Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2014

Firewood Banksia (2014), by Philippa Nikulinsky

File:Banksia integrifolia and marginata cones.jpg

Banksia cones (source: Wikipedia Commons)

Like many Australians, I have a banksia growing in my garden.   It’s an interesting plant, but it’s not beautiful in a conventional sense.   After all, May Gibbs chose the Big Bad Banksia Men to be the villains of her children’s story Snugglepot and Cuddlepie because part of the banksia’s growing cycle includes a phase when the lovely flowers have fallen away to reveal a rather dead-looking cone which then hosts the seed bearing follicles.  These brown angry-looking follicles swell and finally burst, and with Gibbs’ addition of limbs they make rather convincing predators of the gumnut babies.  (Click the link to see an illustration at Wikipedia, copyright restrictions seem still to apply in Australia but not in the US).

But this lovely book shows the banksia in a different light entirely.  Philippa Nikulinsky is the botanical artist who co-authored Cape Arid (2012) with her husband Alex (see my recent review) but Firewood Banksia showcases her work in its own right.  In 56 pages, the book traces the annual cycle of Banksia menziesii (Firewood or Menzies Banksia) from the pre-bud stage to empty cone.  The botanical illustrations are accompanied by the artist’s own text, which step-by-step explains the cycle of this species.  She shares her own emotional reaction as on her field trips she witnesses the changes in the plant over the course of the year, culminating in a celebration of renewal:

The beautiful, earth-coloured seeds are thrown from the mother plant, are carried on the wind, and have fallen to the earth.  So aged-looking, yet the essence of new life.

As with Cape Arid the drawing and the watercolours are exquisite in their fine detail and the colours are sublime in what the artist calls the ‘grand statement – the Banksia menziesii in all its glory’.  The unopened flowers – glowing rich alizarin crimson from within – bloom from the bottom and spiral upwards, as you can see from the cover art.  But surprisingly this is not her favourite image:

I am now not at all sure that I am as attracted to this well-known image of the species as much as I am to some others in this series.  A number of other things stimulate a much stronger emotional response in me, and therefore have more meaning.

I am going to watch my own banksia more closely now, and shall try to think more kindly of its final phase!

PS As an aside, these books make lovely gifts in all kinds of contexts, but they are especially welcome as gifts for anyone recuperating from treatment in hospital.  No one feels much like reading when in hospital – it’s too hard to concentrate when you don’t feel well and the hustle and bustle around you makes for constant interruptions.  But a book of beautiful botanical art with inspirational text is perfect for intermittent browsing and can take you away from your surroundings for a little while.  And unlike flowers, a book lasts forever:)

Author and artist: Philippa Nikulinsky
Title: Firewood Banksia
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922089816
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.


Fishpond: Firewood Banksia
Or direct from Fremantle Press


  1. Interesting post.


  2. Thanks for sharing. I’ve never heard of banksia. How tall are the cones?


    • It depends on the species/variety. The one we have in our garden is about 13 cm long, and about the diameter of a baby’s bottle. But there are short stubby ones and long skinny ones as well. As far as I know they are unique to Australia, and the ones in this book, like so many Western Australian wildflowers are unique to WA.
      BTW they don’t have any scent. Or not one that I can smell, that is. Maybe they do for a bee!


  3. They always remind me a bit of the platypus – they seem so odd they can’t be real. And I’m actually a bit scared of them, as I am of proteas. They are so loud! Perhaps I should read this to discover there is more to them.


    • Yes, loud is a good word for them!


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