Rainforest or tropical gardens

The dominant tone of these gardens is green with an atmosphere of lush growth. Taller trees provide shady conditions underneath for ferns and other shade-loving understorey species. Tree ferns and palms add lush tropical notes, although there are only two palm trees that are native to the region. Vines can also be used as feature plants in larger gardens, with some such as the Giant Pepper Vine (Piper hederacea) looking spectacular at their best.
Large areas of the Illawarra Grevillea Park are landscaped with a mix of rainforest species and local eucalypts. In natural areas, rainforest and eucalypt forest often grow adjacent to each other, with eucalypts on drier exposed ridges and rainforest growing in the sheltered gullies. Image by Tracee Lea ©.
It is much easier to achieve a tropical feel in areas that naturally support rainforest, such as in sheltered parts of the escarpment and on the rich volcanic soils of areas such as the Berkeley hills, around Kiama and in the Berry area.  Areas alongside creeks and rivers are sometimes suited to rainforest gardening, although management of waterways and flooding issues need to be kept in mind. Almost any garden in the region will support some of the toughest rainforest trees that grow here naturally.

How to achieve the look:

  • ensure a good supply of water, particularly when plants are young, and being prepared to set up a regular watering routine or reticulation system
  • keep weeds to a minimum, particularly around the bases of plants, as these will compete with the plants, many of which have shallow roots
  • establish a sheltering canopy, or plant under existing trees in the garden for initial cover (Remember: the closer together you plant rainforest trees, the taller the canopy will be.)
  • establish different planting levels
    • tall shade-givers
    • medium small tree or shrub level
    • low plantings including ferns that can be grown in drifts
  • allow leaf and mulch layer to build up to create a natural look and help retain soil moisture; consider adding mulch to the site if natural build-up is slow
  • introduce vines, climbers and scrambling plants once trees and shrubs are well established
  • add epiphytes such as Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium australasicum) or orchids to grow in established trees or on rocks
  • achieve a sense of lushness by using large-leaved plants, some colourful and contrasting leaf colours and variegated foliage
  • use water features such as a pond or trickling water to mimic rainforest streams
Ferns are a particular feature of many tropical and rainforest gardens, and can be used to create form and texture on the ground. Illawarra is home to a wide variety of ferns with contrasting foliage colours and textures, although they may be hard to come by in nurseries. The region’s two native palms, Cabbage Palm (Livistona australis) and Bangalow Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamii), are also at home in tropical and rainforest gardens.
A range of tree ferns and ground ferns growing happily together. (Disclosure: some of the ferns featured may not be local natives.) Image by Stacey Evans.
Large palms are a staple in rainforest and tropical gardens. Even when young, the foliage of Cabbage Palms
(Livistona australis) is lush and interesting. Image by Tracee Lea ©.
You can use the plant search tool on this website for plants that grow on the escarpment or in volcanic areas, as many (although not all) of them are rainforest species. Some plants to consider include the following:

Large canopy trees

White Beech (Gmelina leichhardtii)
Magnificent tall rainforest tree with pale leaves and interesting flowers and purple fruit
Red Cedar (Toona ciliata)
Iconic deciduous tree with pink/bronze new growth in spring
Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsa)
Medium sized tree with felty leaves and pleasing bunches of creamy-white flowers
Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius)
Classic large deciduous tree with large leaves, red flowers and interesting seed pods
Illawarra Plum Pine (Podocarpus elatus)
Dense but slow growing shrub, eventually a tall tree, bush tucker
Pigeonberry Ash (Elaeocarpus kirtonii)
Tall straight-trunked tree with attractive serrated leaves that turn red before falling
Maiden’s Blush (Sloanea australis)
Water-hungry tree with stunning reddish new growth and interesting flowers
Smaller canopy trees

White Cedar (Melia azedarach)
Small deciduous tree with lacy foliage and pretty purple and white flowers
Guioa (Guioa semiglauca)
Small tree with a dark often twisted trunk and leaves with a whitish undersurface
Native Quince (Alectryon subcinereus)
Small tree to 6m with mottled bark and a trunk with twisted, irregular fluting
Coast Canthium (Cyclophyllum longipetalum)
Small tree or tall shrub with fragrant flowers that turn from white to orange then brown
Native Celtis (Celtis paniculata)
Small, robust tree with spreading canopy
Cheese Tree (Glochidion ferdinandi)
Small neat tree with glossy green leaves and interesting cheese-shaped fruit
Blackthorn (Bursaria spinosa var. spinosa)
Mid-sized shrub or small tree with tiny round leaves and white flowers
Blue Cherry (Syzygium oleosum)
Striking and uncommon small local tree with edible blue fruits
Small understorey trees

