The New South Wales Waratah Telopea speciosissima is a large, long-lived shrub or tree that generally grows to 3 m in height l. After fires, which are common in its natural habitat, a waratah can regenerate from a ‘lignotuber’ - a woody swelling of its stem that lies partly or wholly under the ground.
Waratahs should be planted at least 1.5 m apart or into very large pots placed in a partially shaded area that is able to receive morning sun. Regular watering is necessary and mulch soil with composted leaf mulch should be used to prevent roots drying out. It can be beneficial to mound up topsoil - to 0.5 m high - and to incorporate leaf mulch into the soil. You can see an example of mounding with sand in the Banksia Garden at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan. Transplantation to wind protected areas should occur during autumn.
We suggest fertilising with a low-phosphorus slow-release fertiliser or 'blood and bone' in late winter or early spring. Cultivated waratahs require heavy pruning once established, as well as pruning off any weak stems. About 3/4 of the plant should be removed immediately after flowering to reinvigorate the plants. New shoots should flower the following year.
The easiest way to propagate waratahs is from seed - the fresher the better - but it is also possible to strike them from cuttings. Seedling plants take about five years to flower, while cuttings may take only two years. Seed pods take about six months to mature, at which time they turn brown and split open. Seeds are winged for wind dispersal and there may be more than 250 seeds on one flowerhead in a good year.
Sowing the seeds
Sow seeds in a pot filled with a well-drained seed raising mix, cover with a fine layer of mix and water well. Transplant seedlings into a freely draining potting mix that does not contain any added nutrients and add some slow-release low phosphorus fertiliser several weeks later.
Waratahs flower over a six-week period in spring n the Sydney region, but later in cooler areas. The size and shape of the blooms can vary considerably, as can the range of naturally occurring colours, although the majority are red and pink. A commercially available white variety known as 'Wirrimbirra White' is not true white but a creamy yellow or greenish colour. The main pollinators of waratahs are birds, which are attracted by the copious amounts of nectar and bright colours.
Bract browning occurs prior to waratah harvest, caused by direct sun exposure. Considered to be the most serious impediment to the development of an export market for the product, we suggest using a shade cloth to protect plants from light damage,.
The waratah grows naturally in patches of sandy loam on ridges and plateaus in the Sydney geological basin, the Central and South Coast districts and the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.
The waratahs features strongly in Indigenous Australian legend. They were also used by early European settlers for basket-making and depicted in many everyday items such as paintings and pottery.
The common name ‘waratah’ was coined by Indigenous Australians and means ‘red-flowering tree’. The botanical name ‘telopea’ means ‘seen from afar’, and ‘speciosissima’ means 'most beautiful'. The waratah truly is a most beautiful plant, especially when in flower, and was described by early botanists as the ‘most magnificent plant’ in New Holland. Now symbolically instated as the floral emblem of NSW, the waratah has become arguably the most famous and recognisable Australian plant.
The waratah was once abundant in many areas of the Sydney metropolitan area, and the species’ survival is now due to its existence in national parks, reserves and relatively inaccessible areas.
Please don't pick waratahs when you see them growing in the bush. Apart from depriving others of the enjoyment of seeing them in their natural habitat, this practice depletes natural seed reserves and often results in poor quality blooms compared with those from well-cultivated plants.
Due to the extreme variability of the waratah, its commercial selection and development requires constant research. Dr Cathy Offord, a horticultural scientist based at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan, has worked on the horticulture of waratahs for many years and is continuing her involvement in the conservation and horticulture of Australian plant species.
Other species of waratahs
Other species of the waratah grow on Australia's east coast and have smaller and less spectacular blooms than Telopea speciosissima. They are the Gibraltar Range Waratah (Telopea aspera), the Braidwood Waratah (Telopea mongaensis), the Gippsland Waratah (Telopea oreades), the Tasmanian Waratah (Telopea truncata). A number of cultivars are also available, such as ‘Wirrimbirra White’ and ‘Shady Lady’.
- Nice, R. (2000). State of the waratah: the floral emblem of New South Wales in legend, art & industry : an illustrated souvenir. Royal Botanic Gardens.
- Nixon, P. (1997) The Waratah. Kangaroo Press.
- Offord, C.A. (1993). The magnificent waratah. Australian Natural History 24: 46-52
- Offord, C.A. (1996c). Waratahs. In ‘Horticulture of Australian Plants’. (Eds M. Burchett and K. Johnston). pp. 67-81. (UNSW Press: Sydney).