Until the late 1980s, the Southern California Horticultural Society awarded scholarships to worthy college-level horticulture students. In 1988, the recipient was Tom Kuykendall, until recently director of the Bellevue Botanic Garden in Washington. Tom used the scholarship to study horticulturally important plants from the Australian flora for a period of a year at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I took advantage of Tom’s presence there to arrange for him to purchase and send to the Huntington Botanical Gardens some native Australian plants to expand our collection. Tom obtained plants from Lullfitz and Zanthorrhoea nurseries, two well-known native plant nurseries in the Perth region, and sent them to me in May and June of 1989. The shipment from Lullfitz included twelve plants of Eremophila nivea. Of those, six survived to be planted in the Australian Garden in April of 1991.
Eremophila is a large genus in the Myoporaceae, a family centered in Australia and uncommon in cultivation outside of Australia and New Zealand. One New Zealand tree (Myoporum laetum) and one Australian ground cover (M. parvifolium) in the family are often cultivated in California. Eremophila comprises over 200 species found in semi-arid and arid areas throughout Australia, mainly inland Western Australia, an area of low winter rainfall and no summer rainfall. Sometimes called poverty bushes for their ability to survive long periods of drought and other unfavorable conditions, the scientific name, taken from the Greek eremos (solitary, of the desert), and philos (loving), also reflects this trait. Other common names include native fuchsia and emu bush, the derivation of the latter unknown to me, nor can I even speculate on the association. Typically bearing tubular flowers, about three-quarters of the species are insect pollinated, the rest being bird pollinated.
Eremophilas have great potential for cultivation, and a few species have long been grown in California, the most well-known being the red-flowered Eremophila maculata, its yellow-flowered form ‘Aurea’, and some of the many selections of E. glabra. A more recent introduction is E. racemosa, sometimes dubbed Easter egg eremophila or Easter egg bush for its pink and orange bicolored flowers, also sent to the Huntington by Tom Kuykendall in May 1989 from Zanthorrhoea Nursery. Both E. racemosa and E. nivea are considered endangered in their natural range but have become well-established in cultivation in Australia. Although the former is now widely available in California and Arizona, E. nivea has remained scarce.
The occurrence of eremophilas on heavier, clay-based, alkaline soils in Australia gives them greater adaptability to cultivation in California than many other southwestern Australian plants that occur on deep sandy acidic soils. Difficulty in seed germination has, so far, prevented more species from entering the nursery trade here. However, Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in Arizona has taken an interest in the genus and has had success with germination and with importing living plants. We hope that some new kinds will be available in the future. Most species are easily grown from cuttings.
Eremophila nivea was first described only in 1986 by RJ Chinnock of the State Herbarium of South Australia; Chinnock is in the process of revising the entire genus. It is rare and found only in the single, type population along one kilometer of road near Three Springs in southwestern Australia, growing under scattered eucalyptus on clay loam soil. Prior to being formally described, it was known as E. aff. margarethae (Elliott and Jones, Encylopaedia of Australian Plants) and was often grown in Australia by enthusiasts. There, it is said to be adaptable to a range of soil types and climatic conditions. Growing naturally on sand overlying clay, like many other eremophilas, it tolerates and even prefers heavy soils, although it appreciates good drainage and demands full sun.
Plants of Eremophila nivea in the Huntington’s Australian Garden have had about a three- to five-year life span in our heavy soils with biweekly watering. Here, plants grow to about four to five feet tall and about half as wide, but have been known to reach seven feet high and wide. They usually grow from a single, low-branching stem, the stems and half-inch linear leaves covered in soft, fine, grayish white hairs. In spring, lilac purple tubular flowers appear all along the stems: flowers can also flush during dry periods after a bout of heavy watering, which the plants appreciate. Pruning, especially tip-pinching, should be done regularly from a young age to keep plants compact. They are said to be good container plants, but I have never tried them in such situations. Like many other Australian plants, fertilizing should be kept to a minimum. Choose a site with good air movement, since plants are susceptible to gray mold (Botrytis spp.), especially during cloudy, humid, or prolonged rainy periods.
As part of the Pacific Plant Promotions program, through which new and unusual plants are made available to readers of Pacific Horticulture, the Huntington Botanical Gardens is offering plants of Eremophila nivea for shipment in March and April 2005. To order one, see the Pacific Plant Promotions reservation card (opposite page 64) for details.