Angus StewartKangaroo paws

Mid November is one of my favourite times in my native garden because that’s when my tall kangaroo paws are just starting to flower. There’s all the excitement of spring and the wonderful spring-flowering of the shrubs and herbaceous plants but at this time of year, my garden is a sea of red, orange, gold and yellow from tall kangaroo paws.

Anigozanthos flavidus orange hybridSome of these are hybrids but they all come back to my favourite species kangaroo paw, which is Anigozanthos flavidus. This remarkable species, out of the 12 wild species of kangaroo paws, grows in an entirely different habitat. All the other species tend to grow in dry, gravelly soils in very well-drained situations. But Anigozanthos flavidus is a plant that can be found from the Margaret River area down to Albany in the south of Western Australia and I’ve often seen it growing in profusion, in big stands along the roadsides where it colonises, and occasionally I’ve seen it growing in drains full of water so it can survive temporary inundation which is death to most kangaroo paws. It’s a remarkable species in many ways.

I often get comments from people that they find kangaroo paws hard to grow and I think the reason for that is that the nursery industry has gravitated towards the smaller varieties of hybrid kangaroo paws. Often they do involve the tall, species Anigozanthos flavidus but they’re crossed with the smaller growing species like the cat’s paw, Anigozanthos humilis, and the smaller species tend to be fairly short-lived plants in the wild and that also translates to the performance of their hybrids. They’re what I would call a short-lived perennial plant but the nursery industry has gravitated towards them because those smaller hybrid varieties are much easier to transport and hold in nurseries. You can fit a lot more on the trucks that transport them around the country, and they tend not to blow over like the taller varieties which can be top-heavy. I think it’s unfortunate that gardeners don’t get to see these taller varieties in the nursery because they are what I would describe as long-lived perennials, along the lines of agapanthus. For those gardeners who have tried kangaroo paws and found them short-lived, I would highly recommend trying some of the taller varieties and to also explore some of the colour forms of the tall kangaroo paw species, Anigozanthos flavidus.

I’m just wandering about my garden now where I have a collection of all the different colour forms of A. flavidus. When you do see A. flavidus on sale in nurseries, they’re often what I would call muddy green and reddish colours, that are not bright or distinct. What nurseries and gardeners generally haven’t seen are all the wonderful colour forms that can be found in the wild. I’ve got a really smoky-pink one, another with a purplish tinge to it, various bright and mid-pink forms, oranges, bright reds, and a lovely bright yellow-green. There are just so many colour forms and it’s unfortunate that people don’t get to see these, although I know that there are plans afoot to get more of them into nurseries.

The taller kangaroo paws have a bright greenish, leathery leaf, and they are often much more tolerant of what is called ink spot in kangaroo paws. Ink spot refers to the blackening that occurs on the leaves. There are a number of causes for that, in my experience, the first one being fungal diseases, of which there are two, rust and Alternaria, both of which cause circular lesions on the leaves. Kangaroo paw leaves can also get a generalised blackening, often starting from the tip of the leaf and working its way down, which is due to environmental stress, such as when the plant has dried out and there’s been a period of water stress; frost damage; and even damage from fungicides. People see a bit of leaf blackening and then spray with fungicides to try and prevent more leaf blackening but some chemicals like that will actually kill the leaf tissue and cause more leaf blackening – rather ironic that in trying to prevent something, they’re making it worse. But, such is gardening! However, the taller kangaroo paws tend to be more tolerant of those fungal diseases and, in fact they’re resistant to the rust fungus, but not the Alternaria.

Being very tough plants, you can cut them back every year, right to ground level after they’ve flowered, and you’ll regenerate a whole lot of lovely, fresh, healthy new growth which turns into next year’s flowers. The time to do that is in summer or autumn after they’ve finished flowering and you’ll get a rejuvenated plant with good foliage all the way through autumn and winter and them they’ll flower for you again in late spring.

As a bonus, you can also use the taller varieties as cut flowers. I find that if you cut the top of the stem off, cutting the top couple of feet off when the first flowers start to open, you’ll stimulate new flowering branches from the bottom of the stems which will give you a second flush of flowers coming into summer, and particularly around Christmas. So you can have beautiful red and yellow flowers to decorate your home over the festive period, and prolong the flowering of the plants out in the garden too.

There are a lot of things to learn in growing kangaroo paws. They are such iconic flowers with their furry blooms and it’s well worth exploring some of the other varieties that are not so readily available. There’s Anigozanthos flavidus and its various colour forms but also hybrids of A. flavidus with a couple of other species, like A. rufus, which is a bright red species from the southern parts of Western Australia. When hybridised with A. flavidus, you get beautiful bright red cultivars such as ‘Bush Endeavour’ and ‘Big Red’. The other species that makes great tall hybrids is A. pulcherimus, which is a bright yellow, and produces yellow and gold coloured hybrids like ‘Bush Pioneer’, ‘Yellow Gem’ and a beautiful orange coloured cultivar called ‘Bush Revolution’ that I have bred and released in recent years, and which has proved to be a good, tough garden plant.

So look out for those tall kangaroo paws and you’ll be richly rewarded. As I said, I’m wandering about in my garden, and enjoying the New Holland honey eaters that are flitting from plant to plant. Wattle birds are frequent visitors and occasionally you’ll get the larger parrots like rosellas and lorrikeets which will come down and look out for the nectar. Oh, there’s an Eastern Spinebill which has just found its way into a ‘Bush Pioneer’. You’ll enjoy these plants in so many ways. Happy gardening!

 

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Angus Stewart

About Angus Stewart

Gardening Australia TV presenter, author of 'Creating an Australian Garden', 'Australian Plants for Year-round Colour' and 'Let's Propagate', garden travel guide, native plant specialist and breeder. Central Coast, NSW. Find out lots more about native plants at Gardening with Angus.

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