The Plants Around Sydney

Bush Plants | Bush trees | Where to see wildflowers

Angophora | Bachelor's buttons, Kunzea capitata | Banksia | Boronia | Bush peas | Caustis, our only protected grass
Darwinia | Dianella | Dogrose, Bauera rubioides | Epacris, the Australian heaths | Flannel flowers (Actinotus) | Gum trees
Hibbertia, the guinea flower | Isopogon or drumsticks | Mangroves | Melaleuca | Needlebush (Hakea) | Pimelea (rice flowers)
She-oaks | Spider flowers (Grevillea) | Sundews (Drosera) | Thysanotus | Ti trees | Trigger plants (Stylidium)
Waratah (Telopea) | Wattle or Acacia |

For heavy detail, check the site of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, or the site of the National Botanic Gardens. In particular, look for their databases link. To look at wildflowers, see the list of places to go.

Bush Plants

After a bushfire. The plants which grow around Sydney have to cope with a dry environment. But the dryness is not from lack of rain: each year, an average of about 100 centimetres of rain fall in the region, and this is spread fairly evenly through the year. The trouble is with the soil, which is much too sandy to hold the water that plants need so desperately.

The soil is sandy because it is formed from Hawkesbury sandstone, our most common rock. The sandstone lacks most of the minerals plants need, so the local plants have a doubly hard job in surviving. And then, just to make life really interesting, the whole area is swept by regular bushfires, raging blazes, which roar right through the bush. Probably no part of the bush goes more than fifty years without a fire, so all species have to be able to survive fires as well as low levels of water and nutrients. One of the effects of fire is to vaporise much of the phosphorus, or to turn it into soluble material, likely to be leached away in the first rain after the fire. The shot on the right shows an area near Grotto Point lighthouse, a couple of years ago -- you wouldn't recognise it now.

Because they have to cope with fire, the plants of the Sydney region are a tough bunch. Their leaves are covered in waxy layers or reduced to almost nothing, with the bare stems acting as leaves instead, the outsides are often spiny and prickly, to discourage browsing animals, and they are mostly tough and woody. There are no lush green pastures here.

Maybe it was because of this that a whole range of botanists who should have known better have given Australia a reputation for flowers with no colour and no perfume. Charles Darwin was no help: writing of his visit in 1836, he speaks of "...thin scrubby trees, bespeaking the curse of sterility." Later he returns to the attack: "...a very thin pasture, with little appearance of verdure...the foliage is scanty, and of a peculiar pale green tint, without any gloss."

Darwin was by no means alone in this slander, but his "Voyage of the Beagle" is still widely read. So overseas visitors have a pleasant surprise coming their way when they stroll in the Sydney bush, especially in spring-time. Depending on how mild the winter has been, spring can start in late July or mid-August: the wildflower "peak" is late August and September.

While Sydney's best wildflowers are nice to look at, the good-looking ones are generally protected by law, and all plants are protected in national parks. Please look and leave, for the next person to admire. If you are in doubt about whether something is protected, a good rule of thumb is: if it looks nice, it will be a protected species. The problem with bush plants is that mostly they are very hard to cultivate: if the wild specimens are taken, we don't have any more.

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Where to see wildflowers

Two gardens are worthy of special mention here, aside from the Mount Annan Gardens branch of the Royal Botanic Gardens, both of which specialise in "Australian natives", as the local wildflowers are often called. There are also some Australian specimens at the Mount Tomah Gardens

The Stony Range Flora Reserve in Pittwater Road, Dee Why, is a good starting place. From the Harbour Bridge, follow the signs for Manly, Brookvale and Mona Vale (Route 14). You will pass Warringah Mall, a shopping complex, on the left, then through Brookvale shops, past a large football field on your left, and then you come to a major junction where Warringah Road enters Pittwater Road. Stony Range is just after this on your right.

The Ku-ring-Gai Wildflower Gardens on Mona Vale Road, St Ives, are not that far from Dee Why: look for the signs just where the suburb of St Ives dwindles into the bush of Kuring-gai Chase National Park as you drive north - where the road swings around to the east, keep going straight ahead onto the side road.

Aside from that, try Kuring-gai Chase National Park, or the Royal National Park or any of the walks that take you away from civilisation.

