the Christmas bush whose flowers are white at first and then turn a clear red, and the yellow-flowered Christmas tree which belongs to the mistletoe Family and is a root parasite, although it grows to tree size.

Of all the indigenous plants in Australia the grey-green eucalyptus trees or gums are the most typical and give the landscape its special character, while the acacias or wattles accentuate the sunshine with their fluffy yellow flowers clustered in tiny balls or elongated tassels.

Apart from the wattles, a great many other plants of the pea Family (Leguminosae) are very common in Australia and appear in many different forms. One of the most vivid is Sturt’s desert pea, Qianthus formosus, which grows in the dry interior of the continent, trailing over the ground and displaying its big red flowers which are marked with a raised black blotch. A close relative, the equally colourful parrot-bill or red kowhai (Qianthus puniceus), is a native of New Zealand and so is the yellow kowhai (Sophora tetraptera).

There are over a hundred different bush peas belonging to several separate genera, most of them carrying yellow, orange or brownish flowers. They take the place of the brooms of Europe and Asia and are particularly plentiful in Western Australia where they colour the landscape in spring. Several blue and purple bush peas, known as hoveas, are noted for their beauty. Among the trailing and climbing peas is the purple Kennedy pea, the rather sinister-looking black Kennedy pea and the red runner which often covers the ground like a carpet. The genus Swainsonia includes several twining peas, one of them being the dangerous darling poison pea which can be fatal to cattle and horses. Mount Rosea in the State of Victoria, received its name because during November and December it glows with the flowers of the rosy bush pea, a rare and local plant.

Many of the dry desert areas of Australia have very sparse vegetation, consisting largely of A triplex species. This is known locally as salt bush, and it grows together with native grasses which have the ability to recover and grow again after long spells of drought. When rain does come, these deserts can be transformed by masses of small annual flowers which spring up from seed. Several kinds of everlasting flowers are also native to Australia and grow in great profusion. Kangaroo paws are found in Western Australia and the red and green form has been adopted as the emblem of the state. These plants belong to the Family Haemodoraceae and have hairy flowers which are gathered together in clusters. There are several different kinds, including the strange black kangaroo paw, whose flowers are yellowish-green inside.

In Queensland and the Northern Territory epiphytic orchids are found growing on forest trees. However the terrestrial kinds are far more numerous because the Australian climate is predominantly dry and in the west a great many fascinating orchids of the genus Caladenia occur. Many of them are blue, which is an unusual colour in orchids, and they carry surprisingly large flowers on very slender stalks.

Some of the strangest of the Australian plants are the various members of the genus Xanthorrhoea, known as grass trees or black boys. There are several different kinds and they all start off by looking like tufts of coarse grass. Gradually their trunks rise higher as the old leaves die away, and the base of the plant is left bare with only a tuft of thick greyish leaves on top, looking like a huge head of untidy hair. Some kinds never grow more than two or three feet high while others, in old age, may reach twenty feet. An elongated spike of flowers springs from the centre of the leafy tuft. The individual flowers are quite small with protruding creamy white stamens, and they lie deeply embedded in protective chaffy bracts.

Two of the most important plant groups in New Zealand are the tree ferns and the manukas. These are shrubs of the genus Leptospermum, often referred to as tea trees because the early settlers in New Zealand used to brew a substitute tea from the leaves. The New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, is another typical plant which belongs to the agave family. The long narrow leaves contain strong fibres which were used by the Maoris for weaving cloth and cord.

A great many New Zealand plants belong to the daisy family. The daisy bushes (Olearia) and the bush groundsels (Senecio) are numerous and many of these are now grown in gardens in Europe and America. Although Australia has many notable blue flowers, including the famous sky-blue leschenaultia, New Zealand strangely enough has no blue herbaceous flowers at all. There are a few yellow ones, but the great majority are white, including forget-me-nots, lobelias and some of the buttercups, and most of the interesting native alpines. One particularly strange New Zealand plant, Raoulia eximia, is known as the vegetable sheep because it forms huge mounds of densely packed woolly leaves which from a distance look just like resting sheep. Another little creeping plant with blue-green leaves, called the New Zealand burr (Acaena novae zealandiae) covers itself with brick-red spiny seed heads which are a great nuisance to the sheep farmers when they get tangled in fleeces. This plant is often grown in English gardens as a ground cover plant but does not appear to set fertile seed away from its native country.

Morrison feather flower

Verticordia nitens

Family Myrtaceae

Endemic to Western Australia, the fifty Verticordia species are among the most unusual and charming of the Australian flowers. Their dainty, fluffy appearance is due to five heavily fringed calyx lobes which surround and set off the petals of the flowers. The colour may be white, pink, yellow, red or scarlet. In Australia they are often grown as garden plants and their general effect is not unlike that of massed Michaelmas daisies. Seed production is poor and germination uncertain, but cuttings will strike quite easily so there is no problem over propagation.

Beach lily

Crinum pedimculatum

Family Amaryllidaceae

The crinums are tropical plants found in many parts of the world and there are half a dozen or so species which occur in Australia and on some of the Pacific Islands. This lovely white flower was grows profusely on Lord Howe Island in the south-west Pacific. The wide, tapering leaves are dark green, and like all the crinums it grows from a very large bulb. It is nearly always found on beaches quite close to the sea, and is spread from island to island by its light, corky seeds, which can float for long distances without coming to harm in salt water.

