Mediterranean Garden Society

Exploring the Plants of Western Australia

by Eleftherios Dariotis
photographs by Eleftherios Dariotis

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 112, April 2023

The photo at the top of this page shows Pityrodia axillaris, a critically endangered species and a rather strange member of the Lamiaceae Eleftherios Dariotis)

Eleftherios Dariotis is a gardener, plantsman and botanist based in Peania. He writes:

I have always been curious to explore the vegetation of Western Australia. And there was a driving force behind this curiosity: I wanted not only to marvel at all the botanical treasures I have been drooling over for years in books and photographs, but mainly to find answers to the gardening questions that have occurred to me while trying to grow Australian plants in my own garden on the outskirts of Athens.

I have long known that low pH, low phosphorus levels and sandy soil, prerequisites that many Aussie plants love, were never going to be conditions that I could meet on my garden’s alkaline red clay, but then why is it that some genera such as Eucalyptus, Acacia and Callistemon perform perfectly throughout Greece and some not common species in genera like Correa, Eremophila and Melaleuca behave equally well, avoiding the classic lifespan of ‘three months to death’ that other species follow once they are planted from their pots into the garden? Most importantly, are there any other plants that could adapt to life in Greece?

Inevitably, when I was offered the chance to do a two-week road trip in Western Australia I jumped for joy. I laid aside all my fears about life-threatening spiders, giant lizards and venomous snakes, bought a pair of well-insulated trekking shoes and got on the plane for the very long flight to Perth. There was another treat that would make this trip ideal. My travel companion would be Neville Marchant, former Director of the Western Australian Herbarium and the leading force behind the formation of FloraBase, recognised as one of the most comprehensive and perfectly laid out scientific flora websites worldwide.

Grevillea armigera, aka prickly toothbrushes, is easily distinguished between others in this hugely varied genus, due to its black styles and yellow flowers

Within a few minutes of arriving in Perth and settling into a nice room overlooking the Swan River in East Perth, I decided to go out for a walk along the river to breathe in the city. Little did I know that I was in for my first jaw-dropping experience… My hotel was just at the edge of Victoria Gardens. This is a park established in the 1990s and extending along the river up to Perth Stadium. The backdrop of stylish, colourfully-painted suburban apartment complexes could just not get my attention as in front of me, in the park’s borders, an array of carefully tended native Australian plants, from dozens of Grevillea and Chamaelaucium cultivars, rolling clipped mounds of silver Leucophyta brownii and pink Thryptomene and velvety kangaroo paws (Anigozanthus cultivars), poked out everywhere. In dark spots under the large corymbias the shade was radiating with colour provided by humble pink thomasias, lush Hibbertia scandens and sparkling Chorizema cordatum with their happy pink and orange pea flowers dangling in the wind. Was it that spring was in full flow, was it that I was expecting to come here for ages, I’ll never know, but everything was looking perfect and as it should be in the middle of a park within the city of Perth.

A few hundred metres further away I noticed a road bordered by wide strips of soil, lightly mulched with eucalypt wood chips, buzzing with the pink annual Rhodanthe chlorocephala subsp. rosea, among widely spaced small shrubs such as Eremophila nivea and Banksia blechnifolia, one of the ground-hugging species of banksias. It all felt so perfectly designed with native plants, there were no ‘intruders’ to be seen’, and I thought that this park might be a rare gem in the city. After a couple of days driving around Perth I realised that I wasn’t just lucky – the whole city of Perth and its surroundings, the banks along the highways, the roundabouts were all planted with native species. Until then I’d thought that California held the sceptre in native gardening, but I found out that Western Australia was way ahead. I imagined numerous reasons for this, its isolation from the rest of the country (it couldn’t have been so easy transporting plants from Sydney and Melbourne), the beauty of the native plants (the inhabitants of Perth couldn’t care less for other floras with such beauty around them), Perth’s affiliation with another gardening crowd, the English, and so on. But in the end what matters is that the city is doing something very right. Where else in a mediterranean climate have you seen recently cleared, extensive highway banks laid with mulch and seed-bombed with native shrubs to look like the local bush?

Banksia blechnifolia flowering in the demonstration gardens of Zanthorrea native plant nursery near Perth

The visit to Perth couldn’t be complete without paying tribute to the botanical institution called Kings Park and Botanical Gardens. I could devote a whole article to the extraordinary Australian endemics that I discovered there, the quality of the displays and the clever layout of the garden but I’ll fast forward to the actual road trip.