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Bush trees

The question visitors always ask is: Why don't the trees lose their leaves? The simple answer is that they do not need to, and generally suffer if they do. There are just a few Australian trees which are deciduous, if they grow in southern Tasmania where the winters are bitterly cold, or if they grow in the far north, where there is never any rain in the dry season. (Darwin, for example, gets 90% of its rain between November and April). In either case, there is a compelling reason for the trees to drop their leaves, but over much of the continent, rain can come at almost any time, and trees need to be able to use the water when it comes.

When the soil is poor in mineral nutrients, there is an advantage in hanging onto the leaves. When the rain can come at any time, plants need to have their leaves ready to go, and that means they need to hang onto their leaves and find other ways of keeping their water supplies intact in the dry conditions. So Australian plants are what botanists call sclerophyllous: they have hard leaves, with tough waxy cuticle and other tricks, all designed to keep the water inside. With leaves like that, a plant can afford to hang onto the leaf with its valuable minerals, and so be ready for when the rains come.

This in turn has an influence on the animals which live here. Only the fittest survive, and that is why we have marsupials as our native land-mammals. According to the fossil evidence, the placentals were here in Australia, but died out because they could not manage the pressure.

If you don't have time to wander: Try the three branches of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The main families to look out for are the Myrtaceae (eucalypts, ti-trees, bottle-brushes and paperbarks), Mimosaceae (wattles), Proteaceae (Hakea, waratah, Banksia, Grevillea, smokebush and many more), Rutaceae (Boronia, wax-flower), Droseraceae (sundews), Casuarinaceae, Stylidiaceae and Orchidaceae.

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Flannel flowers (Actinotus)

Flannel flowers near Sydney. Flannel flower, Actinotus There are two flannel flowers growing near Sydney, a large one, 5 to 8 cm across, looking like a large daisy, and a small one, with blooms up to 12 mm (half an inch) across. There is another species, of intermediate size, growing in the Blue Mountains.

All of the flowers are white, and they grow as low herbs, although the large and spectacular Actinotus helianthi can stand as high as a metre. It is seen in spring and summer, while Actinotus minor, the lesser flannel flower, flowers almost the year around: its flowers are about 8 to 10 mm across.

The flannel flower gets its name from the "flannelly" feel of its petals, but though it looks like a daisy, it is part of the carrot family! All species of flannel flower are protected, and should not be picked, no matter where you find them gtowing.

Where to see flannel flowers: Kuring-gai Chase National Park, especially along the West Head road.

Useful reference: Flora of the Sydney Region, Roger Carolin and Mary Tindale, Reed Books, 4th edition, 1994 ISBN 0 7301 0400 1

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Waratah (Telopea)

Waratah in bloom, the NSW state flower.The state flower of New South Wales, the waratah often appears in odd forms. At the Opera House, you can see a waratah theme in the centre of the Bennelong Restaurant, it can be seen as a theme in plaster ceilings from the early part of this century, and it appears in many business logos and trade marks.

There are actually two different species in the Sydney area, but the main one is Telopea speciosissima, found on the coast in mid-September to mid-October, while in the Blue Mountains, it flowers in summer.

The waratah is a member of the important southern Proteaceae family which gets its name from the South African Protea. If anything, the waratah is more spectacular than the protea, but harder to cultivate. So most people, if they ever see a waratah, will see it in the wild.

The waratah plant has leaves with serrated edges, rather like an Old Man Banksia (also in the Proteaceae), and a large terminal red flower.

Where to see waratahs: Kuring-gai Chase National Park (ask the rangers), on the north side of the top road above Patonga in the Brisbane Water National Park. There are also waratahs at the Waterfall end of the Waterfall to Audley walk in the Royal National Park. For the rest, you will need to look, because most people who know where they are tend to keep their "patches" secret. Besides, some "patches" just fail to perform in certain years, and the writer's favourite "patch" on the Bairne Track was a total washout in 1999.

Where to see waratahs on the Web: Go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/proteaceae/ where you will find excellent pictures of many of the species.

