Catherine StewartSubtropical plants for Sydney gardens

In Sydney, we garden at a crossroads between temperate and subtropical climates. I think of it as the ‘cool subtropics’, and in more ways than one – we are famed as the ‘Emerald City’ after all. Our humid summers and very dry springs make our growing conditions quite different to the more mediterranean climates of southern Australia. Of course Sydney is a big, big city of around 1,700 square kilometres (650 sq miles) with any number of microclimates between the coastal suburbs and the foot of the Blue Mountains in the west, but its sticky, sweaty summers, scandalously short winters and late-summer peak rainfall are quite distinct.

killara rainbow

rain on the back deck

That’s not to say we don’t have frosts and occasional below freezing temperatures, but in general what we can grow well in this coastal zone has more in common with the southern end of the subtropics than it does with the northern-most extremity of Australia’s cooler or dry summer Mediterranean climates. The problem is that most of us have learned our gardening styles from devouring beautiful English garden books, or those written by those talented gardening ‘Mexicans’ in Victoria. Believe me, I’ve had my share of lusting after cool climate beauties. Oh to grow a peony! Or a host of daffodils. Or a drop-dead gorgeous clematis – mine quickly lost the ‘gorgeous’ but was stand-out successful at the ‘drop-dead’.

Instead of thinking of these as restrictions, let’s embrace our ‘cool’ subtropical opportunities with these easy-to-grow plants from both the humid and dry subtropical regions of the world. NOTE that this is NOT the same as saying we should all have a subtropical garden style. I love them too, like Peter Nixon’s exquisite Sydney courtyard garden.

Peter Nixon's Sydney subtropical courtyard garden

Peter Nixon’s Sydney subtropical courtyard garden

But the plants I’m recommending here will fit into any garden style – subtropical, cottage, formal – or just that eclectic mix we could call ‘Sydney suburban’. With minimal care, they won’t cark on you after heat, drought, light frost, torrential downpour, or day after day of high humidity. So whether you’re gardening in Bondi, Blacktown, Beecroft or Belrose, forget many of the salvias, the roses and the herbaceous perennials and go with the sub-troppo flow.

My best subtropical plants for a Sydney garden

Justicia brandegeeana 'Lutea'

Justicia brandegeeana ‘Lutea’

Justicia brandegeeana – Shrimp plant from tropical Mexico has been around in Sydney gardens for decades but it’s surprisingly hard to find at a nursery. There are 2 common forms, one with rusty-red bracts and my favourite, Justicia brandegeeana ‘Lutea’, the yellow form. They tend to be somewhat lax shrubs (sounds a bit like me) so snip them now and then during spring and summer and then cut them down harder before their spring growth begins. They’ll flower away most of the year with very little interference on your part. There are other cultivars around like the one below in Helen Curran’s garden).

Justicia brandegeeana cultivar in Helen Curran's garden

Justicia brandegeeana cultivar in Helen Curran’s garden

Justicia brandegeeana

Justicia brandegeeana

Murraya Min-a-min – If you’re sick of buxus (and especially the tom-cat smell of English box on a spring day – talk about eeuww), dwarf Murraya Min-a-min makes a small hedge or neat clipped mound. I love mine so much I need to pat its plump, dumpling shape every time I pass by. Full sun to semi shade, extremely drought tolerant and it’s not fussy about soil or drainage. It is slow growing but be patient, as once it’s at the size you want, a twice-yearly shear will keep it just right.

Murraya Min-a-Min after its spring haircut

Murraya Min-a-Min after its spring haircut

Murraya Min-a-Min before its spring haircut

Murraya Min-a-Min before its spring haircut

Megaskepasma erithroclamys – Brazilian Red Cloak is a giant shrub but easily controlled to a couple of metres each way if you prefer, and from autumn through to winter it rewards you with tall crimson-red bracts held above glossy green foliage. Prune it after flowering and strike more cuttings. There are many clumps of it through the Sydney Botanic Gardens and it’s often available from Growing Friends at the Botanic Gardens.

Megaskepasma ethythroclamys

Megaskepasma ethythroclamys

strobilanthes dyerianus2

Strobilanthes dyerianus with Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and Cordyline ‘Albertii’

Strobilanthes dyerianus – Persian shield is another Acanthaceae plant. Usually sold as Strobilanthes dyerianus (although Deirdre Mowat of igarden questions that species name) it’s grown for its rich metallic purple foliage. Next to other plants with purple flowers, or alongside a contrasting yellow cordyline, it’s certainly got some zing. I cut mine down in late winter and then pinch out the new growth for several weeks through the spring to get it nice and bushy. Then I prune it back lightly a couple of times during the summer as I like mine compact.

