Philip Swindells,
renowned author on
water gardening including
Waterlilies, 1983

Australian Roundup

Philip Swindells
Editor, Australian Water Gardener

Click images below to enlarge

Water gardening ranks as Australia’s fastest growing sector of the lifestyle gardening market despite recent prolonged drought and the often-negative press pronouncements about domestic garden water features. Not being a native Australian -- and more used to the well known rainy climate of the British Isles, where I lived and gardened for over fifty years -- my introduction to water gardening in Australia during the past few years, and my involvement editorially with the Australian Water Gardener website, has been quite a sharp awakening.

Andre Leu - Profile
However, it has been wonderful to meet Australian water gardeners and to be introduced to some of the many wonderful native aquatic plants of this great continent. Local experts, such as Andre Leu and Surrey Jacobs, continue working successfully to (1) bring Australia’s aquatic flora to our attention and to (2) learn of the conditions under which we might grow it in our gardens. Numerous plants exist to learn about, especially in far north Queensland and the Northern Territory. Many are described and recorded, but we need to learn much about their care and management in cultivation.

As in other parts of the world, we have quite a strong movement in Australia towards growing decorative plants that are native, thus reducing the risks of alien introductions escaping into local waterways and wetlands. With Australia we have one small anomaly; while politically the land mass is one country, geographically it is a continent, a vast expanse that is difficult for Europeans like me to comprehend without having experienced it. This poses the question, “Is a plant found naturally in the Kimberley that escapes from cultivation in southern Queensland, and then establishes locally in waterways, a native or an alien?” It is certainly a long way from home. 

The environment and ecology are likely to be completely different, but the plant is still Australian. How are we judging our “natives” and invasives when such a large land mass is involved--natural geographical areas, or those created artificially by man? This gives us something to think about.

The Department of Agriculture in Western Australia speaks very clearly about invasive aquatic plants and pushes hard to get the message across to water gardeners and aquarists about the dangers posed by non-local native escapees and the cultivation of banned aquatics. Regrettably, gardeners continue to grow banned plants in their water gardens. The Department recently reported cases of Senegal Tea, Gymnocorinis spilanthoides, Alligator Weed, Alternanthera philaxeroides and Horsetails, Equisetum ssp. being cultivated in Perth. In one case Alligator Weed was mistakenly grown as the Asian vegetable Phak Pet Thai.  

Equisetum hyemale

Any time the Department of Agriculture discovers banned plants, it recommends their removal from the pond and drying out on newspaper. When the plants are dead, it advises that they should be buried or disposed of with other green waste in accordance with Council bye-laws. This method of desiccating plants does not work with Horsetails, and advice should be sought from the Department of Agriculture upon finding such plants. In demonstrating the importance of complying with regulations, the Department recently stated that the local taxpayer had to foot a bill of AUD$250,000 to remove a rapidly spreading population of Hydrocotyle, a garden pond escape, from the Canning River.

Although we have, as in most parts of the world, many ill-informed people when it comes to the importance of wetlands and their conservation, in Australia we are experiencing a fast-growing appreciation of the beauty and value of the native aquatic flora. Much of this is thanks to the efforts of those who promote the annual Ramsar World Wetlands Day activities in early February. Australians have taken wetlands to their heart and we always have plenty going on during the first week in February to capture interest and imagination.

One of the most interesting events this year involved demonstrations and an exhibition of the use of the swamp-dwelling Pandanus spiralis at the Window on Wetlands Centre, Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory just south of Darwin. Called An-yakngarra by the local Aboriginal people, Pandanus spiralis is more commonly known as Spiral Pandanus or Screw Pine, owing to its strangely twisted stem. This tropical plant commonly grows along with River or Water Pandanus, Pandanus aquaticus, throughout much of the “Top End” of Australia.  

Pandanus spiralis

While not a plant for other than the enthusiastic water gardener with plenty of room in a tropical climate, it is a fascinating wetland species, as was demonstrated by the Humpty Doo workshop. Aboriginal peoples still extensively use the foliage of this plant for weaving, especially beautiful decorative baskets, of both functional and ceremonial kinds.

Having said that Pandanus spiralis requires plenty of room and a tropical climate, and indicated its probable cultivation solely by the enthusiast, I could almost be echoing what I said about Victoria amazonica in my Waterlilies book published in 1983. Who would have thought then that Victoria could have become as popular as it is today amongst regular water gardeners? Maybe the Screw Pine also has a future in tropical gardens. It is certainly a very fine plant when cultivated, compared with when seen growing in tangled populations in the wild.

To return to Victoria though. There is exciting news that tenders are being submitted this month for the construction of the new Amazon Waterlily Pavilion at Adelaide Botanic Gardens in South Australia. This project is a part of the current 150th anniversary celebrations of the Botanic Gardens. These celebrations started during 2005 and continue until 2007, embracing the period from the date of the first Botanic Gardens’ Committee meeting on 5th March 1855 until the time of the official opening of the Gardens on 4th October 1857.  

Rendering of the new
Amazon Waterlily Pavilion
Adelaide Botanic Gardens
Image from
Adelaide Botanic Garden
The Pavilion will replace the structure that accommodated Australia's first Victoria to flower in 1868 and will incorporate the heritage-listed pond that was constructed earlier the same year. The Pavilion will be a contemporary energy-efficient glasshouse and smaller in area than the original structure. Victoria amazonica is an important plant historically for the Gardens, as it was not only the first place for it to flower in Australia, but it was collected by Sir Robert Schomburgk, the brother of the second Adelaide garden director, Richard Schomburgk. Sir Robert had originally sent plants to London, England, and from which John Lindley made the original description of Victoria.    

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