How to grow and care for a lilly pilly

The lilly pilly is an extremely popular native plant, with a distinctly tropical look and glossy mid-green adult leaves. Flowers vary in size and are often described as “powder puff”-like, thanks to their fluffy clusters of stamens.

What you need to know about a lilly pilly

Name: lilly pilly, riberry, bush or brush cherry. Syzygium species and cvrs, also Acmena cvrs and Waterhousia sp.

Height: from .3–10m+

Foliage: typically glossy. New foliage is often colourful, and there’s often a distinct “drip-tip” on the leaf end.

Climate: varieties available for all but cold temperate or arid regions. Some okay in sheltered areas of cool zones.

Soil: prefers deep, quality soil, but adaptable. Smaller varieties are okay in pots.

Position: sun through to part shade.

Flowering and fruiting: generally “powder puff”-type flowers from spring through autumn. Many have colourful, often edible, fruit.

Feeding: feed annually with a quality controlled-release fertiliser.

Watering: reliable moisture during hot and dry periods. Keep well-mulched.

lilly pilly

Appearance and characteristics of a lilly pilly

The lilly pilly comes mainly from what were three different genus: Syzygium sp., Acmena sp. and Waterhousia sp. As sometimes happens in the worlds of botany and horticulture, plants are reclassified, so many now belong the group Syzygium. Plant growers often still apply the more traditional names, such as Acmena, to avoid confusion.

Most of the lilly pilly varieties you’ll find for sale are cultivars, bred for specific characteristics such as density, fast growth, foliage colour and the like. With so many varieties to choose from, there is a lilly pilly for virtually any situation, either in the ground or in a pot.

Lilly pilly varieties range from small shrubs to large trees. The foliage is dense, and leaves are mostly oval shaped, small to medium, and generally glossy, with new growth often very colourful. Many leaves have a distinct “drip-tip”. There’s enormous variation in the colour of new foliage. Bright reds, fiery oranges and vibrant pinks are not uncommon.

Flowers vary from small to very showy, but they are always “powder puff”-like. Colourful berries follow the flowers, although these are not often seen on plants that are regularly trimmed for hedging.

Uses for a lilly pilly

Lilly pilly can be grown for a variety of uses, including:

  • hedging from .5–3m

  • large screens

  • topiary forms

  • specimen or feature planting

  • native gardens

How to plant and grow a lilly pilly

Your lilly pilly will prefer open, preferably deep, soil with reliable moisture across the warmer months. Avoid windy locations and frost. Lilly pilly performs best in full,sun, although many can tolerate moderate shade.

Planting lilly pillies

Follow these tips when planting your lilly pilly:

  • Soak the plant in a bucket of diluted seaweed solution while you’re digging the planting hole.

  • Improve soil in the planting hole by thoroughly blending in a quality compost or composted manure and a controlled-release fertiliser.

  • Mulch with an organic mulch. Lucerne or pea straw are excellent.

  • Water well before and after mulching.

Caring for a lilly pilly

Most lilly pilly varieties like reliable moisture over the warmer months, so keep your plant well-watered. The smartest way to do this is to lay down a drip irrigation system attached to a timer at planting time. Side-dress plants with a quality composted manure at least every spring, and water this in well. It’s not essential, but it will make a significant difference. Fertilise your lilly pilly at least annually with a controlled-release fertiliser. You don’t need to use a native plant blend.

In some circumstances, such as beside a pathway or deck, fallen berries may cause a problem. Prune off spent flower heads after flowering to prevent fruit developing.

Pruning lilly pillies

Lilly pilly is often grown for hedging or screening, so regular pruning will be required to maintain density. Frequency of pruning will vary with the variety and climate, but the general rule of thumb is to prune lightly after a growth flush. Lilly pilly can tolerate a hard pruning if required, so if they ever get out of shape or become too unruly, don’t be afraid to prune them back hard.

Diseases and pests

Lilly pilly can be prone to the following pests:

  • Psyllids cause ugly pimple-like deformations of new leaves, mainly on Syzygium varieties. Prune off all damaged foliage then collect the fallen material, seal it in a bag and dispose of it. Some new lilly pilly varieties have been bred with resistance to this pest.

  • Scale insects can be easily treated with a horticultural oil such as Eco-Oil.

Propagation of lilly pillies

Seeds from most varieties of lilly pilly are easy to grow, but may be slow to germinate. To do this, collect fresh fruits as they ripen. Remove the fleshy covering and clean the seed. Place in a seed tray or in individual pots in a warm, humid environment and keep moist, but not wet.

Cuttings can be quite easy to strike. Take lengths of new growth around 10cm long that are just hardening up. Remove the lower leaves and cut back top leaves by half. Dip the end in root hormone and then place each cutting in an individual pot. Keep moist, but not wet, in a warm, humid location.

If you like this then try

Viburnum: this group of plants includes some great quick-growing hedging and screening plants and also some with incredibly showy flowers.

Magnolia: looking for a feature tree with some serious ‘Wow!’ impact? The deciduous magnolia will deliver.

Star jasmine: this striking vine can be trained to grow vertically over wires and trellising, as well as horizontally, to create carpets of bright green covered with white, star-shaped flowers.

Start planting today

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