The lilly pilly is an evergreen rainforest plant that has it all: beautiful flowers, attractive, edible fruit, glossy leaves with colourful new growth and the ability to attract native fauna.
They’re also easy to grow and are suited to most Australian soils, so why not plant one this summer?
Lilly pilly are easy to establish, will grow in sun or shade and are not fussy about soil. Lilly pilly is the common name for a group of Australian native rainforest plants which range in size from small, compact shrubs no more than a metre in height, to giant, rainforest emergents exceeding heights of 45 metres. Related to eucalyptus and including around 1100 different species, lilly pillies are now categorised under four separate genus names: eugenia, syzygium, acmena and waterhousia. Whatever the name, lilly pillies are best known for their distinctive, berry-like fruit, some varieties of which are pleasant-tasting enough to be eaten straight off the tree, others make a refreshing cordial or conserve.
Choosing a lilly pilly variety
Given the size variation in lilly pilly species, it’s important to select a plant that won’t outgrow your garden, especially if space is limited. Garden centres will usually stock only varieties suited to most home gardens and offer a wide range of very compact varieties, but always ask if you’re not sure. If you want the plants to imitate the look of English box in hedging or topiary, or are after a very formal look, it may be worth selecting varieties that are especially resistant to psyllid attack (see ‘Pests and diseases’) such as Acmena smithii and Syzygium luehmannii dwarf or the Acmena ‘Allyn Magic’ and ‘Minnie Magic’. Information about fruit, flower and new growth colour can usually be found on the label.
Syzygium ‘Resilience’ white flowers, psyllid resistant
Syzygium ‘Cascade’ pink flowers, 2.5m good screen, pink/red new foliage
Syzygium luehmannii small leaves, taller growing
Syzygium ‘Big Red’ bright crimson new foliage, white flowers, susceptible to psyllids
Syzygium wilsonii red flower, loves the shade, very slow growing
Syzygium floribundum* weeping habit, 10-30 metres high, white flowers in summer
Acmena ‘Allyn Magic’ psyllid resistant, small, good colour in new growth
Acmena ‘Minnie Magic’ dwarf and variegated
Acmena ‘Cherry Surprise’ lovely fiery red new growth
*Syzygium floribundum was previously classified as Waterhousea floribunda, common name weeping lilly pilly. A lot of these have name changes regularly between Syzygium and Acmena.
Planting lilly pilly
While lilly pillies are not fussy plants, taking the extra time to properly prepare the soil before planting can help reduce your lilly pilly’s watering needs in its early years. Like most other natives, lily pillies prefer a free draining, low phosphorus soil. At planting time, dig a hole about the same depth and at least three times the width of the pot the lilly pilly came in, fill the hole with Searles Native Plant Specialty Mix and mix into existing soil. If your soil is very heavy clay or sandy, Searles Native Plant Specialty Mix is ideal to aid better drainage and add nutrients back into the soil. Finally, water it well and add a generous layer of mulch to insulate.
Watering/ Mulching lilly pilly
Young lilly pillies will grow and establish more quickly if they are kept moist. Water every day for the first two weeks after planting and continue to water a new lilly pilly occasionally for the first few years of its life. To test for dryness, push your finger through the mulch and a couple of centimetres into the soil. The soil should be moist but not wet. Established lilly pillies should not need too much watering, though an overly dry lilly pilly will shed it’s inner leaves.
Maintaining a layer of mulch about 5cm thick will keep the roots cool during hot weather and limit the need for watering. Reapply it every 6 months, depending on the material.
Fertilising lilly pilly
For healthy growth, young lilly pillies will benefit from a dose of Searles Native Plant Food every three months during the growing season.
Pests and diseases of lilly pillies
Many young lilly pillies are affected by an insect called a psyllid. This is a tiny, native, cicada-like insect whose young suck sap from the foliage (usually the new growth), causing a scar that resembles a tiny pimple on the leaf. Some gardeners consider this unsightly, but it does not seriously harm the plant and usually disappears as plants mature. Excessive psyllid activity can be a sign of plant stress, usually from lack of water. Affected foliage can be removed and spraying with Searles Conguard can prevent further psyllid damage.