Useful reference: Flora of the Sydney Region, Roger Carolin and Mary Tindale, Reed Books, 4th edition, 1994 ISBN 0 7301 0400 1

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Trigger plants (Stylidium)

The trigger-plant has a small pink to purple butterfly-shaped flower with an incredible talent. When an insect lands on the flower to feed on nectar, the flower belts the insect over the head. It doesn't do this to catch the insect, but to spray it with pollen. Luckily, insects are slow to learn, so they keep landing on trigger-plants. When they land on a mature flower, one that is ready to receive pollen, the insect is hit on the head again, and some of the pollen grains are collected by the second flower.

You can make the flowers "trigger" by stroking the trigger at the right place. Scratch it lightly with a dead grass stalk, and watch it whizz over. If you watch for a while, you may be able to see the trigger re-setting, but it takes a long while. The trigger plant flowers around December each year.

Where to see trigger plants: Go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/stylidiaceae/ or go walking in the Snowy Mountains in summer. In particular, try the walk from Dead Horse Gap which takes you past the Cascades Hut.

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Bush peas

Pea, probably Dillwynia Pea, possibly Gompholobium

On the right: Pea, probably Dillwynia and Pea, possibly Gompholobium

The pea family is well-represented in the Sydney bush. Maybe this has something to do with the pea's ability to act as host to bacteria that turn nitrogen into valuable nitrates: the sandy Sydney soil is poor in nitrogen compounds. If you know what a sweet pea flower looks like, you won't have too much trouble picking the same structure out in a couple of hundred plants in forty different genera. The flowers are frequently yellow, yellow and red or yellow and brown, and smaller than a sweet pea, while the seed pods, when you look at them, are typical "pea pods".

Logically, any number of these would have been food plants, but the reference books say almost nothing about the edible properties of Sydney bush peas. There must be a good reason for this, so don't try them.

There are too many genera in too many forms to make it sensible to list them all, so just enjoy them.

Ti-trees

Leptospermum Leptospermum According to some experts, the spelling given above is incorrect: they favour the spelling that indicates the name's derivation: tea-tree. The early settlers, fearful of scurvy, ate all sorts of plant material as soon as they came ashore, and boiled up all sorts of plants to get "tea". At least one suitable species, Leptospermum flavescens, or Yellow Tea-tree, grows locally.

http://www.anbg.gov.au/projects/leptospermum/leptospermum.html

Where to see ti-trees: Go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/myrtaceae/ where you will find excellent pictures. They are common on heath and dry sclerophyll, and also on dunes. They do best from about August to October.

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Banksia

Banksia ericifolia, appropriately at Cape Banks. The 'Old Man banksia, <I>Banksia serrata</i>. The 'Old Man banksia, <I>Banksia serrata</i>.
Pictures above, from left to right:

Australia, as a colony, had its beginnings at Botany Bay. Sir Joseph Banks, one of the two botanists who travelled with Captain Cook on his first voyage to the South Seas, collected many specimens, as did his colleague, Daniel Solander. Banks, however, named very few of his specimens, so it was actually the son of the famous Linnaeus who named the Banksia after the man who collected the first specimens.

The large flower heads of the Banksia are important sources of nectar for honey-eaters and for many insects. The nectar of some species was also used by the aborigines as a food source. Some of the species have large underground stems that can survive a fire and send up new shoots when the fire has passed. All species have tough woody fruits that open to release their seeds only when the fire has died away, so that the seeds are often dropped into the glowing ashes.

For a Perth view on this genus, see http://www.kpbg.wa.gov.au/, while the national guide comes from http://www.anbg.gov.au/sgap/austral/banksia.htm, or see the Mount Annan Gardens for the real thing.

Where to see Banksias: go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/proteaceae/ where you will find excellent pictures.

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Boronia

The Boronia is one of the best-perfumed Australian flowers, and most up-market souvenir shops will carry boronia perfumes for sale. The best-smelling boronias are from Western Australia, but the eastern products aren't bad either. The specimen shown here is known as the "Native Rose", on account of the fine serrations in its leaves. The word "native" always indicates something Australian, as in the "native cat", the "native dog", and so on. The boronias have pretty, deep pink flowers. Look for Boronia around heath and dry sclerophyll in August and September, which is when they are at their best.

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Needlebush (Hakea)

Hakea is known as needlebush for obvious reasons.You will know all about needlebush, the first time you walk into it. There are several species in the area, some worse than the others. The worst ones have leaves which are generally cylindrical, with a finely pointed needle on the end. The bushes often hang out across tracks, and the children of bush walkers learn at early ages to avoid brushing against them. You should do the same, but if you don't, the pain doesn't last.