One of our first stops that I vividly remember was at a protected coastal plant community about 200km north of Perth. Looking at the one-metre-high thicket of vegetation from a distance you would think that it consisted of a single species, but once we got out of the car and walked along a recently cleared pathway, I realised I was among dozens of different species of all the famous Australian genera I was familiar with: Hakea, Banksia, Grevillea and other woody Proteaceae and Myrtaceae were all well represented here by different species, only that all of these species were completely unknown to me… I felt confident as I was able to recognise many of the genera there and Neville was answering all my questions and providing valuable information about how to tell them apart – he also explained the fruit placement difference that can easily distinguish grevilleas from hakeas. A few metres further away I saw a small white-flowered shrub with jasmine-like flowers – from a distance – flowering underneath taller species. “Ricinocarpus,” I yelled. Neville looked at me with curiosity. “Correct,” he said. “How on earth did you know that?” I think I’d seen a photograph of Ricinocarpus, this peculiar Rutaceae genus, in a book some 20 years ago. My mind has a mysterious retaining capacity when it comes to the names and appearances of plants, but sometimes I think it steals space from all the other data it should be recording…

Diuris sp., commonly known as Donkey Orchids, is one of many different species I've encountered during my Western Australia adventure.

The wealth of different plants was unfolding as we walked. Every now and then a large purple blob of delicate flowers would cover the branches of a shrub, it was the ends of the weird delicate climbing Thysanotus, a member of the Asparagaceae, closely related to lomandras.
It is not surprising that after many million years of isolation the flora of Australia has taken its own, different evolutionary path. This is why for someone who understands his botany and plant families in the rest of the world Australia can be quite problematic. Furthermore, there are dozens of families that have evolved only here and nowhere else.

Such is the case of the Stylidiaceae, for example, and their unique mechanism of dropping their pollen on to insects’ backs. A few kilometres after we left that first stop we stopped again along the highway where the fields on either side were covered in the upright stems of a big pink Stylidium, the largest-flowered one of the 20 or so species I recorded throughout our trip. They were jumping out of a sea of light blue scaevolas, in one of those combinations that you feel only nature can do at its best.

Geleznowia verrucosa, a small shrub in Rutaceae, in full flower in Kalbarri National Park.

On our third day we reached one of the most magical places I have ever visited in my life, the Kalbarri National Park. I don’t think I have ever had this impression before in a natural area. Usually after visiting an area you keep a few species in your mind that would really be worth using in horticulture. At Kalbarri you feel that every single species you encounter should be in the nursery trade. Neville admitted that it was a good year and that the rains had been decent, hence the abundance of flowers around us, as the park stands on the border between the mediterranean and the desert climate zones and rainfall can be variable.

The roadsides were covered in an astonishing array of flowers. Above all stood the 4 to 5-metre-tall stems of Grevilllea leucopteris, ending in fat white flowers oozing with nectar. There are several grevilleas in Western Australia that have this particular growth habit. It is definitely the most adequate way of showcasing your product to the pollinators, the birds and bees that like to feed on the valuable nectar. An endless display of shrubs in full flower was unfolding before our eyes. The most un-Lamiaceae-like plant I have even seen, Lachnostachys eriobotrya, looked unreal with its thick velvety silver leaves and branched terminal inflorescences completely covered in white wool, out of which contrasting purple-black flowers looked as if somebody had just glued them on.

Lachnostachys verbascifolia a rather strange member of the Lamiaceae, at least to the someone with a northern hemisphere concept of the family

At the edges of the roads, big thickets of the beautiful iroid Patersonia occidentalis were laden with flowers basking fully open under the hot sun. As we walked further into this open shrubbery amazing shrubs unfolded before our eyes one after the other. A big shrubby pea, Hovea pungens, was covered with the most amazing blue flowers one could imagine. A rounded bush was smothered with peach, pink and yellow blooms with no sign of stems or leaves to be seen. It was Leschenaultia linarioides, a member of the Goodeniaceae, a speciality of Australia as most of its species are endemic to it. It must have taken hours with all the car stops before we reached the centre of the park where a path opened that led down to the river at the bottom of the red sandstone gorge, but we had to keep on going northwards.

Over the next few days of driving to reach our northernmost destination, the Exmouth peninsula, hundreds of different shrubs posed in front of my phone for a picture. All kinds of ‘micromyrtaceae’, Thryptomene, Baeckia and others, called thus because of their tiny pink flowers and the difficulty of seeing their flower morphology with the naked eye, but otherwise amazing shrubs, looked like huge pink clouds. The feathery plumes of Amaranthaceae, especially the genus Ptilotus, played in the wind among huge termite mounds. One of my favourite Myrtaceae that we spotted was Pileanthus vernicosus. It was one of those ‘stop the car now’ moments. This is a medium-sized shrub that was completely covered in fire-red flowers along the road, creating a contrast with the red sand underneath. A related orange-coloured species, Pileanthus peduncularis, grew further north and occupied prominent positions on the low sand dunes that were forming along the valleys.

These little ponds of freshwater surrounded by mountain white gum Eucalyptus dalrympleana seemed like small pieces of paradise after driving several hours along dry bush scrub

I slowly started to realise how the distribution of each species was laid out along the otherwise flat lands that we were driving through for hundreds of miles on end. In our mediterranean climate in Greece soil variation is not high when you are travelling small distances. Hence the variation of species is strongly dependent on elevation. As you travel higher up, the palette of plant species changes dramatically. In Western Australia, though, the changes in soil composition are dramatic, sometimes even when you are comparing sites a few metres apart. If you could fly above ground and see it from above, you would see a change between different soils that is also expressed in the soil colour, And when the sand forms low mounds, even only a couple of metres high, it is guaranteed that you will get a different species composition. It all has to do with how ‘old’ those soils really are and the millions of years of erosion of the land that has led to very intricate evolution patterns between the plants and the land.

