New flower colours in waratahs


When it comes to waratahs yellow is the new red.

Passionate plant breeder Graeme Downe of Melbourne has used a rare yellow form of the Tasmanian waratah (Telopea truncata) to create a hybrid with the NSW waratah (T. speciosissima) called ‘€˜Golden Globe’€™. Graeme has been breeding waratahs for about twenty years and his dedication has been rewarded with the ‘holy grail’ of plant breeding  a new colour.

Shady Lady Waratahs

The work of a couple of Australian plant breeders is making available some new genetic combinations that are proving easier to grow in many gardens around the country. The floral emblem of NSW, Telopea speciosissima is undoubtedly the star of the genus with large flower head enhanced by the leaf-like red bracts that expand around it. There are, however, four other species of Telopea which offer the potential to create hybrid waratahs that are more adaptable to garden conditions. As well as the Tasmanian waratah there is another southern species T. oreades, sometimes known as the Gippsland waratah that grows naturally in the misty, cool temperate rainforest of the Erinundra Plateau in north eastern Victoria. Hybrids between this species and T. speciosissma have been marketed as the ‘€˜Shady Lady’ series and have proven to be more adaptable to cooler climates and lower light levels, thus extending the range in which waratahs can perform. Using the NSW waratah as a parent with these other species creates hybrids that are not only more adaptable climatically, but also have the large flower head of this iconic species.

How to grow waratahs

Perfect drainage is without doubt the key to avoiding the fungal root rot diseases that prematurely terminate waratahs in many gardens. A freely draining soil to a depth of at least a metre is the perfect circumstance. Whilst waratahs often occur naturally in sandy soils they perform extremely well in heavier soils provided there is good drainage. The rich clay loams of the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne provide spectacular specimens that can produce several hundred blooms in the best examples. Whilst avoiding wet feet is critical the other keys to growing waratahs successfully lie in providing adequate moisture and the correct balance of nutrients during the growing season to fuel the rapid growth that these remarkable plants are capable of. A thick layer of mulch (up to 10cm deep) that leaves a gap around the base of the plant is the best way to ensure optimal moisture levels as is minimizing competition from other plants in the immediate vicinity of your waratah. Another trick is the addition of a handful of soil if available from the base of an established waratah to introduce beneficial (mycorrhizal) fungi to the root zone.

The NSW waratah can thrive in climates as diverse as the north coast of NSW to southern Victoria and inland to the ACT. The various hybrid waratahs have extended this range further south to Tasmania as well as improving the performance in colder climates such as Canberra.

Once established waratahs are long-lived woody perennials that follow an annual pattern of growth with vegetative growth commencing in early spring (mid September in coastal Sydney, mid-October in colder areas) when there is a vigorous bud burst. If adequate nutrients and water are available to the plant then rapid shoot growth occurs, up to several metres if conditions are perfect. Towards the end of summer the shoots stop growing and terminate in flower buds that swell during autumn and then sit on the plant waiting to open the following spring.

Pruning waratahs

The annual growth cycle means that a series of key steps need to be taken at the appropriate times during the year. Established plants need to be pruned straight after flowering and can be cut to whatever height you desire since the plant can regenerate from a woody crown (technically called a lignotuber) at ground level, as it does after intense bushfires. Generally, however, cutting the plant back to a height of around a metre will mean that the next year’s flowers will be held at about eye level. Next fertilise the plant directly after pruning with a low phosphorus native plant food at a rate of around 100 grams per plant and water in thoroughly

If the drainage in your garden soil is less than perfect then growing waratahs in containers is an excellent alternative. Select a potting mix designed for native plants as it should have the free draining qualities allied with the correct low phosphorus fertilizer included as well. The container should be at least 30cm in diameter and preferably move the plant into larger containers as it increases in size. The Shady Lady types are somewhat smaller in stature which makes them a better choice for pot culture.

Pests and diseases of waratahs

Depending on your location in Australia your waratahs will face some challenges from pests and diseases. Root rot is the worst problem and is best overcome by ensuring that your plant has excellent drainage, whether it is in the ground or a container. Scale insects can also debilitate plants over time and can be controlled with pest oil. Borers can damage flower buds and stems and are unfortunately difficult to control but rarely will they destroy all the flowers on a plant.

If you do not have a suitable circumstance for growing waratahs it is still possible to enjoy these unique Australians as a cut flower. Whilst it is illegal to pick them from the wild, they are widely cultivated for flower production and are readily available from florists in spring. If treated well the blooms can last over two weeks, opening to their full potential. Before placing flowers in the vase recut about one cm from the bottom of the stem and repeat this process when you change the water every few days.

Yellow and white waratahs

‘€˜Golden Globe’€™, which is also marketed as ‘Shady Lady Yellow’, has rounded bright yellow flower heads on a compact, bushy plant to 2 to 3 metres. ‘€Bridal Gown’ has pure white large flower heads on a vigorous upright bush to 2 to 3 metres. €˜ ‘Champagne’€˜ has smaller very light pink flower heads and has dark glossy leaves on a compact, bushy plant to 2 to 3 metres.

A second breeder, Brian Fitzpatrick of Batlow in the Snowy Mountain region, is releasing several interesting new cultivars as well:
‘€˜Georgie Girl’€™ is a cream coloured hybrid that forms a dense shrub 2 to 3 metres in height. ‘Snow Maiden’€™ is a pure white cultivar that has small leaves and grows into a small tree that can be kept in shape with regular pruning. ‘€œDigger’€™ has bright salmon pink flowers on a bush that can grow into a small tree that also benefits from regular pruning. ‘€˜Mallee Boy’€™ is a smaller plant to 3 metres in height with delightful small pink flower heads.