Sandy’s Garden ... Bottlebrush Plants

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I can’t remember ever having seen a bottlebrush plant outside a botanical garden or the ornamental gardens of an estate in Scotland.

Having said that, I am more than happy to concede that they may be here in large numbers and my failure to recall having seen them is down either to my failing memory or to some simple lack of observance on my part. So I was somewhat surprised to find a selection of them in a local garden centre, in full bloom and begging to be bought. I was sorely tempted, but succeeded in restraining my impulse, in part because I had no idea how suitable they are for the climate of central Scotland. I need not have worried on that score, for I have since learned that they are reckoned, by the US Department of Agriculture, to be sufficiently hardy to survive minimum temperatures down to -12oC for short spells; and that should see them through all but the most severe Scottish winters.

Bottlebrush plants get their name from the spikes of flowers that bloom at the ends of the stems, bearing a strong resemblance to a bottle brush. They come, originally, from the more temperate regions of Australia, in particular the east coast; and they do best in moist conditions. Their attraction to gardeners is their habit of blooming throughout the summer months, the glorious red flowers looking for all the world like large bottlebrushes. They can be grown either as small trees … all the branches springing from a single stem … up to, say, 5 metres tall (15 feet in old money) or as shrubs with several stems rising above ground from the roots. Australian gardeners use them as foundation plants … plantings that ring the base of their homes to hide the foundations and soften the hard edges where the buildings meet the garden … and in borders, around parking lots and on the side of water pools for landscaping purposes. They are cultivated nowadays in many countries round the world and, as garden escapees, have become naturalised in a few.

Callistemon citrinus … the bottlebrush plant’s pukka botanical name … gets its generic name from two Greek words, ‘kallos’, meaning beautiful and ‘stemon’, meaning ‘stamen’ which is the showy part of the plant’s flowers; and ‘citrinus’, which is derived from a Latin word meaning ‘lemon-scented.’ Ironically, that botanical name was officially dropped in 1998, when the plant was deemed to be a member of a very similar plant family and not a separate genus: but, since most garden centres and most gardeners around the world still use the former name, that will serve our purpose. The plants were introduced into Europe in 1789, when Joseph Banks brought the first specimens to Kew Gardens in London. Banks … I should give him his title, Sir Joseph … was an intrepid English naturalist, botanist and patron of the natural sciences. He, of course, had found bottlebrush plants in south-eastern Australia, where the indigenous people made an energy drink from the flowers, although I think it was the appearance of these flower rather than any possible medicinal value which attracted his attention.

As bottlebrush plants have been spread around the world, further uses have been found for several parts of them. The wood is hard, heavy, tough and close grained, and is used for tool handles. It can be burned as fuel. An essential oil … oil normally used as a natural remedy for various conditions and to improve the health of skin, hair and body… is said to bring tranquil, healing vibrations to a room or, indeed, to an entire house. And a tan dye is obtained from the flowers. (As always, I simply quote these claims, neither endorsing them nor dismissing them; I just recommend that you don’t test any of them!) But if you’d like to add a bottlebrush to the variety of plants in your garden, it should thrive in Falkirk.