This is the perfect flower for Australia’s unpredictable weather

Bottlebrush is the mundane common name for the flowers that have been stunning Sydney over recent weeks. As there is nothing kitchen sink about them I prefer ‘Callistemon’, from two Greek words, ‘kallos’ meaning beautiful and ‘stema’ referring to the flowers: much more appropriate.

But then again, no longer accurate. Botanists have determined that Callistemons are not distinct enough from Melaleucas to be a separate species. Callistemons have officially been Melaleuca since 2009. Nonetheless, you’ll continue to find them in nurseries, and here, named Callistemon.

Callistemons grow naturally along the east coast in creek beds and areas prone to flooding, but have evolved to also survive long periods of dry weather.Credit:iStock

While many plants have resented our Long Wet, Callistemons have loved it. They grow naturally along the east coast in creek beds and areas prone to flooding. And yet, being Australian natives, they have evolved to also survive long periods of dry weather.

In areas of the garden that have become determinedly soggy, but won’t be that way forever, Callistemon may be the answer. They can also be grown in a pot, but make sure it’s a big one, and prune to keep the plant in proportion to its root ball.

The dominant species on our part of the coast is C. citrinus, named for the citrus-like scent of the little spear-shaped leaves that march up the stems. Further north, the dominant species is the weeping bottlebrush, C. viminalis, with longer leaves. There are a handful of other species up and down the coast and all get on well, exchanging pollen and cross-breeding so that there is a wide range of natural variation.

And even more variation in the hands of breeders, who have created a Callistemon to suit your every desire, from dense shrubs a bit over a metre tall, to plants for screening that grow in narrow spaces, or hedging in a range of heights, or elegant small trees. And if crimson doesn’t suit, flower colours now range beyond red to white, through pale and hot pink to mauve, with a diversion into yellow and lime.

These days, Callistemons come in just about every shape, size and colour.Credit:iStock

All produce their biggest flower flush in spring and early summer, follow it up with a further flush in autumn, and continue to produce the odd flower for much of the year, attracting nectar-loving birds and insects and the little birds that feed on the insects. (The ‘flowers’ are actually composed of hundreds of flowers, with petals so small as to be virtually invisible and long, pollen-tipped stamens. Like other flowers made up of stamens, vase life is short, if dramatic.)

A position in full sun will produce the most impressive flower display. Fertilising is not necessary, but will encourage growth and flowers. Use a fertiliser developed for native plants, avoid contact with flowers or foliage, and keep it at least 20cm away from the base of the plant.

What you do need to do is prune. Left alone, Callistemon develop woody seed pods that build up along the stems, creating a messy-looking plant. To prevent a decline into kitchen-sink disappointment, prune off the spent bottlebrush flowers in summer and autumn, or cut the whole plant back by a third after the autumn flush.

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