Growing a Green Resistance

Scorched by the Thomas Fire, Jo O’Connell of Australian Native Plants reflects on that which has emerged, the wonder of survival and the wisdom of fire-resilient design.

By Emily Dodi

Photo by Michael Moore

The smooth bark of the Brachychiton (kurrajong or bottletree) helps make it fire resistant: Embers can’t easily attach to the sleek surface. At O’Connell’s feet is playful Wallaby, one of two resident Queensland blue heelers.


o O’Connell, the owner of Australian Native Plants in Casitas Springs, points to a Banksia integrifolia on her property. It’s a lovely tree, with sunlight dancing on its leaves and a crop of those famous cone-shaped flowers, a favorite in floral arrangements.

You’d never know that it had lived through hell.

On December 5, 2017, the Thomas Fire tore through O’Connell’s property, destroying her home, a “lovely old barn” and many of the plants that O’Connell, a native of Sydney and an internationally known horticulturalist, has been cultivating and selling here since the early 1990s. The scorched banksia wears its scars like a badge of honor. The tree is just one of the resilient survivors, O’Connell herself included, in this little slice of heaven just off Highway 33.

Today, the growing grounds of Australian Native Plants are lush and vibrant. With hummingbirds darting about and O’Connell’s Queensland blue heelers, Wallaby and Blue, underfoot, it might be easy to forget that the property endured the second most devastating wildfire in California history. But not O’Connell. She still sees evidence of Thomas’s destruction.

“We’re still cleaning up after the fire. Here it is, 15 months later, and we’re still identifying plants succumbing,” she says. “But some are coming back. I was surprised by what came back first and I was surprised by what didn’t come back when I thought it might.” O’Connell adds that some plants, like a few acacias, held on for almost a year before ultimately dying off.

“I thought, ‘Oh, they’re coming back,’ but they didn’t,” she says with a sigh.

There are many plants, however, that did make it through the ordeal. Some banksia, for example, are thriving beyond belief.

“They flowered bigger flowers and profusely,” O’Connell says. “I’ve never seen that.” She assumes that the trees’s dramatic blossoming is due to the increased potash and other nutrients present in the soil after the fire. This year’s rainfall and lightning storms have been another boon. Lightning increases the level of nitrates, which act as a fertilizer, in the soil.

Other plants that have made a comeback include a 90-year-old pineapple guava tree and the Lomandra, a type of grass sometimes called mat-rush, that grows around the guest house where O’Connell and her husband, Byron Cox, are living until they can rebuild their house.

“Plants like these actually work in slowing down a fire,” she says, pointing to the plant with its long, blade-like leaves.

“Anything will burn if it gets hot enough, but if you’ve got plants that can slow down fire and slow down embers . . .” That, in anyone’s estimation, would be a very good thing.

For anyone looking to grow a fire-resistant garden, O’Connell has a few words of advice.

“First and foremost,” she advises, “keep the garden around your house watered. If you’re going to use your water anywhere, use it in the plants around your house.”

Planting things like Lomandra, with its thick plume of long, moist leaves, is also a wonderful idea. Any ember that drops in there, O’Connell says, pointing down into the plant, doesn’t stand much of a chance.

During a recent talk O’Connell gave to a local horticultural society, she elaborated on the benefits of fire-retardant plants. Some examples:

Fire-retardant plants can absorb more heat from an approaching fire without burning.

They can trap embers and sparks and reduce wind speeds near a house.

Fire-retardant ground cover can slow the advancement of a fire through its leaves.

Smooth-barked trees will not burn as readily as stringy or rough-barked trees.

Plants with a high moisture or salt content and/or a low oil content will take more to ignite and burn more slowly.

O’Connell stresses that “maintenance makes a difference.” In addition to keeping plants irrigated, she advises pruning shrubs to “keep foliage fresh and green.” She suggests removing lower branches from trees and keeping tree limbs away from roofs and any other part of a structure.

Removing dead or dry material from around plants before fire season is also key.

Some of her favorite fire-retardant plants, which she’s looking forward to planting in some of her clients’ gardens, include Lomandra, Grevillea (also known as spider flower), Hakea (aka needlewoods or pincushion), Pittosporum (cheesewood) and the beautiful Banksia.

Fire safety is in the design, too. Some of O’Connell’s top tips include using inorganic mulches (i.e. gravel or decomposed granite) to slow the spread of fire. She advises planting fire resistant trees and well-watered hedges around a house to reduce radiant heat and to act as a shield against the spread of fire.

On her own home, O’Connell will be installing sprinklers on the roof, a common practice in Australia — which, like California, is no stranger to raging wildfires. So, if the danger of a wildfire presents itself again, water from the sprinklers will rain down on the roof and over the sides of the house to form a watery line of defense. Other fire prevention measures she’ll put in place are a large open space around the house and the use of fire-retardant ground cover.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons from the fire is how enormously resilient and hardy Australian native plants are.

“They don’t get bothered a lot by pests or disease,” O’Connell says.

That’s not to say that they don’t require care. The plant that requires no upkeep or work doesn’t exist, she explains. Indeed, O’Connell gives her plants a lot of love and time. She’s up at 6 a.m. every day and she’s basically a one-woman band running the growing grounds. She barely has a spare moment, but she does takes the time to talk to her plants and fuss over them. That’s a must. There’s also the occasional belly rub for Wallaby and Blue.

With the sun going down over the hills, another busy day is drawing to a close. It’s been a good one, though. The smell of rain is still fresh in the air. But fire season will come again and we can prepare as best we can.

Looking around, one is inspired to follow O’Connell’s lead. If you look after your fire-resistant plants, chances are, they’ll look after you.

Australian Native Plants is open by appointment only. To learn more about the plants, O’Connell’s website is a wealth of information. Look for her on Facebook and Instagram. 805.649.3362.

Australian Native Plants may also be found at Seaside Gardens, 3700 Via Real in Carpinteria,

Acacia fimbriata tree, with delicate blooms of sun-kissed yellow, and Lomandra, or mat-rush. The latter’s long, blade-like leaves can trap embers, helping to slow a fire’s spread

The Thomas Fire ripped through the growing grounds of Australian Native Plants with a fury, but thanks to an innate resilience (and O’Connell’s expertise) many of the plants are making a comeback.

O’Connell wheels Lomandra, Grevillea and Dianella through a lush and vibrant landscape.

A native of Sydney, O’Connell pays homage to her roots with a cast concrete map of Australia with koalas, nestled against a cluster of Carex appressa grass.

Grevillea in bloom.


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