In the 17th century a popular theory held that God had marked plants with the nature of their usefulness. Brain-shaped walnuts were good for headaches; liverwort, with leaves spotted like a diseased liver, was good for liver problems. I remember the Signature of All Things theory when I see waratahs lighting up the bush. Skip the anthropocentric elements of and just look at how the waratah from afar looks like a fireball exploding, or up close like myriad red flames leaping from a grass fire! The nature of the plant is in its signature.
Waratahs love fire like vampires love blood – it rejuvenates them.When fire burns everything to the ground, the waratah responds by germinating long-dormant seeds, and sending new shoots from the heart of the plant, the lignotuber, buried beneath the surface. The new shoots flower in the second spring. They might continue to produce their fireballs of flower unless the canopy grows up and shuts out the sunlight. If that happens the waratahs close down and bide their time until the next fire.
Waratahs demand a perfectly drained site (mound up if necessary) on the acid side of the scale. Plenty of morning sun encourages flowering, but afternoon sun can scorch the foliage. A large container will do, as long as it is never allowed to dry out. Waratahs respond well to feeding with native plant fertiliser in spring and autumn. New plants need to be kept watered until established. For best flowering pray for rain in spring when they put on new growth, and again in late summer when they start to form buds.
Choose the right hybrid and the chance of success is much improved. First, meet the family: the Sydney waratah, Telopea speciossima is the showy star. The Braidwood waratah, T. oreades, has smaller, but more plentiful flowers on a bushier shrub, as does the Gippsland waratah, T. mongeansis. The big sister is T. truncata, the Tasmanian waratah, which is at least 30 million years old. The parent of all four siblings, found as a fossilised pollen grain in Victoria, is dated to 70 million years ago, back when dinosaurs were walking around.
(I learnt this from reading Tim Low’s book about the inter-related evolution of Australian plants and birds, ‘Where Song Began’ (Viking). The real ‘der’ moment in the book for me was when Low mentioned in passing that Australian flowers like waratahs, banksias, grevilleas are so big and tough because they have to withstand the weight of the big honey-eating birds that pollinate them. Having seen what wattlebirds do to the cannas in my garden I felt a bit thick for not having put the two things together before.)
Anyway, when the showy Sydney waratah is paired with the less dramatic, but bushier and more prolific Gippsland or Braidwood waratahs, the resulting hybrids are dazzling. Look for Shady Lady cultivars, developed by Proteaflora Nursery in Victoria. Untrimmed, these make dramatic shrubs three metres high and wide. The best one I have ever seen is this one, at Cloudehill in the Dandenongs in Victoria. Jeremy Francis has it glowing against copper beech, with spires of Echium candicans (Pride of Madiera) highlighting the blue tones of the blood-red waratah blooms.
There are a couple of reds, and a white, in the Shady Lady range. Only one white waratah has ever been found in the bush, and every white cultivar in cultivation stems from it. Maintenance men working for the Sydney Water Board stumbled across the freak of nature in 1967. They kept its position a secret until convinced by Sydney botanist Thistle Harris to reveal its whereabouts. She successfully propagated cuttings, which she passed on to enthusiasts. This plant is known as ‘Wirrimbirra White’, after the wildflower sanctuary established by Harris in Bargo, near where the original was found. Hybrids of this white waratah are easier grow than the one Thistle had success with.
If your garden can’t take a waratah, get out into the bush in the next few weeks to marvel at those brilliant fiery heads. Try Manly Dam Reserve; the Waterfall end of the Royal National Park, Audley; the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah and Muogamarra Nature Reserve, Cowan.