Alectryon tomentosus

Alectryon tomentosus

Alectryon tomentosus – Hairy Alectryon (or just ‘Alec’ as it’s know in my family) is an everygreen tree native to the dry rainforests of northern NSW and Queensland that you can see growing along many roadsides in the Ku-ring-gai area of northern Sydney. Some clever arborist on council chose it as a street tree years ago, where it has performed extremely well, surviving prolonged drought, attack by passing truck and the regular butchering of electricity wire pruning. I had to get mine trucked down from a northern rivers nursery as I couldn’t find it for sale anywhere in Sydney. I believe it can self-seed in warmer climates but in the 4 years I’ve had mine it hasn’t, and I’ve never seen seedlings on the footpath under a mature specimen. New growth is downy and bronze-red, and the mature size in Sydney seems to be about 5 metres, although it’s easily pruned smaller. There are other species of Alectryon you might locate that look very similar – Alectryon coriaceus and Alectryon subcinereus.

Pentas lanceolata - tall form

Pentas lanceolata – tall form

Pentas lanceolata – Yeah, I know, here I go on about Pentas AGAIN, but it is the backbone of my garden from late spring through to early winter. The smaller varieties don’t over winter as well as the larger forms. Flower colours are white, through all the pinks to a vermilion red and also a lavender purple, and I’ve found pentas to be very drought hardy. Make yourself wait for the flowers and pinch prune off the top pair of leaves during its growth spurt in spring to get a nice bushy shrub. Regular deadheading keeps it more compact and also flowering for many months. Being part of the ‘grow fast, flower a lot and then die young’ club, a pentas plant won’t last more than 3-4 years, so you should strike some cuttings in late summer. Bunnings often sells this as cheap potted colour.

Epidendrum ibaguense cultivar

Epidendrum ibaguense cultivar

Epidendrum ibaguense – Crucifix orchids are epiphytic like most orchids but you can grow them in the ground in a very light, well-drained soil. I filled a small area behind a low retaining wall with a mix of equal parts by volume of pine bark fines, vermiculite and sand and they love it. I bought a collection of dwarf crucifix orchid cultivars from Coachwood Nursery at Somersby and there is ALWAYS one of them flowering at any time of year! It’s so lovely to open my front door and see their pretty heads of apricot, orange, white, pink and yellow. Plant them and leave them alone to slowly clump up.

Davidsonia pruriens

Davidsonia pruriens

Davidsonia pruriens – Davidson’s Plum hails from the Queensland rainforests but loves our Sydney climate. In a shady position it will grow into a narrow small tree with whorls of large, dark green leaves, or you can keep it cut to a tallish shrub like I do. Mine grows in underneath my Nyssa so it’s in complete shade in summer but enjoys the winter sunshine. Davidsonia is surprisingly drought tolerant and although mine doesn’t flower and fruit a lot, I have harvested some of the dark bluish ‘plums’ with which you can make a very tasty bushtucker jam.

Breynia disticha

Breynia disticha

Breynia disticha – Confetti bush (also called Breynia nivosa or with an additional cultivar name of ‘Roseopicta’) is one of those fabulous tri-coloured leaf plants that lightens up any garden. Hailing from Pacific Islands (various), it likes a humid climate but is still quite drought hardy. I grow mine as a background plant to my pink pentas and a lilly pilly hedge. Its long, graceful, arching branches with a distinctive zig-zag shape have pink, green and white leaves. In the depths of a very cold winter it loses some of its leaves and many take on a more bronzey hue, but through this mild winter it looks just as good as it did through the summer.

White Mandevilla

White Mandevilla

Mandevilla Sun Parasol White Fantasy – I bought this white-flowering Mandevilla vine for my daughter’s new garden in the Inner West and it has romped away, and never stopped flowering. The light green, deeply-veined leaves are also very attractive but those huge, white trumpet flowers with a yellow throat are divine. Unlike other climbers, it seems pretty happy to be a bit shrubby and hang about and flower where you can enjoy them, rather than racing away to dizzy heights. It’s growing in full summer sun but is part shaded during the winter without any ill effects.

Iresine herbstii with mint bush and helichrysum

Iresine herbstii with mint bush and helichrysum

Iresine herbstii – Bloodleaf plant’s leaves positively glow a vibrant crimson-red in the garden. It attracts attention wherever you put it and I have one either side of my front door to make a welcoming entrance. It’s very easy to grow from cuttings which will strike roots in just a glass of water. I cut mine back several times during the summer and pinch out new growth to keep it bushy, otherwise it will become leggy and flop over. There’s a pretty, multi-coloured red, green and cream leafed version which my friend Bernard Chapman charmingly refers to as ‘chicken gizzards’ that I find dies back during the winter but leafs up again quickly during spring.