The needlebush survives bushfire by having heavy woody fruits that often do not open, even when the plant is dead, until a fire has passed through. Then the fruit opens, dropping two winged seeds to germinate in the warm ashes. Many of the Hakea species do not have needle-leaves, but they all have woody fruits that split in half to release two winged seeds.

Where to see Hakeas: Go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/proteaceae/ where you will find excellent pictures of many of the species. Needlebush species include H. sericea and H. teretifolia, but there are others as well.

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Spider flowers (Grevillea)

Grevillea sericea Grevillea buxifolia Grevillea buxifolia

From left to right: probably Grevillea sericea, and two views of Grevilla buxifolia

The spider flowers are all members of the Grevillea genus, but the name could equally well be used for needlebush (Hakea), which has similar spidery flowers. With the grevilleas, the flowers are more brightly coloured, and there are many cultivated garden varieties that have been developed from wild stock in the past fifty years or so.

Where to see spider flowers: Go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/proteaceae/ where you will find excellent pictures of many of the species. There are a number of garden cultivars, and one species, Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower, is out on the heath for most of the year.

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Sundews (Drosera)

The lack of phosphorus and nitrogen in Australian soils is even greater in swampy areas, and it is there that you will find one of the world's more bizarre plants, the sundew. Around the world, there are about 90 species of sundew, but most of them are Australian, and five species are found around Sydney. The sundew traps insects which walk over the sticky hairs on its surface, and slowly dissolves the prisoners. The sticky little "dew drops" on the leaves are actually a potent mix of enzymes which digest the insects into a "soup" that the plant can absorb. The plant will respond equally well to any protein source, even a piece of cheese, but it is a slow response, not like the snapping-shut of the Venus' fly-trap.

If you have the patience to watch, you may even see how a leaf curls slowly over the insect, to bring more dew drops to bear, but the motion is very slow. Maybe you would be better to heed the advice of Charles Darwin, who said of coral atolls, "If you have a large number of samples, look around you; and you will be sure to find all stages of the process illustrated."

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She-oaks

Sheoak, probably Casuarina distyla: dead and waiting to drop its seed. A she-oak, or Casuarina (OK, Allocasuarina, you pedant!). The early settlers named things according to fancied resemblances, so the koala was named the Native Bear, and a relative of the gum trees, the Angophora was called the Smooth-barked Apple. The grain of the she-oak reminded them of English oak, but the timber seemed inferior. So, in those days, long before people recognised sexism, the inferior wood was named "she-oak", because the seasoned timber is hard to work. Or so the story goes: contradicting that yarn, Mrs. Charles Meredith claimed in 1840 that the name was a borrowing of an American word, "sheac" or "cheoak" which has a similar wood. According to her, Casuarina stricta was called "he-oak", while Casuarina torulosa is called the "she-oak".

To the casual observer, the she-oak looks like a pine: it even has little "cones", and there are no apparent flowers, for the she-oak is wind-pollinated. Early historic records often refer to cutting "pines", so the early settlers were obviously fooled as well. But if you look more closely, you will find that the "needles" are really branches, with the leaves pressed flat against them. The needles appear jointed, like bamboo: each of the "joints" is the end of one set of leaves, and the start of the next. This arrangement of the leaves helps the she-oak survive in the dry Australian conditions. The "cones" are woody fruits that hold seeds until fire comes, and then release them, and the seeds have wings, just like pine seeds.

The speed with which the seeds drop after a fire is quite amazing: the seeds are on the ground within twelve hours of a hot burn. Now that's opportunism for you! For those with a strong interest in botany, the genus has recently been revised, and many of the species are now in Allocasuarina, but the general public have largely ignored this.

Until quite recently, all of these trees were called Casuarina, but when the genus was revised, most of the best-known species were moved into a new genus, Allocasuarina. Supposedly, the original name came from some sort of resemblance to the cassowary, which is surprising, since they look rather more like pine trees until you get close, and they even form "cones". These "cones" stay on the tree, and can remain closed for a year or more, but if bushfires come through, the "cones" open, and the seeds fall, spinning and gliding on their single wing, into the warm ashes, within a few metres of the dead parent.

