I do love unusual plants. As a child I thrilled to the South American monkey puzzle tree (arucaria arucana), a relative of Norfolk Island pine whose curly branches were supposed to deter the efforts of even the most agile monkey.
As I grew older it was inevitably the oddest and quirkiest plants that caught my eye when travelling – the black bat flower (tacca chantrieri) I first saw blooming in a Sri Lankan garden; the rainbow eucalyptus or mindanao gum (E. deglupta) we came across on holiday in Hawaii with its vibrant limey green, brown and dark red striped bark and the weird yellow fruit of Buddha’s hand (citrus medica) from northern India that looks exactly like a cluster of malignant fingers pointing at you.
Quite apart from its endearing ‘foot’, the elephant yucca is a splendid small tree, ideal for gardeners looking to make a structural statement.
Wandering around a beachside suburb recently, I noticed a tree yucca in flower with a large woody trunk that had escaped its bed and was growing over the footpath.
It looked like nothing so much as an elephant’s foot and I was delighted to discover this striking small tree is also known as elephant yucca (Y. elephantipes).
Owner Russell Heazlett thinks it was planted about 18 years ago. It has probably reached full height (three-four metres) and was bearing clusters of distinctive, creamy, bell shaped flowers, unfortunately too high up for us to smell them.
Quite apart from its endearing ‘foot’, the elephant yucca is a splendid small tree, ideal for gardeners looking to make a structural statement. But, highland and inland gardeners beware, its climate classification is zone 10, which means it won’t tolerate temperatures below zero.
I can vouch for this, having once planted one in a big outdoor pot and lost it the following winter. If you yearn for a yucca, Y. filamentosa and Y. gloriosa are frost-hardy (and smaller).
The staghorn sumach (rhus typhina) is another appealing small tree. I first spotted one from a bus speeding through a tiny uplands Romanian village, so I knew if nothing else it would be hardy.
Originating from north-eastern North America, it has pinnate leaves, incomparable autumn colour and best of all, branches covered in dark brown velvet like deer antlers.
My sterile cultivar rhus typhina 'laciniata' has stood up well to our Central Tablelands summers, despite originating from a higher rainfall part of the globe.
Ornamental grasses remain popular elements of garden design, and the wide range of miscanthus species and cultivars include an absolute must-have for the rare plant nut – ‘zebrinus, whose eye-catching gold stripes are horizontal, not vertical.
The best place to find unusual plants in NSW is the annual Collectors’ Plant Fair (collectorsplantfair.com) at Hawkesbury Race Club, Clarendon.
This year’s fair is to be held on April 6-7 and will have more than 100 stalls offering zillions of luscious plants, seeds, pots, planters and gardening books, along with coffee and eight food trucks to keep your hunger at bay all day if necessary.
One not to miss is ABC Gardening Australia’s 30-year special broadcast on Friday, February 15, at 7.30pm.