Rosettes of majestic Alcantarea - Design and photo Peter Nixon, Paradisus Sydney

Rosettes of majestic Alcantarea – Design and photo Peter Nixon, Paradisus Sydney

Alcantarea species – OK, I have to confess I’m in two minds about these bromeliads. On the one hand, I see a luscious huge rosette of Alcantarea commanding attention in a Sydney garden and I think “double wow!” They look brilliant. And there’s no doubt these plants from the elevated subtropics of Brazil grow well here. But on the other hand, I bought a large and very expensive Alcantarea glaziouana which looked spectacular in a pot on my back deck. And then it promptly flowered. And you know what happens after a bromeliad rosette flowers? It dies. ‘Yes!’ its fans cry, ‘but it PUPS! And now you’ve got 15 Alcantareas where you only had one before!’ The trouble is I don’t want 15 small ones. I want the great big one with huge leaves that I started with. I know nothing is forever in the plant world, but really. I also grow quite a few small, colourful bromeliads and, although the same thing happens, it’s not really an issue as there’s no large hole left to fill. But with these big ones, I want to have at least a couple of years before I lose it!


Alcantarea rubra

So Sydneysiders, what other subtropical plants would you recommend?

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

37 thoughts on “Subtropical plants for Sydney gardens

  1. Could you identify the silver-leaved, pink-blossomed trailer in the picture with the alcantarea, please? Writing from Berkeley, CA; not all the plants work in this environment, but I very much enjoy your writing and insights; always a great read. Thanks.

    • Hi Walt, thanks so much for your cyber visit to Sydney! Peter Nixon tells me the plant is Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi Variegata – Variegated Lavender Scallops. San Marcos grows it in Santa Barbara so you should be able to find it closer to home.

  2. Great plants – I’d add tibouchina and plectranthus and I wouldn’t write off salvias. Many thrive in subtropical gardens and of course they flower for months.

    • Apart from the year-round pleasure of Ember’s Wish, I have found many of the salvias from Mexico to be more reliable, but still short-lived. And yes, tibouchina! Having seen the wonderful specimen in the botanic gardens, I’ve recently planted Tibouchina heteromala.

    • Yes but they don’t survive without copious amounts of water in dry conditions, certainly not the elegans varieties of salvia or tibouchina.

  3. Some other great plants in Sydney often over looked are Justicia scheidweileri,, Dicliptera sericea, Streptosolen jamesonii and Heterocentron elegans. These are extremely tough and add long periods of colour to gardens.

  4. Hi Catherine, love your article and it is so very true. The Justicia brandegeeana cultivar is ‘Fruit Cocktail’ and Justicia scheidweileri is a syonym of Porphyrcoma pohliana.

  5. Hello Catherine – your photos reminded me of my garden here at Collaroy. Add in Clivia- yellow & orange, Aspidistra- green & Variegated, Ctenanthe cvs, Calathea cvs, Guzmania, Ligularia, Hibiscus, Begonias, orchids, Clerodendron, Alpinia, Dichorisandra . . Then there is Spathiphyllum, Philodendron, Cardomom, Anthurium . . It’s one of the delights of re-thinking the Sydney garden as a tropical place (thank you so much Peter Nixon)- not just a warm temperate place.

  6. Nice to get a mention, Catherine! Also, great to read about plants well known to me, and some I have never seen. Thanks for broadening my education. Hugs, B.

  7. Pingback: Top 5 Winter Plants to Grow in Sydney - Wizard Home Improvements

  8. Hi Catherine,
    Having just discovered warm climate begonias at the RBG nursery and then seen some spectacular, exotic species/varieties at the Bali Botanic Gardens I’m suggesting begonias. Happy in the shade, which is my main problem, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
    Will enlarge on this when I get back to Sydney. Thanks for the article.

    • Hi Phil, yes I would definitely add begonias to the Sydney list. The begonia garden in Sydney’s RBG looks wonderful at any time of year. Snails love them too though, so they require a bit of protecting. Would love to hear more about your visit to Bali BG.

  9. Do you have any idea where we could buy a Persian Shield from? No one seems to stock it down here? (We’re in Wollongong).

