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Creating an Australian Garden

by Gordon Rowland

Creating an Australian Garden by Angus Stewart (Allen & Unwin, 255pp., $49.99)

 This latest book by ABC TV Gardening Australia presenter Angus Stewart, takes the reader step-by-step through each stage of designing a new garden or redesigning an old one.

 Illustrated with colour photographs throughout, Creating an Australian Garden is packed with detailed information on soil preparation, irrigation, drainage, water saving, planting techniques, fertiliser use and much more. Whether you're a complete beginner or a seasoned professional, there's plenty here you need to know that you may not already know.

 So far, so fine.

 Until you reach the ‘Native Plant Cultivar List’. This unrepresentative collection will disappoint the eco-aware reader intent on protecting the local ecology or integrating the local flora.

 Sydney readers, for example, will lament the omission of desirable locals such as Grevillea sericea, G. speciosa, Lambertia formosa and many other species, from groundcover plants to trees, that are steadily disappearing from our gardens, beneath a deluge of exotics and hybrids.

 Nursery-bred hybrids dominate the Native Plant Cultivar List that comprises 85 species in 194 cultivated varieties, out-numbered by 291 garden or nursery-bred hybrids (including no less than 96 grevilleas!), and one naturally occurring hybrid, Banksia ericifolia x B. spinulosa.

 Many production nurseries breed genetically different species to concoct new hybrids – regardless of the parent species natural distribution – for characteristics such as enlarged or double flowers, novel or intensified flower colour and/or extended flowering. A typical example is Grevillea ‘Superb’, a nursery-bred hybrid between G. bipinnatifida (endemic to south-west Western Australia) and G. banksii (endemic to coastal southern Queensland).

 The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘native’ as originating naturally in a particular country or region, as animals or plants; found in nature rather than produced artificially’; an animal or plant indigenous to a particular region.

 As nursery-bred hybrids do not originate naturally and are not found in nature, to label them as native is therefore misleading.

 Why should this matter? It matters for several reasons:

  • Every nursery-bred hybrid displaces a local species, thereby contributing to a shrinking gene pool and loss of biological diversity.

  • Selective breeding of hybrid plants with enlarged or double flowers reduces or obliterates the protein-rich, pollen-producing stamen. This process usually renders the plant sterile and of little or no food value to nectar-feeding birds. Where nectar is present, pollinating insects may be unable to reach it, rendering the plant of little or no value to pollinating insects and insectivorous birds.

  • Hybrid native plants with enlarged flowers and/or extended flowering, grevilleas in particular, attract territorial nectar feeders such as the Yellow Wattlebird and Noisy Miner that are neither vulnerable nor endangered. These aggressive birds often monopolise the surrounding area and drive out smaller birds such as the vulnerable Painted Honeyeater and Pied Honeyeater, the endangered Regent Honeyeater and other birds that now face serious decline or extinction.

 The aesthetics of nursery-bred hybrids with enlarged flowers or novel colours conflicts with aesthetic principles, deduced from nature. (Still, beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder.) Yet when unexamined views are challenged and examined, they sometimes change. In my experience, the change is always in the same direction: Nursery hybrids like these seldom appeal to people already inspired by the unspoilt beauty of wildflowers. Conversely, once the eye is opened to the subtle beauty of wildflowers, the allure of nursery hybrids tends to fade. Which raises the question: Are we looking for beauty in all the wrong places?

In her 1958 classic Garden Design, the late, great landscape architect Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997), addresses this design-related issue:

 "One of the more subtle qualities of plants is a certain relationship in colour and proportion between the stem, the leaves and the flowers, and the poise of the flowers upon their stems. It is these qualities which give the plant species a grace often lacking in the garden hybrids . .  . The intensifying of flower colours by hybridisation can also throw out the subtle harmony of the wild plant."

 In his posthumously published La Botanique, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), reaches much the same conclusion. He dismisses hybrid plants with enlarged or double flowers, as "nature disfigured by man. Waste no time examining them", he cautions: "Nature is no longer there; she refuses to be reproduced by such deformed monsters."

 Aesthetics aside, Rousseau wasn’t entirely correct. A significant minority of nursery-bred hybrids do produce pollen, and these pose a further threat to the environment: Birds that feed on them may pollinate local native species, thus polluting the local gene pool. For example, CSIRO scientists have discovered that pollen from fertile, nursery-bred hybrid grevilleas in gardens close to Wee Jasper NSW bushland, has contaminated the rare Grevillea iaspicula.

