Australian Native Plants Nursery
Photos/Words by Misty Hall
Many of us drive by a plant paradise every single day and don’t even know it. But the Australian Native Plants Nursery has been quietly cultivating hundreds of species from Down Under in Casitas Springs since the early 1990s.
Jo O’Connell found her way to the Ojai Valley when she took a job with Taft Gardens about 30 years ago. A native Australian herself, she spent time traveling before getting a degree in horticulture from the Western Sydney University at Hawkesbury. Her fascination with plants stemmed from wanting to know what things were called. “I just wanted to know what I was looking at,” she said.
Left: Leucadendron salignum ‘Blush’. Right: Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream’.
She spent a year working on Taft Garden, went home to the outback, then came back to California again for a visit. “Then I found a husband and got stuck here,” she said with a hearty chuckle. She and her husband, Byron Cox, decided to settle down in Casitas Springs and open a nursery featuring the native Australian plants Jo loved so well.
Left: Jo O’Connell strolls through her lush garden of Australian natives. Right: Xanthorrhoea (grass tree).
The delightful things growing in Jo’s expansive collection include things we’ve all seen before, such as the red bottle brush that’s become popular in this area for its hardiness and big brush-like flowers. Cut flower lovers and farmers market frequenters might also be familiar with the proteas and banksias. But have you ever heard of grevilleas? Leucadendrons? Xanthorrhoeas?
Banksia ericifolia buds.
See, this is why you need to get yourself down to Jo’s place. It’s not just their names that are unusual and exotic; the plants themselves are, too. Some of the species are downright prehistoric looking, like the xanthorrhoeas or grass tree. Its base is a massive ball of long grass-like blades with dramatic spears of bright white flowers reaching out several feet into the sky. When the flowers die, the stalks turn brown but still stand tall, presenting a whole different kind of drama.
Eramophila has tons of small leaves, bright trumpet-like flowers, and flourishes in the desert. “That one never gets watered,” Jo said, pointing to a bright pink variety.
Showy Banksias have amazing green and yellow flowers, but it was the foliage that stopped me in my tracks, with deeply serrated leaves that almost look like pointy teeth.
The nursery pup, Wallaby, is always ready to play.
As we walked around, Jo grabbed a leaf off a short tree and crushed it for me to sniff. It smells lemony. “That’s backhousia,” she said. It’s used in tea and curries as a lemon substitute, and is becoming popular with Australian chefs in the U.S. “Australians are even putting it into gin now,” Jo said.
She’s got a few eucalyptus trees too of course; the victrix, or mini ghost gum, has lovely white bark, while the Kruseana features fuzzy, butter-yellow flowers and only gets to be about 6 feet tall.
My favorite are probably the Grevilleas, a long-flowering plant which seems to be made up of hundreds of insect antennae (and make photographers wish they’d brought a macro lens).
Grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’.
You’d think such unusual plants would be delicate and tricky to care for; not so with the things Jo grows.
“They’re hardy in dry weather, hardy in wet weather,” said Jo, who also grows a few South Africans and the occasional New Zealander. The climate in these areas is similar enough to Ojai that they can be very successful here. They’re often even tolerant to some fire, too — which Jo and Byron learned first-hand during the Thomas Fire, which took their home and a good chunk of plants as well. But many that had burned have bounced back. “Fire is part of the Australian landscape, too.”
Left: Banksia serrata seed follicles. Right: Eucalyptus kruseana.
There sure is a lot to love about Australian natives. “A lot of these plants get big,” Jo said, “so if you have a small garden you don’t need too many. And if you have a large garden, they’ll fill up space quickly. They’re fast growing.” Plant a few smallish trees for shade, she suggests, and soon temperatures significantly lower in your yard as a whole. Attract hummingbirds, bees and other insects with grevilleas especially. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage the roots to dive deep and become drought hardy.
Jo is a passionate horticulturist who expertly blends useful information with dry comedy. “People sometimes come in and want plants that need no maintenance that flower all year long. Australian plants don’t need a lot, but all plants need some maintenance, some care. They’re not like a ceramic pot!”
Jo’s got another comedian to compete with, however — her Queensland heeler, Wallaby (Wallaby! Insert heart eyes emoji, right?!), who loves greeting customers with a well-loved soccer ball in hopes of a pat and maybe a quick game.
Visit Jo, Wallaby, Byron and the other natives from Down Under on Nye Road, Monday through Friday by appointment only. Call (805) 649-3362, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit australianplants.com.
More of Jo’s Australian gardening tips:
• Never plant in a dry hole
• Wait for heat waves to pass before planting
• Water deeply and infrequently
• Use well-drained soil, such as a cactus mix
• Mulch! (Just not dry mulch.)
• Prune! (And call Jo to make sure you’re doing it right)
• Go light on the fertilizer, making sure to choose one that’s low in phosphorous