Tree Heath (Trochocarpa laurina)
Shrub or small tree to 4m, but smaller if kept pruned, attractive pinkish new growth
Featherwood (Polyosma cunninghamii)
Small tree with pretty pale green toothed leaves and black fruit
Grey Myrtle (Backhousia myrtifolia)
Small or mid-sized tree that starts out shrubby
Whalebone Tree (Streblus brunonianus)
Tough small-leafed tree that can also be pruned to maintain a shrub form
Brush Bloodwood (Baloghia inophylla)
A small rainforest tree with large dark green leaves and grey bark that weeps a red sap when scratched
Flintwood (Scolopia braunii)
Large shrub or small tree with attractive many-pointed leaves and orange or red berries
Brown Beech (Pennantia cunninghamii)
Slow-growing water-loving tree with decorative zig-zag growth in its smaller branches and attractive leaves
Tree ferns

Straw Tree Fern (Cyathea cooperi)
Tree fern to 6m with lacy fronds and delicately patterned trunk; part shade and regular moisture
Rough Tree Fern (Cyathea australis)
Tree fern to 6m, with a rough trunk, tolerant of dappled sun or even full sun if kept well watered
Shade-tolerant shrubs

Native Holly (Alchornea ilicifolia)
Low to mid-sized shrub with reddish new growth and holly-like leaves
Orange Thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum)
Dense shrub, somewhat prickly (caution required), can be pruned
Brush Pepperberry (Tasmannia insipida)
Thin stemmed shrub to 3m with glossy leaves and edible, peppery berries
Bolwarra (Eupomatia laurina)
Shrub to 4m with arching branches and edible fruit; part or full shade
Mid-size ferns

Giant Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum formosum)
Tough larger Maidenhair Fern with lacy dark green fronds; part shade
Hare’s Foot Fern (Davallia solida var. pyxidata)
Easy to grow and an attractive fern; part or close to full shade
Hen and Chickens Fern (Asplenium bulbiferum subsp. gracillimum)
Handsome fern with arching dark green fronds; shade and water loving
Gristle Fern (Blechnum cartilagineum)
Robust fern with neat mid green fronds; needs moderate amounts of water and part or dappled shade
Binung (Cyclosorus dentatus)
Water-loving but tough mid sized fern with pale to mid green fronds; part shade
Jungle Brake (Pteris umbrosa)
Unusual fern with quite sparse, angular looking dark green fronds; part to full shade
Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium australasicum)
Classic large smooth-leaved fern that grows on rocks or trees, will cope with higher light levels than most ferns
Low ferns

Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum aethiopicum)
Tough fern with beautiful lacy pale green fronds; part shade
Prickly Rasp Fern (Doodia aspera)
Very tough clumping fern with upright fronds and reddish new growth; part shade or full sun in a sheltered spot
Rock Felt Fern (Pyrrosia rupestris)
Very low fern with a mix of long and round fronds, that can grow up tree trunks or rocks; shade
Necklace Fern (Asplenium flabellifolium)
Small, dainty fern for shady spots where it will cascade down low terraces or rocky slopes
Sickle Fern (Pellaea falcata)
Hardy fern that can take some bright sunlight during the day
Shiny Shield Fern (Lastreopsis acuminata)
Common spreading fern with neat dark green fronds
Fragrant Fern (Microsorum scandens)
Extremely attractive climbing fern that grows in shady situations, including up tree ferns
Other shade-tolerant groundcovers

Settlers’ Flax (Gymnostachys anceps)
Strap-leaved plant with blue fruit on tall stems
Peperomia (Peperomia blanda var. floribunda)
Small succulent groundcover that copes with low light conditions
Aneilema (Aneilema acuminata)
Creeping plant with pretty pure white flowers

Giant Pepper Vine (Piper hederaceum)
Large vine with heart-shaped leaves and bright red, edible pepper fruit, can be pruned to size
Resin Vine (Aphanopetalum resinosum)
Spreading shade-loving climber also useful as a groundcover
Jasmine Morinda (Morinda jasminoides)
Light twining climber with attractive red fruit

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