A swag of new and improved waratahs mean this much-loved beacon of spring can now find a home in any garden.
The unique red torches of the New South Wales waratah flower in spring, attracting nectar-loving birds, as well as admiring friends, into the hearts of our gardens. Spring is the time to fully appreciate these flowers, and the perfect time to plant one.
New waratah cultivars are strikingly beautiful, in the garden and in the vase. Photo - Linda Ross, styled Jada Bennett
Perhaps you’d like one in a sheltered courtyard, planted into a large container with flannel flowers (Actinotis ‘Federation Stars’) and a carpet of everlasting daises (Bracteantha bracteata) spilling over the sides. Or maybe you can see yourself developing an informal flowering native hedge between your place and the neighbours, with waratahs alternating with clumps of yellow kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos ‘Yellow Gem’) and Geraldton wax flower (Chamelaucium uncinatum), set off with a carpet of yellow buttons (Chryocephalum apiculatum, syn. Helichrysum ramossissimum). You might even want to plant a single specimen out on the nature strip: it will soon be the talking point of your street.
Soon to be the talking point of your street. Photo - Cameron Feast
Each waratah flower is actually comprised of a conflorescence (a number of inflorescences). Exactly how many depends on the species, and ranges from as few as 10 to as many as 240 individual flowers, surrounded by a circle of floral bracts. The botanical name Telopea, is derived from the Greek, telopos, which means ‘seen from afar’. Anyone who has spotted a waratah in the bush from a car would agree with the aptness of the name. The species name of the Sydney waratah, specioisissima, means ‘showy’. This is the best known of the four species of Telopia (the Dorrigo or Queensland waratah, Alloxylon pinnata, and the tree waratah, Alloxylon flammeum are close relatives ) and the family now features many cultivars.
'Bract burn' from wind damage. Photo - Linda Ross
Where they grow
As a rule, waratahs enjoy a spot with morning sun. Choose a position where the roots will be shaded and the plant will be sheltered from strong winds, especially during flowering in spring. They will struggle in poorly drained clay soils and thrive in sandy soils. If you garden on clay and can’t resist a waratah, plant one up into a large container, using a premium native plant potting mix.
Breath-taking as cut flowers. Photo - Cameron Feast
How to grow
Having found the right spot, dig over a large area, at least a metre square, with a garden fork. Dig in leaf litter and make sure there are no rocks and clods of soil. Choose a waratah that is at least 15cm tall and does not have a girdled root system. Upend the pot and gently tease out the roots. Make a mound in the hole and seat the waratah in the mound with the lignotuber at soil level. The lignotuber is a small swelling at the base where the stem meets the soil. It contains dormant buds and is an evolutionary adaptation to bushfire, ensuring the plant’s survival. Backfill and tamp down firmly.
Water in with seaweed solution, do not prune. Water with an anti-rot fungicide to help prevent root fungus, immediately after planting. Mulch around the new plant to a depth of 6cm with leaf litter, keeping the mulch away from the lignotuber.
'Wirrimbirra White' is not a new cultivar but a naturally occurring form from the Southern Highlands of NSW. Photo - Linda Ross, styled Jada Bennett
Common mistakes and how to avoid them
Waratahs need room to move and stretch their roots out to 1m wide and 1m deep through friable, fine-textured soil.
Do not dig a large hole in heavy clay soil and fill with potting mix as a way around drainage problems - your waratah will slowly drown. Instead dig over the soil thoroughly, and adding leaf mulch to a wide area, not just to the planting hole. Mound the soil to 40cm to increase drainage. Better still, choose a position on a free- draining slope.
Waratahs love full sun and will also grow and flower well under the shade of tall trees. More than 30 per cent shade will be too dense to allow good growth. Choose a position protected from wind, especially during the flowering period to prevent bract burn. It’s a good idea to cover the soil with sandstone to keep the root zone cool.
Overwatering encourages root fungal problems. Don’t water during late autumn and winter when the shrub is dormant. Trickle irrigation is the best, applying soakings infrequently during the growing season.
Prune flower stems by half to three-quarters, to increase the number of flowers for the next year. Once your plant gets to 10 years, it’s time to be ruthless. Cut back the canes completely to the lignotuber (swollen base) after flowering (it will flower again the following year). This is done to imitate the effect of fire. You might prefer to prune half one year and half the next.
Waratahs rarely need feeding but you could slip them some low-phosphorus, controlled-release fertiliser, such as Native Garden Gold or Native Osmocote,in early spring to assist with spring growth.
'Brimestone Passion'. Lovers of pink can now include waratahs on their favourites list, with several pink varieties now available. Photo - Linda Ross, styled Jada Bennett
Growing from cuttings
Waratahs can be grown from cuttings taken from new spring growth. Plants grown from cuttings will take two years to flower. Select a good strong bush with reliable and large flowers. Make sure each cutting is 15cm long with 4-5 leaves. Dip cuttings into a systemic fungicide and root hormone gel. Fill pots with a seed raising mix or perlite. Placing your pot on a warm concrete pad will help root growth. After six months you should have a successful batch of newly struck cuttings, which can be planted out in autumn.
New breeds and new cultivars with better garden performance have been developed by plant breeders. Lovers of pink will be tempted by new pink forms such as ‘Brimstone Blush’ and ‘Brimstone Passion’. For masses of bloom ‘Shady Lady’ is one of the best and now comes in red, yellow and white. You can see one spectacular specimen at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens that has over 500 flowers each year. ‘Wirrimbirra White’ is more creamy than white with a sage green centre. It is not a cultivar but a naturally occurring form found in the Southern Highlands of NSW.