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The look of Aus: the eucalyptus tree

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Sometimes garden inspiration can come from surprising places. Re-watching David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planetfor the fourth time, I know I should have been wowed by epic aerial shots of kangaroos and wombats on snowy mountain tops, but all I could focus on were the amazing plants. Statuesque alpine snow gums rising out of the cold and ice, with lacy, evergreen canopies swaying in the breeze, were to me something straight out of a sci-fi film. The incongruity of such fresh, green life against the face of all environmental adversity just felt so magical. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it all is that such rugged origins mean these impossibly exotic trees will be perfectly happy in Old Blighty. In fact, there are few trees that are better suited to increasingly small, urban plots, and yet they still remain inexplicably underused.

The highland home of snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp niphophila) has turned a plant whose lowland relatives include some of the tallest trees on Earth into a true dwarf, up to 90% smaller. Reaching a maximum of 10m tall when allowed to grow as an upright standard, it can be further shrunk by cutting out the leader after planting, resulting in a beautiful, multi-stemmed specimen reaching as little as 4m tall. This pruning will also constrict the root growth, improve the character of the tree and prevent it toppling in high winds, so I can’t urge you strongly enough to do this, especially on smaller plots.

The trees’ high-altitude provenance also means that they will shrug off temperatures as low as -15C, making them reliably hardy across Britain. Add to that the fact they are tolerant of a wide range of soil types, not generally troubled by pests and diseases and are some of the most affordable to buy. It’s a huge shame that they aren’t more widely planted.

All you need is a sunny spot on well drained soil at least 5-6m from a building, to allow for space for its canopy, and you’re good to go. Unlike its far more vigorous relatives, the small stature of this species means it won’t put masonry or building foundations at risk, especially if the tree is pruned to a small multi-stem form. Eucalyptus are among the fastest-growing tree species, so even a 30cm sapling of this dwarf species planted in spring could reach head height by the following summer.

This means you can even start your own from seed and have a specimen tall enough to give you shade to sit under in five years or so. I can’t think of a better reward in exchange for so little outlay from any other tree species. As gum trees really resent root constriction or disturbance, it really pays to plant your trees at a young age, in my experience ideally less than 1m tall. For the exact same reason, they will always be far more happy in the ground than in a container, which is their only significant limitation for urban growers.

With a beautiful, sculptural shape, fluffy white flowers and year-round fragrant foliage, this has to be one of the most generous small trees out there that is so tolerant it will handle anything the city can throw at it.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek



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