What does a typical Australian garden look like? Full of native plants that are easy on the water, yet attract insect and birds? Full of native plants that grow well in local soil? Full of native plants that reflect our Australian national identity?
No. Whatever an Australian garden might look like – whether it contains a vegie patch, lawn, fruit trees, paving, decking, a sandpit for the kids – chances are that native plants are likely to be the seasoning rather than the main meal when it comes to garden features.
We might have a lilly pilly in the corner, or use it as hedging, we might have some grevilleas for a splash of colour or to attract the birds. But generally, and this is a huge generalisation, we’ll use natives sparingly, among introduced garden favourites that scream British garden heritage.
We might love the idea of gum trees in the bush, with their silhouette against an intense blue sky, and their blue haze on a hot summer’s day. But in our suburban backyards, we tend to prefer something a bit more manageable and a lot less likely to drop a limb onto our new kitchen extension.
It seems that after a century of garden writers and horticulturists encouraging us to plant natives, we mainly cling to a European garden aesthetic.
Why did this happen?
Associate Professor Katie Holmes from La Trobe University in Melbourne explains our complex and changing relationship with native plants in her 2011 paper ‘Growing Australian Landscapes: the use and meanings of native plants in gardens in twentieth-century Australia’.
In her paper, she charts how Australia’s changing relationship with Britain began to forge different views of home, landscape and garden.
That relationship, she argues in the journal Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, is not as straightforward as some might believe.
The Federation of Australia in 1901 didn’t cause citizens to rip out their rose bushes and plant natives in an act of nationalism overnight.
It took almost a century for native plants to be commonly available in mainstream garden centres and even today, many generalist gardening books devote just a chapter to natives.
On a personal note, I remember just 10 years ago ordering a native-only bouquet for a friend. The florist had to put in a special order as she couldn’t remember anyone asking for one before.
It seems that for many gardeners, exotics are still the norm, despite the various reasons we’ve had to plant or buy natives.
Those reasons, Holmes writes, have changed over the years.
Natives were once seen as straggly, wild and not conforming to European standards of good form or beauty. She writes:
“They could be encountered on bush walks, or perhaps in the botanic gardens, or at the annual wildflower show, and the odd specimen might find its way into suburbia, but the garden did not need to be a place where pride of country was reflected, that was something best projected onto a place far removed from the home garden.”
But by the 1930s, growing native plants was increasingly being seen as an expression of nationalistic sentiment.
Some people tried to ‘save’ native wildflowers from extinction, yanked them from the bush and sheltered them in the garden, ‘taming’ them in the process.
Holmes draws parallels with white Australians’ other act of ‘saving natives’, the flawed policy of ‘saving’ and ‘taming’ Aboriginal people, now considered a shameful episode in Australia’s history.
By the 1960s, things had changed. Holmes writes how designers created bush gardens – with their tall gum trees, ground cover, banksias, grevilleas, acacias, ferns etc – that needed no mowing or weeding, apparently in tune with Australia’s relaxed, easy-going lifestyle.
“Both the garden and the bush were being reinvented here. No longer threatening and foreign, native plants are rendered almost childlike, their wildness now seen as charming and endearing. When the bush became garden, it also became familiarised.”
Although stunning examples of bush gardens exist today, in general few Australians took to them. Instead, they preferred to mix and match natives with exotics, a trend that continues.
Then the narrative changed again. Rather than a call to national pride, a call to save plants from extinction or a call to bring the bush to the garden, we began considering native plants ‘at home’ and ‘natural’.
Today, we talk about natives’ suitability to Australia’s harsh climate, particularly their ability to withstand drought, fires and poor soils. Native plants become our gardens’ tough and resilient inhabitants, reflecting the popular image of the rough, knockabout Aussie.
Overlaying that narrative is the ability for natives to attract insects and birds to the garden. Here natives become the enabler, the tool, the facilitator of pollination.
What a lot of hurdles native plants have had to overcome before taking their place in the average backyard.
They’ve had to contend with Eurocentric ideas of beauty, then shrug off the wild and untamed label. That’s before their ability to withstand drought and attract birds and insects became a selling point.
It’s a wonder they made it at all.