    • Hmmm…not off hand but will investigate. You should be able to order it from your local nursery but it’s unlikely to be available until it’s back in new growth after the winter. Try in early summer, and if you don’t find one, contact me via the Gardening HELP page and I’ll see if I can track one down for you.

  10. Thanks so much for your very helpful article Catherine. I was looking for inspiration after trying (and failing!) to recreate my English cottage garden in Sydney. I love the sound of the Pentas, are they generally available at garden centres or do you know of somewhere I can order online? Thanks very much. (We live in Dee Why, Northern beaches)

    • Hi Helen – yes, Pentas is the perfect flower for Sydney. Long flowering season and drought tolerant. If you pick them early in the day and when they’re newly opened, they can also last in a vase for several days. Pentas don’t usually appear in garden centres until the weather warms up a bit more. As they’re summer flowering, they’re just being cut back now so they don’t look good enough in the pot yet. In general the hardware store nurseries only have the very small varieties, but the tall ones are much better garden plants. You are more likely to find them at smaller independent nurseries like St Ives Nursery. If you haven’t found any by November, let me know and I’ll see what I can find for you.

  11. There are so many sub-tropical and tropical plants that can be added to the list for Sydney – many of the gingers, particularly the various Costus species and cultivars that are evergreen in Sydney, and the small but beautiful Dragon gingers (Globba sp.) which are herbaceous but reliably re-shoot each year and are fantastic at the front of shady garden beds, Strobilanthes (in addition to Persian Shield) such as the reliable old Goldfussia and the Chinese Rain Bell, Vireya Rhododendrons which come in an amazing range of tropical colour combinations and flower several times a year (they need good drainage), the Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia sp.) both large and small, Epicactus, Rhipsalis, Zygocactus and other epiphytic succulents, which are fantastic in hanging baskets in shady spots, and of course a large range of ferns including the various species of tree fern and the stag and elk horn ferns. And no mention of sub-tropical gardening in Sydney would be complete without mentioning the very large and diverse range of palms that thrive in Sydney, including the local Bangalow and Cabbage palms, as well as so many others, such as the beautiful old Canary Island Date and Cotton palms found in the parks and gardens of Victorian and Edwardian suburbs, the tall slender Alexander, Kentia, Nikkau, Solitaire, Flame Thrower, Foxtail, Black and Feather Duster palms, small understorey palms such as the walking stick palm, and the various clumping and single trunked palms of the Dypsis, Chamadorea, Caryota and Arenga genus that all do so well in Sydney (and of course the slow growing but huge and impossibly blue-grey Bismark palm) – none of these have to be confined to the “tropical” garden style, and are often found in the eclectic “Sydney Suburban” style garden – just please don’t plant the rat of the palm world, the Cocos or Queen Palm, found in so many 80s and 90s gardens, which is not only the ugliest palm you can grow in Sydney and very messy, but has great weed potential as well (the Canary Island Date is also rather weedy and has horrendous spines on the base of each frond, but it does eventually become a very stately and handsome tree, given a few decades, which cannot be said for the Cocos, which just ends up looking like a sad telegraph pole topped with a few scruffy looking fronds!!!)

    • Yes, our neighbours had 3 cocos palms which eventually pushed over the fence. They were removed but I”m still pulling up seedlings from this feral palm nearly 2 years later! It’s a dreadful thing. Thanks for such a great list of other plants that grow well in Sydney. I’ve been experimenting with more local rainforest small tree species with great results, like Pararchidendron (snow wood), Geissois (red carrabeen) and Cassia marksiana. I’m also loving some of the new sun-hardy and taller growing coleus and that fabulous glossy-leafed South African shrub Carissa which never droops even after 6 rainless weeks in summer and then laps up our late summer humidity as well.

  12. Oops forgot to mention Cordylines and Dracaenas, as well as Coleus (recently reclassified as Plectranthus), and also that Camellias do very well in Sydney also, although not usually thought of as sub-tropical. I am sure there are many many more suitable sub-tropical and tropical plants that grow happily in Sydney.

      • Yes the ringtails have decimated my magnolias, eat all the fruit and leaves from my persimmon, and from my guava in the winter months, and eat what they can reach of my climbing roses, and a couple of years ago virtually killed my mango by stripping all the bark from the fruiting branches, but so far have only shown the occasional interest in my camellias!!

  13. Oh Catherine, an excellent feature on “cool sub-tropical” Sydney gardens where too many would be barely ENOUGH. Thanks for writing and as usual, hitting the nail squarely on the head on plant selection for Sydney Metro growing conditions. Its interesting that the Plant Lovers Fair ’16 24th & 25th Sept Kariong offering across well more than 40 stalls, is predominately cool sub-tropical, matching the more than 80% attendance with coastal gardens.

