Eastern Suburbs banksia scrub plants

More than 65 different plants make up this ecological community, whether found along Sydney rocky mantles or in deeper sand. Meet some of the family members.

Eastern Suburbs banksia scrub (ESBS) can be tricky to identify as it can look similar to neighbouring coastal heathland.

Different flowers in ESBS bloom across the seasons and it can exist in various forms such as:

  • a carpet of newly emerged wattles and flannel flowers after fire
  • low and colourful heathland
  • a woodland dominated by trees and large shrubs
  • a bare patch of sand that contains seeds shed by parent plants that once grew there – seeds can remain in the soil for decades and emerge after fire or disturbance, in one case, removal of bricks resulted in ESBS species sprouting from seed that lay underground for around 30 years.

Another heathland community that shares the clifftops with ESBS has a different mix of plants that live in more nutrient-rich sand that comes from the erosion of coastal sandstone.

Eastern Suburbs banksia scrub subcommunities

Coastal sandplain heath is an open to dense shrubland community found on deeper sand dunes. When ESBS grows in deeper sand and has better access to nutrients and water it grows into a beautiful woodland. This woodland form of ESBS is dominated by trees, shrubs and many other species that grow beneath and cope with shade. It may also include wetter areas like swamps and seeps, which support a different mix of moisture-loving species, like sedges. Some plants you might see in the coastal sandplain heath subcommunity include:

Coast tea-tree (Leptospermum laevigatum)

The coast tea-tree is found within ESBS on coastal sand dunes and damp, sandy heath. It flowers profusely in late winter/spring with white flowers that are much loved by insects.

If left unburnt for several years this large shrub can grow into a tree up to 8 metres tall. It often outcompetes other species for nutrients and sun, sometimes dominating small patches of ESBS.

Like many tea trees, its leaves are aromatic when crushed.

elliptical leaves of the coast tea-tree silhouetted

Wallum banksia (Banksia aemula)

There are 6 types of banksias within ESBS and it’s the wallum banksia that gives ESBS its name. This striking banksia with a twisted and warty trunk can reach 8 metres in height and has beautiful large yellow flowers in autumn.

Like other members of the Proteaceae plant family, such as waratahs, grevilleas and hakeas, wallum banksia has special root structures that are excellent at extracting nutrients. This enables it to live in nutrient-poor soils, like the deep-sand vegetation communities collectively known as wallum.

It is found in coastal areas along the NSW coast from La Perouse in Botany Bay to southern Queensland. Although adult trees can still be seen, young plants are rare in the remaining ESBS patches as only a few shrubs are known to set seed after flowering.

Wallum Banksia (Banksia aemula) flower against blue sky

Coastal wattle (Acacia longifolia subsp. sophorae)

Coastal wattle plays an important role in the survival of other ESBS species, as well as providing food and shelter for many animals.

Wattles are often the first to germinate after disturbance or fire. A dense forest of wattles after a patch of ESBS has been burnt can act like a creche, protecting other more sensitive or slower-growing species from the harsh sun and wind.

Coastal wattle has golden flowers, grows quickly and is relatively short-lived. By the time it dies, the plants beneath it are usually strong enough to cope with the harsher conditions.

Fluffy yellow coastal wattle blossoms with long thin pale green leaves

Grass tree (Xanthorrhoea resinosa)

The grass tree is an iconic species synonymous with the Australian bush. It is found in many habitat types and occurs in ESBS that grows on deeper sand.

This is another species uniquely adapted to fire, after which it sends up a tall flower spike covered in tiny cream flowers that smell like honey. These flowers attract honeyeaters, bees and other insects.

striking grass tree with two long thin flower spikes and straight needle leaves

Coastal sand mantle heath is an open-to-closed heath found on shallow to moderately deep sand mantles. The most accessible form of this subcommunity occurs along the rocky coastal cliffs north of Botany Bay to Manly. It’s a survivor by nature – battered by strong winds and salt spray, it’s shaped into a dense and low-growing heath. The plants range in size from ground-hugging shrubs to densely packed larger shrubs up to 2 metres tall. These shrubs provide wind and salt-spray protection for each other and more sensitive species.

Some of the beautiful plants you might see in this heathland, or coastal sand mantle heath subcommunity include:

Flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi)

One of Sydney’s much-loved wildflowers, flannel flowers bloom in ESBS over spring and summer. They have large soft white flowers and grey-green foliage and often grow along the edges of tracks or other disturbed areas to soak up as much sun as possible.

Flannel flowers (Actinotis helianthii), Malabar walking track, Malabar Headland National Park

Mountain devil (Lambertia formosa)

This shrub grows up to 2 metres tall, in both ESBS sub-communities. The large, bright red flowers are easy to spot and attract honeyeaters.

The mountain devil is named because of thorny pods that form after pollination of its flowers in spring. Successful pollination of this species has declined, so although you may see its showy flowers, you may not find any decorative devil-like seed pods.

Woody green pod of the mountain devil shrub with brown branches

Fuchsia heath (Epacris longiflora)

This beautiful low-growing shrub is common in ESBS across Sydney. Its long and dainty bright pink and white bell-shaped flowers appear all year. This makes it an important constant food for honeyeaters, especially the eastern spinebill that uses its long beak to access the nectar.

It also has prickly leaves and provides important shelter for smaller birds like wrens who often seek refuge from more aggressive and territorial honeyeaters.

Thin tubular fuchsia flowers with white tips that splay out and fine green leaves

Heath-leaved banksia (Banksia ericifolia)

One of 6 banksias within ESBS, heath-leaved banksia grows as a compact, medium-sized shrub when buffeted by strong coastal winds, or as a large shrub several metres tall if it has more protection.

Like all banksias, it’s an important food for nectar-feeding birds, mammals and insects, especially as it flowers from autumn to spring. As a dense shrub, it provides important habitat for nesting birds or smaller birds foraging for insects.

orange banksia flower head in the middle of green finely leaved banksia branches