If you want the ultimately tough but tasteful plant for your warm climate garden; one which looks good all the time and can take just about anything Mother Nature can throw at it, think about the metrosideros.
I recently had to make a tough decision. The tail end of a recent three-day storm – cyclone, hurricane, typhoon call it what you will – dumped about 30 inches (750 mm)on my garden. Yes people, that’s about London’s average rainfall for the whole year. Austin, Texas gets just over that amount for the whole year too while Los Angeles gets less than HALF that amount a year. And we got it in a couple of days! Combined with strong winds with gusts sometimes reaching 55 mph (90 km) or more, a lot of trees and shrubs lost limbs or were uprooted.
Among them was one of two large shrubs right in front of my front deck. These gave us privacy from the street and protection from the strong western sun but they were straggly things, too large for the bed and in constant need of clipping. They were also grevilleas and thus short-lived. So we pulled out both of them and then had to think what to put in their place in what was now a nice open bed.
After much thought I decided on the metrosideros ‘Fiji’, a cultivar of the little known Metrosideros collina var.’Vitiensis’.
I’ve long been a great admirer of the metrosideros, a genus limited generally to the Pacific, with most species occurring in New Zealand and one, I think, in South Africa. There is also a very beautiful, yellow-flowering tall tree species native to northern Australia (see my companion blog on rainforest plants) but this is outside the scope of this article due to its height (and has also been renamed as Thaleropia queenslandica). The metrosideros types I’m writing about here are those small-growing tough trees and shrubs with neat little leaves, dense growth habit and pretty red bottlebrush flowers. They bear some resemblance to the Australian callistemons (now classified among the melaleucas)and indeed are in the same myrtle family.
The best-known species is Metrosideros exclesa, a common hedge plant in New Zealand where it is commonly known as “pohutukawa”. This is a great screening plant because it can take strong winds, seafront conditions, heavy rain AND long, dry periods. Today there are several garden-friendly cultivars of this species available in garden centres, along with cultivars of other metrosideros species. They all take a lot of beating when it comes to attractive plants for marginal conditions.
I had a choice of several metrosideros types in our local garden center and finally opted for the ‘Fiji’ (indigenous to the Pacific area) because I liked its neat, dark green foliage with a slightly velvety texture when young. New growth is a rich burgundy. The red flowers are smaller than those of the M. excelsa varieties and make a less spectacular early summer show but I feel the small size (to 10 feet/3m maximum) and dense habit of this tree/shrub is more suited to the restricted space of a bed about 13 x 6.5 feet (roughly 4 x 2 meters). So I bought three, and set them off with a border of vincas in shades of pink and white (yes, I know the older vinca species can be invasive in some places but not the new, well-behaved, low-growing nursery types).
In this position, my new metrosideros will have to take the full force of the afternoon sun, westerly winds that can be very hot or very cold in season, heavy downpours of rain in summer and long, dry periods in winter and spring. They should be able to cope with all this very well, as well as temperatures down to zero Celsius for short periods – though not frost. Like all metrosideros types they need a well-drained soil and won’t thrive in heavy clay. They’ll do brilliantly in sandy, windy coastal areas, for which they have evolved, but they can also handle uplands back from the coast, and arid inland areas too. Their water requirement is low, they are great tub plants, and all they need is regular pruning to keep in shape. I plan to tip prune them when young to promote bushiness and, as they become mature, give them a hard cut-back in late summer-early autumn to promote the burgundy new growth for winter color.
And if we get any more wet and windy weather this season I’m confident my fiery-flowering little ‘Fijis’ will be able to handle it.