Over the fence, down the road, out the back, in the park, on the corner…
Callistemons - they can be spotted everywhere, all over Australia. You would be hard pressed to take a walk, ride or drive anywhere and not see one. They are having their moment in the sun right now, as they bloom and blossom through their many shades of red, rose, purple and orange. They can also be found with gorgeous white bottle-shaped brushes and this is another famous name for the humble Callistemon - the Bottlebrush.
What’s in a name? Well, this name comes from two Greek words, ‘callis’ meaning beautiful and ‘stemon’ meaning stamens, the most striking part of the blossoms. In fact, the part we might associate being the most beautiful part of a flower - the petals - is completely missing from the Bottlebrush. But, nevertheless, it is certainly true that their blossoms are spectacular. Plant scientists now think the genus is very similar to Melaleuca and some of our beloved Callistemons may some day be reclassified as Melaleuca. Our experience of them won’t change - an explosion of colour and birdlife in spring.
Callistemons make fabulous garden specimens. They are hardy shrubs or small trees with spectacular flowers - nectar-feeding birds, insects, gliders and people love them. Most can tolerate wet soils for a while, having evolved in swampy areas, like the Callistemon citrinus; or along creek and river banks like the Callistemon viminalis. And then they can strive on through the toughest droughts. These two types are commonly grown and are the parents of most of our colourful cultivars today. Originally mostly red, they are now a rainbow of white, cream, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple. They hybridise readily.
Cultivars that come from the parent C. citrinus are generally more shrub than tree and have broad leaves. ‘Little John’, ‘Cherry Time’, ‘Hannah Ray’, ‘White Anzac’, 'Burgundy' are cultivars of this type. They tolerate wet, alkaline and acid soils; drought and frost
Cultivars that come from C. viminalis are a little taller if let go, but look great when pruned into a hedge. Their branches hang to the ground, giving it its common name of Weeping Bottlebrush. ‘Ricks Red’, ‘Captain Cook’, ‘Wildfire’ are named cultivars. C. viminalis can be frost tender when young, but can grow at a good pace and get above the frosts in a year or two.
No need to load these plants up with fertiliser - they didn’t evolve with rich soils so you can let them do their thing on their own.
Another great, practical thing about the bottlebrush is its tenacious roots. They can be planted to stabilise steep banks, or eroding creeksides where they will hang on through flooding. This makes them invaluable pioneer trees in a regeneration planting.
Some readers might remember several years ago the Kyogle Pool gardeners hard pruned a row of Callistemon viminalis that grew along the fenceline along the Summerland Way. They had been quite tall, upwards of 5 metres and more, but after that prune they have been a lovely dense hedge, looking fresh every year.
A must for any garden.