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Notes from a Plant Nut

Lisa Van CleefLisa Van Cleef's life mission is to spark a passion for plants in people. Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Lisa sows the seeds that inspire curiosity and a love for the plant world. A long-time SFBG Nursery volunteer, she wrote the Green Gardener column for the SFGate, has worked with the Conservatory of Flowers and The Nature Conservancy. Today, she supports the Society's marketing efforts.

Head Down Under


Banksia praemorsa
Banksia praemorsa

Callistemum sp.
Callistemon sp.

Woody seed pod
Woody seed pod



It's all about textures and shapes. You can stand in any one spot in our Australian Garden and see dozens of wildly different shapes and textures without moving an inch. Oddly curling flowers, curiously angular leaves, woody barrel-shaped seedpods clinging to the branch like barnacles on a pier. The Australian garden is an awe-inspiring tapestry of leaves and flowers with some of the most fascinating shapes and textures in the plant kingdom.

This is a great time of year to get lost in the Australian Garden. Many of the plants are coming into bloom and letting their freak flags fly high, to quote Jimi Hendrix. From the Kangaroo's paws to the banksias, to the grevilleas; from tiny needles, to sword-like grasses to jagged-tooth leaves it's all about shapes, and the weirder the better in this garden.

Who's Hot

The banksias are some of my favorites in this garden. Where asters gather all their tiny flowers into the center surrounded by petals, the banksia gathers its flowers in an upright, chubby tube shape. Holding their cylindrical flower clusters high like the Statue of Liberty, these are simply arresting.

The grevilleas are looking hot right now. These are extravagant, fun flowers to check out. Talk about defying stereotypes – this does not look like any other flower. These are from the protea family, just like the banksias.

Another group to seek out are the bottlebrushes. We Californians have grown accustomed to these oddities – they're used as street trees in many parts of the state. Yet their ubiquity ought not blind us to their oddballed-ness. These are some strange looking plants. The woody seed clusters, the hundreds of stamens on each flower cluster, even its scent is unusual.

And don't leave without noticing the lilly pilly tree. It's almost entirely covered with its hot pink fruit; you have to work to see a leaf.

Another of our Mediterranean Siblings

Most of the plants in this garden come from the Mediterranean region of Australia, located in the southwest corner of the continent. A lot of what you're looking at on these plants are adaptations to the long dry summers: thick and small leaves that reduce evaporation and silvery colored leaves that reflect light. The woody seed capsules? They only open during the wild fires that are a regular occurrence in Mediterranean habitats. It has been said that after the Oakland fire of 1991, bottlebrush were seen sprouting throughout the damaged landscape.

Check out the Australian Garden this month. Bring your camera, sketchbook or just your interest in the infinite shapes and textures in nature.

Back to June 2010 newsletter >>