Eight Australian native plants for boosting biodiversity

If we say “Australian native plants”, eucalypts are probably among the first that spring to mind. For good reason: they are keystone species for many Australian ecosystems, creating microclimates suitable for other plants and offering shelter, food, and nesting places for wildlife like koalas, possums and gliders.

When it comes to doing our bit for biodiversity though, more is more! Planting a mix of species creates more diverse, resilient habitat that supports a greater range of native wildlife and benefits us all.

Here are eight of our favourite Australian native plants, which you could use to give your backyard, verge or balcony a biodiversity boost!

1. Kangaroo paws – Anigozanthos species (spp.)

How Aussie can you get? Not only do the flowers look like a kangaroo’s paws, but there are just 11 species and subspecies in the whole world (10 Anigozanthos plus one other Australian species, Macropidia fuliginosa, also commonly called a kangaroo paw), and they are all native to southwest Western Australia.

Given their home range, it’s no surprise that kangaroo paws like well-draining soils and sunny positions. They make great additions to a home garden, grow well in pots and are long-lasting as cut flowers – you can even just mow over them at the end of their flowering season and watch them bounce back the next season. Their nectar-laden flowers are sweet heaven for pollinators like birds and insects.

Bright red kangaroo paw flowers

Kangaroo paws come in an incredible range of colours and sizes.

2. Banksias – Banksia spp.

Many Aussies recognise the seed pods of these unique plants as the Big Bad Banksia Men in May Gibbs’ famous Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories. All 173 Banksia species except one are native to Australia, and they are found all around the country except in arid regions, growing in various forms and sizes from ankle-high prostrate shrubs to huge 25-metre trees. So there should be at least one that suits your patch or a pot!

They attract nectar-feeding birds, insects and mammals like microbats who love the sweet flowers, while parrots and cockatoos eat the seeds. And they do it almost year-round, putting out fresh flower cones and retaining old flowers and seed pods for months – so you can often see all stages of the flower at once on one plant.

Did you know? Some close relatives of the Banksia, also endemic to Australia, include Grevillea, Hakea, Isopogon, and Telopea species, all plants that provide similarly great habitat value.

A Yellow-Faced Honeyeater drinking from a Banksia flower.

Nectar-feeders like this Yellow-Faced Honeyeater are attracted to Banksia flowers. Photo: Jennifer Goldsworthy.

3. Australian native grasses

Maybe using this umbrella term in our list is cheating, but the biodiversity boost from planting native grasses like Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), wallaby grasses (Rytidosperma spp.), speargrasses (Austrostipa spp.), tussock-grasses (Poa spp.), mat rushes (Lomandra spp.) and flax lilies (Dianella spp.) really can’t be overstated. And with 1,000 grasses native to Australia – it’s too hard to pick between them!

Native grasses are super troopers in a garden. They are low-maintenance and drought-hardy, stabilising soils and thriving in some very tough spots e.g. under trees and beside driveways. They work well as specimen plants in beds or pots, look great planted in groups, borders or swales, and some can even be used as a lawn alternative.

All this, and they provide vital habitat for a variety of wildlife, whether it be hosting native butterfly larvae, providing seeds and berries for native finches and pigeons, sheltering skinks and geckos, or attracting birds who like hunting for insects. Plant some today.

A close up of the distinctive seedheads of Kangaroo Grass.

The distinctive seedheads of Kangaroo Grass – this iconic native species is not only beautiful to look at, but provides great habitat as well. Photo: Elizabeth Donoghue via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

4. Paperbarks and honey-myrtles – Melaleuca spp.

Most Melaleucas have oil glands in their leaves, so they smell aromatic when crushed. Possibly the most famous is Melaleuca alternifolia, the source of tea-tree oil, which is a natural antiseptic and commonly used in Australian households for slapping on a cut, sting or pimple.

There are nearly 300 species of Melaleuca, most of which are endemic to Australia (a few occur in nearby countries), found in a wide variety of habitats. Many are adapted to living in swamps and boggy spots (hello solution for slow-draining soils!).

Their attractive flowers make them great garden plants, but also important food sources for nectar-feeding insects, birds, bats and mammals.

Looking up into the canopy of a melaleuca tree covered in white blossoms.

Snow-in-Summer (Melaleuca linariifolia) are used as street trees in some Australian suburbs – planting more native species on verges is a great way to support biodiversity in cities.

