Anne LatreilleSmall flowering trees for a Melbourne summer

Throughout January, our Melbourne weather was not what we’re used to. The temperatures swung wildly – 44 degrees on one day and 20 the next – while rainfall came in three waves. Early on was a little bit (not uniform), then mid-month brought 10mm (not to be sneezed at). And then in the last four days the heavens opened, the sun disappeared, and everywhere got soaked. Avalon recorded more than 100mm and the day temperature dipped, in places, to 19 degrees and even 15.

Rich deep red crepe myrtle

Rich deep red crepe myrtle

So now in February, we’re noticing how the sun is shining again. And how the trees and shrubs, which so often look sorry for themselves in this hot summer month, are thriving after that unexpected downpour. What a pleasure it was today to walk out for a light lunch at a nearby café in South Yarra, then to stroll home through the side streets, enjoying trees studded with lush flowers and happy green leaves.

And deep pink!

And deep pink!

You could almost say the crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are smiling! Certainly they’re doing themselves proud. I can’t remember seeing these trees blooming so prolifically, from buds through to armloads of rich flowers in deep red, shades of pink, and white.

Crepe myrtle - trunk, branches, flowers

Crepe myrtle – trunk, branches, flowers

Crepe myrtles thrive in summer and in a hot, dry climate. But they also have spectacular spring growth, autumn foliage and trunks – their silver-grey-apricot bark is visually enthralling. On the practical side, to ensure their root system develops well they initially need plenty of water, but thereafter are remarkably drought-tolerant. They’ll keep on flowering until the end of March, after which some people like to prune them, while others let them grow to their natural shape. These trees are great in gardens – and on the streets.

Eucalyptus caesia, with long leaves, oncoming buds and pine backdrop

Eucalyptus caesia, with long leaves, oncoming buds and pine backdrop

Next came the picturesque gum tree, Eucalyptus caesia. How long, slender, and beautifully green are its leaves (offset by the ‘needles’ of what looks like a small cypress)! How picturesque are last year’s white gumnuts, and how exciting to see new clutches of them – which will flower in deepest pink through winter and early spring – already emerging from the slender silver branches and twigs! This is a wonderful weeping tree. The Western Australian landscape and garden expert, Marion Blackwell, advises:

‘Plant Eucalyptus caesia in groups at footfall distance and let your children enjoy walking under and through them’.

and year-old gumnuts

and year-old gumnuts

Then a small, dense hedge of dwarf magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’) popped up, running down beside a driveway. Set among its deep green leaves (with red-brown undersides) I enjoyed one or two monster flowers, their petals most enticing. Each flower doesn’t last long, but the lovely leaf structure sets off the oncoming buds, and the prickly centre cores that survive when the petals have fallen.

A perfect magnolia flower

A perfect magnolia flower

followed by oncoming flowers

followed by oncoming flowers

and geometrically picturesque remnants

and geometrically picturesque remnants

I was almost home when a white oleander came into view. It stopped me in my tracks because usually these tough trees/shrubs (Nerium oleander) flower in hues of pink, red and apricot. Growing almost anywhere, and happy to be pruned, they’re often described as ‘poisonous but beautiful’. Certainly one should steer clear of ingesting their leaves and flowers – but a website tells me that elements of these (including cardiac glycosides, leaves and roots) can be used for medical purposes. And in Western Sahara that oleander ash is mixed with saltpetre to make gunpowder.

There is something new to be discovered for almost every plant!

White oleander smiles at the sun

White oleander smiles at the sun

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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.

5 thoughts on “Small flowering trees for a Melbourne summer

  1. James Beattie on said:

    I’ve noticed the crepe myrtles especially too, Anne. Just spectacular this year. I’ve not seen their equal in over ten years I reckon. For me they’re the ultimate suburban tree for Melbourne – flowers, foliage, bark, not to mention their wonderful natural habit.

    On that last point I weep whenever I see them being pruned – even when pruned well, to my eye it spoils them.

  2. I agree James – they’re enticing in the city and suburbs. And very well-behaved, especially when they’re not pruned. They seem to sit happily in whatever space they occupy!

  3. Laura on said:

    I’ve been admiring the crepe myrtles in NSW as well. The other star up here has been the frangipanis. I’d never really noticed them and was not a fan but this summer I’m a convert and have planted three.

  4. Sounds great! They’re so prolific. What colours have you chosen?

  5. Lois on said:

    I have just planted a deep red crepe myrtle and also have a white one. Our local shops have them planted as street trees and they are thriving so must be pretty hardy. I do prune of the seed heads on the white one but it’s getting a bit large to keep doing that.

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