Integrating exotics & natives

It’s a common misconception that indigenous plants don’t harmonise with exotics. If you want a garden that celebrates your local (indigenous) flora, but exotic plants feel like a garden necessity, for ornament, nostalgia or shade, what can you do? With thoughtful plant selection and placement, it is possible to integrate these very different planting design elements.

Indigenous Sticky Everlastings (Xerochrysm viscosum) bring long-lasting magic to a flower garden (photo by C. Read)


Under-plant deciduous trees

We have just one deciduous tree in Australia, the Deciduous Beech, and it only grows in the Tasmanian highlands. So how can you balance your needs for deciduous shade with a passion for indigenous plants? Though many natives do struggle under deciduous shade, there are a wide range of shade tolerant species that will cope. Low shrubs such as wattles, correas and boronias can all thrive in shady conditions. Perennial flowers such as Cut-leaf Daisy (Brachyscome multifida) and Morning-flag (Orthrosanthus multiflorus) grow well in my garden under a large Pistachio tree. And ground covers like Bidgee Widgee (Acaena novae-zelandiae), Native Violet (Viola hederacea) and Kidney Weed (Dichondra repens), all flourish in the semi-shade of a canopy, deciduous or evergreen, especially if you prevent leaves piling on top of them.

Screen your boundaries

There are so many indigenous screening shrubs and trees to chose from. Any local plant with dense branching and foliage will make both a beautiful screen and a wildlife haven.  Prickly plants such as Hedge Wattle (Acacia paradaoxa), Bushy Needlewood (Hakea decurrens), Tree violet (Melicytus dentatus) and Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) will be valued by local bushbirds for shelter from predators. If you need a rapid screen select a wattle. Then you can be looking to foliage and birdlife in a couple of years. If you are in a high fire risk area, the CFA recommends group your plantings in areas of 5m wide or less. So be strategic about placement to block our unsightly views. Tall saltbushes such as Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) are a useful fire retardant option for a low screen where you just don’t want a gap.

Screening out neighbours with trunks of gum trees, blossom sprays of the Gold-dust Wattle (Acacia aculeatissima, centre), dense canopy of the Hop Bush (Dodonea viscose ssp cuneata, right) and a low screen Rock Correas (Correa glabra)  in the background (photo by C. Read)

Intermingle indigenous and exotic ornamentals

There is plenty of scope for innovation with intermingling indigenous and exotic plants. Rock Correas (Correa glabra) complement the vivid green of pomegranates. Sticky Everlastings (Xerochrysum viscosum) add a bright spark to any ornamental flower garden. Hedge Saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens) provide a striking, pale contrast to any bright coloured or bold foliage planting. Go on, have fun and be playful.

Be playful and experiment with interweaving native and exotic plantings (photo by C. Read)


Many gardeners find themselves sitting in one of two design camps:

‘Indigenous or nothing’       or       ‘Natives are ugly.’

If you find yourself in one of these, remember, all plants can fulfil different functions in a garden. Natives and exotics do work beautifully together. Start experimenting and stay curious. You never know what you’ll discover.

Dwarf Yellow Gum (Eucalyptus leucoxylon, left), Common Tussock Grasses (Poa labillardieri), a young Red Box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos)  and Small leaved Clematis (Clematis microphylla, vine top-right)  in the foreground, intermingle beautifully with a Lemon tree, Star Jasmine and Lemon Verbena that frame the blue door in the background.

Words and photos by Cassia Read. Article first published in ‘The Watering Can,’ Western Water’s garden e-news, Summer 2018. 

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