5. Kurrajongs and Bottletrees – Brachychiton spp.

Kurrajongs get a spot on this list of Australian native plants for many reasons – not least that Brachychiton acerifolius, the Illawarra Flame Tree, features in one of Aussie band Cold Chisel’s best songs! There are so many fun facts about these plants – some have swollen trunks to store water (hence, bottletrees), some act as compasses in the desert, you can eat the roasted seeds, and they have many other culturally significant uses including using the fibrous bark to make twine for fishing lines, nets and other woven goods (‘kurrajong’ in Dharug language means ‘fishing line’).

For the garden – even in pots – they are fast-growing, hardy, attractive trees. The shade and shelter they provide with their dense, lush green foliage is important for humans and wildlife alike, and they produce masses of bell-shaped flowers that are extremely attractive to pollinators like bees.

Bright red flowers of the Illawarra Flame Tree against a blue sky

The fire-engine red flowers of Brachychiton acerifolius. Photo: Little MiMi from Pixabay

6. Grass Trees – Xanthorrhoea spp.

This must be one of the most iconic native plants, totally unique to Australia. There are some 30 different species, and they’re found in every state and territory. Drought and frost tolerant, they’ve evolved to survive in the poorest of soils, growing slowly on nutrients scrounged from decaying litter and through firmly rooted friendships with mycorrhizal fungi. Some have evolved fire strategies e.g. protecting the living growth point deep in the centre of their base, insulated from the heat of fire by thick dead leaves.

Grass Trees are culturally significant with multiple traditional uses, and their flower spikes produce a huge amount of nectar, supporting a wide variety of insects, birds, and mammals. They can make great feature plants in a garden – but if you’re not growing your own (very slowly) from seed, be careful and ask questions before buying anything fully-grown. Illegal harvest from bushland is a real problem, and the chance of survival is not high because translocation disrupts their symbiotic relationships with microbes. Enjoy these Australian native plants by visiting (and supporting) our national parks and reserves!

A butterfly is perched on the flower spike of a grass tree

The flower spikes of Xanthorrhoea provide food for many different species, including this Australian Painted Lady butterfly. Photo: Jean and Fred Hort CC BY 2.0

7. Wattles – Acacia spp.

You didn’t think we’d make a list of Australian native plants without including Acacias, did you? One of the wattles (Acacia pycnantha) is Australia’s national floral emblem, and their golden puffball flowers bring joy to Aussie hearts, brightening the bush during grey winters and signalling the arrival of Spring. They deserve a spot on this list for quite a few other reasons as well.

Acacias are essentially self-fertilising – they form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots – so they’re good at growing in poor soils, improving the soil for other plants, and supporting soil health. Their root systems also help stabilise soil. They are fast-growing and often densely foliaged, which means they can be used as hedges and windbreaks, and as safe nesting habitat for small birds.

They are an important food source for many creatures too: their flowers attract pollinators, animals like to graze on their leaves (eating the pods can even increase parasite resistance in livestock), and birds like to eat the seeds (some are eaten happily by humans too!). There’s sure to be one that’s a great low-maintenance addition to your backyard or balcony.

A Striated Thornbill sits on a twig, surrounded by wattle flowers and leaves.

Small birds like this Striated Thornbill can find good nesting habitat in wattles. Photo: Penny from Pixabay

8. Correas – Correa spp.

It was tough picking the final species for our list of eight, but easy-growing correas are here with bells on (that’s a pun about their flower shape) when it comes to boosting backyard or balcony biodiversity. There are just 11 species of these flowering shrubs, all endemic to Australia, but they are popular garden plants with many hybrids and hundreds of cultivars available in nurseries.

They are popular because they combine sought-after traits. Correa alba and Correa glabra, for example, are hardy to heavy frosts and severe drought. As woodland understorey plants, most are also happy in partly shaded positions, handy for gardeners in built-up suburban environments.

They produce beautiful bell-shaped to tubular flowers for months on end that attract nectar-feeding birds and insects. They can also provide nesting for birds, especially if a few are planted together as a thicket. They respond well to shaping or they’re also fine with a low-maintenance trim every now and then too. A great addition to any Australian garden.

Close-up of bell-shaped, pink correa flowers

The distinctive tubular bell-shaped flowers of correas attract a range of pollinators and birds. Credit: Christine’s Backyard CC BY-NC 2.0

There are so many other wonderful Australian native plants for boosting biodiversity – we haven’t even scratched the surface with eight! Finding more to add to your backyard or balcony is easy as ABC. We’ll start you off with Allocasuarina, Boronia, Callistemon, Dodonea, Eremophila… you fill in the rest.

Want articles like this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe for our updates.

Share this article