Anne LatreilleA plant sale with a difference

The weather has turned chilly for the first day of the weekend plant sale at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Rain threatens, dark clouds loom. But by midday the sky is blue and the sun shines bright as plant enthusiasts cruise around white boxes, filled with potted plants, spread in neat rows across an enclosed lawn at the top end of the Gardens.

Plant enthusiasts cruise around white boxes

Plant enthusiasts cruise around white boxes

Normally this is a work environment, with garden staff and maintenance operators based alongside. But today it’s a place of fresh air, interest – and optimism that emanates from plants and people.

Some of the people are members of The Growing Friends, a 35-member volunteer group that since 1988 has spearheaded this plant sale. They meet on Fridays, moving around the Gardens and (with the help of an expert horticultural team) choosing plants – many of them rare – that they’d like to grow on. They take seeds or cuttings, cultivate and nurture them, then after 12 months or so, re-pot and label them in readiness for the twice-yearly sale.

There's so much to choose from!

There’s so much to choose from!

Garden-makers of all ages

Garden-makers of all ages


But most who have come today are garden-makers of all ages in search of something special. And that’s what they find – succulents and iris, bulbs shrubs and perennials, orchids, vireyas, herbs, climbers, with a broad and fascinating collection of Australian species. These days plant nurseries can be boringly predictable. Here, there’s so much to choose from!


Tibouchina urvilleana 'Edwardsii'

Tibouchina urvilleana ‘Edwardsii’

I know some of the plants – Loropetalum chinense, Cyclamen hederifolium, Phormium tenax, Brachyscome multifida. Others are familiar, but with a difference – Daphne odora ‘Variegata’ (white flowers rather than pink), Juniperus horizontalis ‘Glauca’ (an extremely flat, low-growing variety). But others are so new to me that I have to copy their botanical names letter by letter – Tibouchina urvilleana ‘Edwardsii’ (with brilliant purple flowers)*, Trichocladus ellipticus (from Zimbabwe), Justicia adhatoda, Strobilanthes anisophylla – and then search out information about them from the volunteer helpers. Or later, at home on line. I’m remembering yet again that this famed botanic garden nurtures and displays around 10,000 plant species from all parts of the world, from those dating from its genesis in the mid-19th century, to those only recently discovered and identified.

A sample bloom of Stenomesson variegatum

A sample bloom of Stenomesson variegatum

Of the plants on sale today, some are seriously expensive. I can’t resist Stenomesson variegatum, a wonderful bulb from the Andes in Peru, even at $40 a pot. Its cluster of yellow-green fluted flowerheads (picked from a mature plant and on display) stops me in my tracks; its long leaves are beautifully structural, there are lots of new shoots popping up from the potting mix. It should do well in one of the tougher parts of my garden.

Olearia astroloba

Olearia astroloba

Others seem very cheap. Six years ago Paul Thompson, the noted Australian plants expert and landscape designer, presented me with Olearia astroloba, a rare and endangered Australian daisy with delicate mauve flowers and fine silver leaves. (It is found in the wild only at Marble Gully, near Mount Tambo in East Gippsland, but adapts very well to cultivation). I’ve treasured this plant, nurtured it, and wished for more. And here it is – at $6 a pot! I snap up what looks like the last two.

Unusual eucalypts

Unusual eucalypts

There’s a fine selection of unusual eucalypts, and of correas. Hostas to die for, salvias I’ve never heard of before. And people to talk to, questions to ask, answers to consider.

and correas

and correas







Salvia .... What is it? I didn't note the name!

Salvia …. What is it? I didn’t note the name





As always, I buy far more than intended. Apart from the Stenomesson and Olearia described above, here’s what I lug home, and happily nestle into my garden ….

• Cyclamen hederifolium – small, pink-flowered with magenta blotches and silver-green-grey leaves. A Mediterranean plant, it’s said to be happy anywhere from woodland to rocky hillsides, so should cope in my sandy water-resistant soil.

• Salvia chamaedryoides – from Mexico, low-growing with small silvery leaves and sky-blue flowers. I’m planting more and more salvias in my garden. They’re so shapely, floriferous and inviting!

And which correa is this?

And which correa is this?

• An Australian correa that’s labelled (wrongly) as Correa alba. Its flowers are not white and starry, but gorgeous lime-green, long and bell-like. (Can anyone identify it for me?)

• Eremophila glabra – a drought-tolerant prostrate native ‘emu bush’ with green-grey foliage and burgundy flowers through winter/spring. I’ll plant it next to my Eremophila maculata, which is doing well.

• Scaevola aemula ‘Purple Fanfare’ – another native, prostrate and wide spreading, short-lived but spectacular (according to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens) with purple fan-shaped flowers. Each flower has five petals. Is it coincidental that ‘scaevola’ is Latin for ‘little hand?’

• Hibbertia vestita – a low-growing Australian plant otherwise known as ‘hairy guinea flower’, also prostrate, with tiny round leaves and bright yellow flowers that open up year-round. It’s compact rather than creeping.

Boronia anemonifolia subsp. variabilis Photo D. Greig

Boronia anemonifolia subsp. variabilis Photo D. Greig

• And last, Boronia anemonifolia var. variabilis – there’s very little to be found online about this Australian plant, but it has white-pink flowers and the volunteer worker who leads me to it notes that it’s beautiful, tough and (unlike some other boronias) long-lasting.

And in the end, that’s exactly what I want – and need – in my garden.

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Anne Latreille

About Anne Latreille

Writer, editor and journalist. Author of 'Garden Voices' (about Australian garden designers past and present, September 2013), 'Garden of a Lifetime' (Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm), 'Kindred Spirits' and 'The Natural Garden'. Melbourne, Victoria.

8 thoughts on “A plant sale with a difference

  1. geraldine on said:

    Are the sales on this weekend? I can’t find anything on the RBG or Friends website.

      • geraldine on said:

        Thanks Catherine.

        • Anne Latreille on said:

          Thanks from me also, Cath. I like to write in the present tense; should have explained that the sale took place earlier in May. But do hope the article encourages interested people to look out for the next one, in spring!

  2. Adele on said:

    Could your purchase be a Correa reflexa numulariifolia?

    • Well I’m not sure – there are similarities, and differences! I already have Correa reflexa numulariifolia in my garden. The leaves of this one, and my new plant, are similar. But the existing plant is prostrate whereas the new one, even though small, is already quite upstanding and looks like it will become more so. Also, on the downward-hanging flower of C. reflexa numulariifolia the petals swell out a little bit, then curve ever so slightly inwards at the bottom, whereas those on my new plant have a more slender alignment, and curve outward at the bottom. And are a little bit longer and a slightly deeper green in colour! I may have to take it along to the Royal Botanic Gardens for some input/feedback. Also – I always thought that numulariifolia was spelled as you have written it. But check it out on the web – it’s ‘nummularifolia’. And in Wrigley and Fagg’s ‘Australian Native Plants’ it’s ‘nummulariifolia’. Which is right, I wonder?! Maybe I’ll ask the guru, Rodger Elliot. Thanks so much for the input Adele.

  3. Mike Williams on said:

    Hello Anne the Correa looks like backhousiana and I’d be quite confident on this.

    Mike Williams
    Australian Plants Society Yarra Yarra Group

  4. Anne Latreille on said:

    Looks like you are right Mike, thanks so much. Leaves and blooms are a perfect match for the little one nestling into a tough part of my garden. I will pass on the info to the Growing Friends. Much appreciated!

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