These trees have one other very interesting feature: like legumes, they fix nitrogen in nodules. As well, the she-oaks have haemoglobin in their nodules, and to a lesser extent, in their roots. Haemoglobin is the chemical which carries oxygen around in our blood stream, but recent research has found that many (perhaps all) plants have a gene to make haemoglobin, and that quite a few of them actually make the chemical, and presumably use it. See also Trees - 5 and Trees - 6 for some early comments on these plants.

Where to see she-oaks: North Head, Ball's Head, any of Sydney's National Parks.

Useful reference: go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/casuarinaceae/ for pictures of this family.

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Gum trees

Eucalyptus tree. A large gum tree.Charles Darwin really had it in for Australia. He also complained that the only trees to be seen were gums, and there are in fact more than 600 species of Eucalyptus to be found in Australia. These exist under a variety of common names, such as ironbark, bloodwood, mountain ash, scribbly gum, red gum, or spotted gum, names which can refer to different species in different localities.

The common part is that they are all recognised as gum trees, and all of them have gum nuts. And they all have a recognisable "Eucalyptus" smell. This is the Eucalyptus oil which has become famous in many parts of the world. A number of species have been exported to other parts of the world, and Russia produces large amounts of Eucalyptus oil, while Californians sell the Sydney Bluegum (Eucalyptus saligna) as California Bluegum. In revenge, our foresters commonly call the Monterey Pine by its correct name of Pinus radiata. Sometimes there is a joy in being punctilious.

As the most common genus in Sydney woodland, the gums provide a range of habitats for animals: nesting holes for possums, and nesting sites in the branches for many birds, food for koalas, and so on. The gum trees were widely used as building timbers by the early settlers, and we still use many of the species commercially.

For specialists, there is another very similar genus, Angophora, which has ribs along the "gumnut" fruit, and leaves which are opposite, instead of alternate. At least some of the smooth-barked "gums" you see will really be this Angophora.

Where to see gum trees: go to http://www.anbg.gov.au/images/photo_cd/myrtaceae/ where you will find excellent pictures.

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Angophora

Dwarf apple, Angophora caudifolia. Dwarf apple, Angophora caudifolia.

Acacia or wattle

The wattle is our national flower. The nation's colours are green and gold for the wattle, and the official form of the nation's coat of arms includes the wattle. We also recite odes to it, like:

This here is the wattle
The symbol of our land
You can stick it in a bottle
You can hold it in your hand.

Wattle gets its name because it was used in wattle and daub construction in the early days of Sydney, where posts were set up, the space between was filled in with twigs, and these were then plastered. Buildings of that era had roofs made of bark, and a floor made of damped and stamped white-ant nests.

Serious poets have also featured the wattle. We have Daley's Dorg Wattle, The Sick Stock-rider, Under the Wattle, A Ballade of Wattle Blossom, Freedom on the Wallaby, and even Waratah and Wattle, among others.

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Darwinia

Darwinia Darwinia

Dogrose, Bauera rubioides

Dog rose, Bauera rubioides Dog rose, Bauera rubioides

Bachelor's buttons, Kunzea capitata

Bachelor's buttons, Kunzea capitata Bachelor's buttons, Kunzea capitata

Caustis, our only protected grass

Caustis, a protected species. Caustis, a protected species.

Caustis is a tall grass, up to waist-high, that you will sometimes find in dry sclerophyll. Ir is graceful, and this made it a target for florists long ago, so it was made aprotected plant, to stop it being sidelined as a mere background to bunches of cut flowers. Unless you are looking for it, you will probably pass it by.

Mangroves

Mangroves on the Parramatta River Mangroves on the Parramatta River


Pimelea (rice flowers)

Pimelea Pimelea Pimelea is one of those inconsequentislal little flowers that is out for quite a long while, but it just sits there quietly, close to the ground.

Isopogon or drumsticks

Isopogon, drumsticks Isopogon, drumsticks Isopogon, drumsticks Isopogon, drumsticks

Epacris, the Australian heaths

Epacris longiflora, native fuchsia

Hibbertia, the guinea flower

Hibbertia

Melaleuca

Melaleuca

Dianella

Dianella Dianella

Thysanotus

Thysanotus






You can also read more detailed information about the
main Australian biomes.
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