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Did you know there’s an unexpected slice of Australian wilderness in Ventura County?

Australian Native Plants in Ventura County has one of the largest collections of Australian plants in the United States
Caroline Feraday
Australian Native Plants in Ventura County has one of the largest collections of Australian plants in the United States

You don't have to fly thousands of miles, to find wilderness from Down Under.

Horticulturalist Jo O’Connell is raking leaves at the unique plant nursery she runs in Ventura County. We are surrounded by hundreds of plants — plants that are hardy, drought tolerant and bird attracting. In fact, most of the plants here are from Jo’s native country — Australia.

"I grow plants from all over Australia. So I'm growing plants from the rain forests, I'm growing plants from the outback areas, I'm growing plants from Eastern Australia," she told KCLU. "I've found that apart from the soils, the soil is more alkaline here than Australia, but I can correct that and they grow very happily here."

Jo has been cultivating Australian plants in this pretty remote spot, in Casitas Springs, Ventura County, for over 30 years. And now, her business, Australian Native Plants, has one of the largest — if not the largest — private collections of Australian plants in the U.S.

"Certainly it's the most diverse [collection] in the US," said O’Connell.

O’Connell grows many from cuttings, but also imports seeds.

"I have a permit to bring in seed and plant material. It's really hard bringing in plant material as no matter how much you clean it in Australia, some clear sighted person can spot one tiny little things and that will destroy the whole group of plants you're trying to bring in, so it's difficult," she said.

As we walk around the nursery, I ask Jo how she can keep her plants alive in the drought?

"Nearly all of them are drought tolerant. A lot of these plants I haven't watered," she said. "In Ventura and Santa Barbara County, we have been in a drought for - this is our 14th year - and I haven't lost too many plants to the drought. It's because I establish them by watering them deeply and infrequently and they get their roots down and they can find moisture down deep."

You may wonder, as I did – whether there’s a big market for Australian plants. It’s not just something for homesick Aussies who want a slice of home in their yard. O’Connell recently supplied plants to Santa Barbara Zoo’s new walkabout exhibit, so the kangaroos and emus will feel at home.

"Botanic gardens, zoos... plant nerds like me," she says of her customers.

"I have people that come over from Florida that come and take them back on the plane with them," she said.

Visiting is only by appointment, and while there may be plenty of Australian plants, you don't have to contend with any scary Australian bugs!

Caroline joined KCLU in October 2020. She won LA Press Club's Audio Journalist of the Year Award in 2022 and 2023.

Since joining the station she's won 7 Golden Mike Awards, 4 Los Angeles Press Club Awards and 2 National Arts & Entertainment Awards.

She started her broadcasting career in the UK, in both radio and television for BBC News, 95.8 Capital FM and Sky News and was awarded the Prince Philip Medal for her services to radio and journalism in 2007.

She has lived in California for ten years and is both an American and British citizen - and a very proud mom to her daughter, Elsie.