    Can this be a move towards gardening what we have in Sydney, rather than what we would prefer to have i.e. cool sub-tropics versus cool temperate & combination Mediterranean climates…. ? Didn’t think I would live long enough to see this but I have to say, I think it’s finally happening at plant fairs, where people come with more accurate knowledge (based on dead plants) of their growing conditions and make selections that fit them, rather than the other way around (more dead plants).

    Besides, why wouldn’t they, when there is just soooooooo much native and exotic bandwidth to select from in cooler sub-tropics to make their gardens !!! Love your work love it, love it LOVE IT :))))))

  14. All these also grow & flower on Magnetic Island, as we have a dry (sub)tropical climate up here, somewhat similar to Sydney’s climate. I would also suggest Salvia canariensis (regenerate via top cuttings every year), Isoplexis canariensis (Canary Island foxglove), and the various Ruellias (Mexican petunias) to be added to the list. Pentas is grown year by year from seed, as are the various Escholzia cultivars (I am more & more experimenting with annuals). And: roses, esp. the old Tea roses, China, Bourbon, Portland etc. But even David Austin’s & Alister Clarke’s roses work well in our garden.

    • Some very interesting additions Florian. I have the Isoplexis in my garden and several Ruellia although results with those are mixed. I haven’t had any luck at all with Eschscholzia in my Sydney garden. But it’s always hard to know what’s a growing problem as distinct from a being eaten by rabbits problem, given the plague of them we have here in northern Sydney.
      Although its subtropical, is your island environment perhaps providing more air circulation, allowing you to grow the roses?

      • Catherine, the Escholzias were a ‘measure of last resort’, as I had several bags of seed left from our Melbourne garden. As I couldn’t find anything about annuals in the dry sub/tropics I just sowed them, and they grow and self-seed now (as do the calendulas). Roses: I believe that the rootstock plays an important role in whether and how roses grow in our climate – mine are all from Mistydowns Roses, and they solely graft their roses on Rosa multiflora rootstock. We do have some problems with blackspot disease and I spray against this (hardcore, not the softy stuff which doesn’t really work in our climate). Apart from that I am ‘just’ experimenting – what grows grows, and what doesn’t either is tried in a different location, or ditched. My biggest surprise where apple trees – I planted ten different low-chill apple cultivars all grafted onto dwarfing M26 rootstock, apart from Braeburn, which came on M111 (semi-dwarfing). One year later all M26 grafts are on the compost, which Braeburn on M111 enjoys our climate and happily grows – I am always pleased that plants don’t read garden books :-).

  15. Hi there. I’m after some Persian shield plants (purple). Anyone knows where can I buy at least one plant? Many thanks in advance.

    • Hi Cassy – can’t help you if I don’t know where you are…? Assuming you’re somewhere in Sydney, then you’re likely to find one at the Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the Central Coast, 24-25 September.

    • Hi Cassy, I found mine on ebay, got them from “Lou’s Bloomin’ garden”. Search Ebay with both the common name and the botanical one (Strobilanthes dyeriana), and I am sure you will come up with something. Lou has great plants, reasonably sized and prized – no rip-off, but good deals. Once acclimatised you probably need to cut them back each year, as they get very leggy.

    • Yes, Bron, I have observed those changes too over the 30 years I have been gardening in Sydney. I have also noticed that although our summers often still have the average rainfall, there seem to be longer periods of no rain between heavier downpours, so I advise new gardeners to fit as many water tanks as possible on their properties so they can spread that short glut of water through drier periods.

  16. Thank you Catherine and also your respondents. 3 years ago we moved from our farm in the hills only 30kms away to small acreage in Wingham NSW. The difference in growing conditions is astounding…particularly as Wingham is suffering a bad drought with severe water restrictions. Farm area has had more rain and plants are flourishing!!!! Think will need to review many plantings and replace gradually with hardier ones so your comments and recommendations will be so helpful. Thank you again.

    • Thanks Christine. Unfortunately this summer has been incredibly dry all the way down the NSW east coast. Where I now live, in the relatively benign climate of Ulladulla, I’ve noticed even the very tough old trees starting to wilt.
      Many gardeners think that the best way to deal with these dry summers is to choose drought-hardy perennials, particularly those with grey leaves. But although it doesn’t rain, it’s still very humid and these plants don’t thrive like those that come from the dry subtropics where they are adapted to long dry spells. They may drop their leaves but they will bounce back very quickly after the first rains.

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