 So why, despite their disadvantages, does the nursery industry continue to promote these products? The short answer is increased profits, as the nursery industry follows the manufacturing industry’s necessarily competitive ‘economies of scale’ and ‘export or die’ business model.

 Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) are exclusive commercial rights (like patents and copyright), administered under the Plant Breeder's Rights Act 1994. Plant breeders have exclusive rights to reproduce the plant, offer it for sale and export it.

 By promoting these plants through media exposure and eye-catching labels, nurseries that sell them gain competitive advantage, albeit to the detriment of wildlife and the environment.  

 The time is ripe for a cooperative business model supported by continuing public consultation and education, and a cooperative marketing campaign. This will involve establishing an eco-aware, Australia-wide network of nurseries offering an informed selection of desirable local and regional species, suited to garden cultivation.

 To quote Griffith Review editor Dr Julianne Schultz in her introduction to the February 2011 edition, ‘Ways of Seeing’, we need to develop “a hunger for . . . understanding and respect for indigenous and traditional ways of life, for pathways that make it possible to create a thriving future by working within sustainable environmental limits.”


 I hope that Angus will address the above issues in a revised edition of his otherwise excellent Creating an Australian Garden.

 By replacing his list of cultivars and nursery hybrids with bio-regional lists of selected indigenous species (along the lines of the Sydney region lists at www.ilda.com.au), Angus will score a win for the environment, a win for regional identity and a win for aesthetics.


February 21, 2011
Category: ILDA RSS

5 Posted Comments

  • Gil Teague  Mar 07, 2011 @ 4:59pm wrote:

    Thanks for your usual forthright and stimulating comments, Gordon. It's difficult to argue with them, but I would like to make the following points: * As a beginning gardener, I was certainly attracted by larger flowers and brighter colours, and maybe Angus's book is aimed more at this 'entry-level' market. * Much of the gardening scene internationally revolves around the sale and use of nursery-bred hybrids. I suggest humbly that the use of Australian plants by gardeners in Australia has been restricted by the lack of these hybrids on the market to date. If there were more hybrids available, gardeners in Australia are more likely to use more Australian plants. * I'm not aware of many concerted breeding programs with Australian plants as yet. Angus with his Anigozanthos and Peter Ollerenshaw with his Leptospermum are two from recent years. Maybe other readers can let me know. * There is a dichotomy among much of the gardening fraternity between NATIVES v EXOTICS. I suspect the availability of more garden worthy hybrids of Australian plants (and I'm certainly not suggesting that all the hybrids on the market are of that quality) will help break down that barrier.

  • Jennifer Crone  Mar 07, 2011 @ 9:39am wrote:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about Angus's book. I bought it and was very disappointed with it once I looked at it properly. As we know Angus makes a living from breeding hybrids. One can't help but think that the book is really an advertisement for his own products. Also, none of the sample gardens in the book are gardens made for living in. They are all the products of plant specialists.

  • Joël  Mar 07, 2011 @ 8:35am wrote:

    thanks Gordon, you have an ongoing battle raising this very important but rarely discussed issue. I think back with a cringe tp some of my previous gardening efforts, carefully planting open-pollinated vegetables, while blissfully planting hybrid "natives" in my ignorance!

  • Rachel Bardsley  Feb 27, 2011 @ 6:19pm wrote:

    Thank you for another interesting and informative newsletter.

    Unfortunately the general public are making ignorant choices when shopping for plants. To help them make informed decisions, ornamental plant labels should state the species and its natural range. In the case of hybrids, the parents species and their natural ranges.

    If these are unknown, this should be included on the label. Food manufacturers have been made responsible for labelling their products, likewise nurseries should be forced to do the same.

  • Harvest Seeds & Native Plants  Feb 23, 2011 @ 1:21pm wrote:

    Hi Gordon, Thank you so very much for bringing up the insidious spread of hybrids. We must make the public aware of what they are doing when they buy hybrids. Be warned because, as you say, there are many nurseries who profit highly with so called 'new' native species! I am talking to our customers regarding this but would love to see a poster to warn customers of this threat to our environment.

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