Lobster claw

Clianthus puniceus

Family Leguminosae

This striking shrub, with its curious flowers reminiscent of red lobster claws, is a native of the North Island of New Zealand. The Maoris cultivated it long before white men arrived on the scene and called the shrub kowhai. It is also known as the parrot-bill or the glory pea and is now cultivated in gardens in many parts of the world. It will even flower in England in the mild south-western counties, especially if it is trained against a warm wall. It was first discovered in New Zealand by the explorer William Dampier, but was not introduced to England until 1831. It is now virtually extinct as a wild plant.


Leptospermum scoparium

Family Myrtaceae

The tea trees or manukas are very widespread in New Zealand and vary tremendously in size and appearance. In good soil they may grow up to twenty-five feet in height, whereas in mountain areas, in exposed positions and on poor soil, they may be forced by circumstances to creep along the ground. The flowers are most commonly white, and when the shrubs are in full bloom they look from a distance rather like the hawthorn bushes in England. Pink, or even rose-red forms also occur, but are less common. They are in no way related to the true tea tree, but have been given this common name because early settlers brewed a drink from their leaves.

Hebe speciosa hybrid ‘Sapphire’

Family Scrophulariaceae

There are about 150 different species of Hebe, all of them evergreen shrubs and mostly native to New Zealand. They were formerly classified as veronicas, but are now considered to be a separate genus. They vary considerably in size and appearance, and some of them have only very small leaves like scales which clasp the stems. The small flowers may be white, blue, violet, purple, pink or rosy red and they are gathered together in racemes, which are sometimes quite long and very decorative. A great many improved hybrids have been raised. They can only be grown in mild climates, and in Britain most of them are hardy by the sea.

Chatham Island forget-me-not

Myosotidium hortensis

Family Boraginaceae

This beautiful plant, sometimes called the Chatham Island lily, is found wild only on this Pacific island about 500 miles east of New Zealand. It once grew in profusion along the sandy beaches, but grazing sheep and rooting pigs completely destroyed it in many places, so now it only survives here and there in inaccessible places as a wild plant. The large, deeply veined leaves act as funnels which conduct rain water to the roots. It needs a moist climate and an acid soil to thrive, and has been grown successfully in gardens not only in New Zealand but also in Ireland and western Scotland.

Wattle or mimosa

Acacia cyanophylla

Family Leguminosae

To be able to recognize and name all the different Australian wattles would take a lifetime of experience. There are nearly 600 different species, ranging from quite low shrubs like the kangaroo thorn to fair-sized trees like the blackwood. Most of them have very small yellow flowers which are gathered together in fluffy balls or tassels, so that when a bush is in full flower it looks completely yellow from a distance. Many of the wattles have no true leaves but merely flattened leaf stalks or stems, which serve the same purpose and are sometimes a beautiful silvery colour.

Albany banksia

Banksia coccinea

Family Proteaceae

The strange trees and shrubs are known as banksias in memory of Sir Joseph Banks, the English naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first journey to the Pacific. They are found throughout Australia, but most of the fifty odd species are native to the western regions. They are often called honeysuckles, because their large cone-shaped flower heads provide an abundance of nectar for bees. The beauty of the flower heads, which are sometimes a foot tall, is due to the long styles which protrude from the closely packed, tiny flowers. The evergreen serrated leaves are frequently grey or brownish on the under surface.

Borya septentrionalis

Family Liliaceac

All the Borya species are entirely endemic to Australia. One natural habitat is on the Lamb’s Head Mountain in Queensland, where it can grow at an altitude of 4,000 feet, in very shallow soil on top of rock. It is a member of the lily family, and is rather low and shrubby. The red colouring which is the main beauty of the plant is not derived from the flowers, but from the tufts of young leaves. The flowers, which are quite small and white and surrounded by dark bracts, are collected together in heads which stand up above the foliage.

Beaufort myrtle


Family Myrtaceae

This beautiful evergreen shrub was discovered in Western Australia and when it arrived in England in 1803 it was named after Mary Duchess of Beaufort. It needs a warm climate and cannot be grown out of doors in countries where there is a danger of winter frost. Botanically it stands fairly close to the Callistemon species, but the small, close-set leaves are rather reminiscent of heather. It is also known as the swamp bottle-brush and grows in open country on sandy soil which becomes very wet in winter.

Red-flowered gum

Eucalyptus ficifolia

Family Myrtaceae

This is the most colourful of the eucalyptus trees, but quite small in stature compared to the giants like Eucalyptus regnans which can grow 350 feet tall. There are about 500 different kinds of eucalyptus, most of them natives of Australia. When young, they carry very attractive juvenile foliage which is different from the mature trees. The flowers consist of a mass of stamens, and are usually white but occasionally yellow as in the yate, a tree noted for its tough wood. Many of the eucalypts provide valuable timber and during the nineteenth century blocks of their wood were used for paving the streets in London.

16. October 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Flower Garden | Tags: , , | 1 comment

One Comment

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