Peas of Western Australia come in all colours and shapes, but this Leptosema aphyllum was outwordly with its ground trailing leafless stems and fire red flowers

Eventually after several nights of staying in stations along the way – truly, this is an empty land, where sometimes you need to drive up to 400 kilometres to get from one station to the other – we reached the Exmouth peninsula. The target here was to find the famous Sturt’s desert pea, Swainsona formosa, in all its glory, and we weren’t disappointed. We joined some friends, in fact nature photographers for National Geographic, who knew exactly where to go to see the grandest of displays. This plant is an amazing annual with trailing stems that sometimes run a dozen metres across, on the end of which are borne lipstick-red flowers with contrasting pearl black or white eyes. In the past I have tried to grow this species back home in Greece, unsuccessfully, so seeing it here under the clear Australian blue skies was a treat.

Banskia ashbyi flowering in Exmouth peninsula, its northernmost extent

Another surprise was awaiting us in Exmouth. All along the way we’d been seeing banksias, the famous Australian proteoid that makes up the backbone of the bush here in Western Australia, but September is a bit early for seeing them in flower. Here, at the northernmost extent of its range, Banksia ashbyi was in full flower, and walking among those fat, orange, candle-like inflorescences, among thousands of happy insects and birds feeding on them, was a sight to remember.

After leaving Exmouth, we followed a more inland route to return south, hence driving through the more desert areas. Not surprisingly, these areas were the Eremophila kingdom. The name eremophila means ‘the friend of the desert’ and for good reason. In some areas, the emu bush was the only shrub to be seen, usually with two or three species growing happily together. After spotting more than 50 species of Eremophila I understood their amazing diversity and value. From low, ground-hugging trailers to tree-like species over five metres high and wide, like E. oldfieldii and E. longifolia, this must be the most varied of Australian   genera. All colours imaginable were represented in the different species and very often against contrasting olive green or silver foliage.

Among my favourites were Eremophila mackinlayi that actually looked like a purple Leucophyllum frutescens on steroids, E. phyllopoda with thousands of plants widely spaced covering huge areas and dotting the ground like small purple clouds, and E. cuneifolia, with the most extravagant purple flowers against bright pink or white bracts, literally smothering the whole plant. It was instant love and I decided to try to grow any species I could find back in my dry gardens; their resistance to drought and heat will definitely fit my summer-dry climate.

Along our desert drives, there were spots where obviously they had received more rain recently and the ground was covered with astonishing annuals. Usually just one or two species were prevalent, creating a carpet of colour across many kilometres. There were bright yellow Goodenia berardiana, sky-blue Brunonia australis, hot pink calandrinias and many different species of everlastings like Cephalipterum and Schoenia.

Lechenaultia macrantha commonly known as the wreath lechenaultia, an emblem of Western Australia native plants

Further south we visited what is probably one of the best-known wildflower spots on earth, and it certainly felt like it from the hundreds of mobile homes that were parked nearby for their owners to witness the magical show. It was probably the first time that I’d seen multiple signposts directing us to the spot. The wreath flowers (Lechenaultia macrantha)… Those magical round rings of yellow and pink flowers that adorn the roadsides and create the most photogenic flower scenes in the world. We were lucky to see them in their full glory, every single plant looking fresh and at its peak. It took an hour and hundreds of pictures and selfies before Neville dragged me back to the car to continue our journey.

One of Western Australia's many true blue flowers, Lechenaultia biloba

Once we’d left the desert zones of the north and entered the mediterranean-climate zone again, a new set of plants started to colonise the land around. This time, however, we were in the middle of a heavily cultivated agricultural area, with acres upon acres of wheat fields running beside the roads. The Australian authorities have managed to save or reclaim some of the lands devoted to produce by doing something smart. Along the roads they created wide zones, from a few to dozens of metres across, that were left undisturbed for nature. In a similar situation elsewhere one might expect to find lots of invasive species, but in most cases here the natives were the protagonists. And the grand star of them all was Lechenaultia biloba. Few plants have such a true sky-blue colour and the blue lechenaultia, as it is commonly called, is one of them.

We eventually arrived back in Perth, with hundreds of plant names written down in my notes, thousands of pictures in my camera and a sea of emotions that I shall never forget. I promised myself to revisit Western Australia and travel to locations west and south of Perth that support a completely different set of colourful species. Truly it is a nature lover’s paradise.

THE MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN is the registered trademark of The Mediterranean Garden Society in the European Union, Australia, and the United States of America

Data Protection Consent

website designed and maintained
by Hereford Web Design