“I don’t have much luck with kangaroo paws!” As a breeder of kangaroo paw varieties for the last 30 years I have heard this statement far too often from Australian gardeners. Having been responsible for a number of the new cultivars available, I would like to give you my perspective on how to choose the right kangaroo paw for your own garden.
This remarkable group of Australian plants typifies what is unique about many of our native plants. They have vibrant, almost iridescent flower colours combined with an amazing, furry texture provided by the hairs that cover the flowers and stems (and incidentally provide the colour for the blooms).
Kangaroo paws also typify the frustrations of growing many of our native plants in that many varieties can be rather unreliable in cultivation. In spite of all that, kangaroo paws are now well established as garden plants, particularly the many named hybrids that have been released over the last 25 years.
There are some good reasons why some gardeners are unsuccessful with kangaroo paws and a lot of the blame lies with the lack of choice in the market place.
In my experience there are two basic types of kangaroo paws offered in the nursery industry.
Short flowers = Short lived Kangaroo Paws
The first are relatively short stemmed, spectacularly coloured varieties that flower prolifically. My own variety Anigozanthos ‘Bush Pearl’ is one of the biggest selling of these varieties. It has vibrant pink flowers all year round in frost free situations and is a fantastic performer given lots of sun, a well-drained soil and adequate fertilizer and water. This type of kangaroo paw dominates the shelves of gardening retail outlets because they are apparently rather irresistible as an impulse buy. Their vibrant colours and unusual flower shape and texture are certainly a great attraction.
However, I find that gardeners’ expectations of the plants are often not met because people expect all kangaroo paws to be the tough, indestructible native plants that are the stuff of gardening folklore. Unfortunately, these dwarf varieties will generally only thrive under the ideal conditions described above for Bush Pearl, and sadly these are often lacking in suburban and city gardens. So it is best to think of these cultivars as plants that will flower their heads off for their shortish lives, but then will need to be replaced within a couple of years. Think of them as annuals or biennials and your expectations will be much more realistic.
An outstanding way to grow these cultivars like ‘Bush Pearl’ is as container plants. Grown in a good quality potting mix, you can have a plant with 50 or more flower stems that can be moved around the garden for maximum effect. These stems can also be cut for indoor arrangements as well.
Long stems = Long Lived Kangaroo Paws
The second type of kangaroo paws from a gardening point of view is much taller, flowering from 1.2 to 2 metres in height. My experience is that they are a much better match for Australian gardeners’ expectations, in that they are truly long lived perennials that adapt well to a variety of soil types (including clay loams) and will still flower well even without plenty of sun. The big problem I have found is that wholesale nursery growers and garden retailers shy away from these types as they are much harder to transport and handle when they have two metre tall flower stems.
With my kangaroo paw breeder’s hat on, I have just released a range of what I call ‘Tall and Tough’ kangaroo paws to try and give gardeners a choice when it comes to these long lived kangaroo paws. The cultivar ‘Landscape Lilac’ is my favourite in this series as it provides a subtle colour that is not available in the dwarf types.
If I could digress for a moment to bemoan the fact that some of the finest garden plants around are rarely if ever seen at retail because they do not flower well in a small pot or re too tall to transport and handle. Thus, you the gardening public are MISSING OUT. Maybe the answer lies in online marketing and sales of plants to get around the retail phobia of these various garden gems. Rant over!
All of the taller kangaroo paws are long-lived, and I have seen them go on for over 20 years as garden plants if the clumps are divided every few years to help maintain their vigour. The plants in this group are not only very vigorous growers but are also resistant to the fungal leaf spotting rust disease that any of the smaller types are susceptible to, and are also generally tolerant of the other major fungal leaf spot in kangaroo paws caused by the fungus Alternaria as well as crown rot diseases that kill many of the shorter kangaroo paw species and cultivars in garden situations.
For more information on specific cultivars and to work out how to choose the best one for your garden, have a look at my plant database at Gardening With Angus.
How do I stop my kangaroo paw from turning black?
One of the big issues in growing kangaroo paws is that the leaves are very prone to turning black, making them look very unsightly. Thirty years of growing these plants has taught me a lot about this problem.
Anything that kills the leaf tissue will cause kangaroo paw leaves to turn black.
1. Leaf diseases
One of the major causes is leaf spot diseases caused by rust and Alternaria fungi, in this case you will observe circular black lesions on the foliage. Usually the black spot will show up on both sides of the leaf.
2. Environmental stresses
These are the other major cause of leaf blackening and this can include frost and hail damage, nutrient deficiency or excess and waterlogging of the root system during wet periods. Look for generalized blackening along the leaf and often only on one side of the leaf. Perhaps the most ironic cause I have seen was a nursery that had sprayed their plants with a fungicide to prevent leaf spot, but the chemical burnt the leaves and caused extensive blackening of the foliage!
Dealing with leaf blackening in kangaroo paws.
The message is that if you can work out the cause then a solution will be obvious. Keeping the plant away from environmental extremes of cold, heat and waterlogging is a matter of selecting the right site or growing the plants in pots to provide better conditions. Also, keeping your plants well fed will help a great deal. Kangaroo paws are actually not particularly sensitive to phosphorus and benefit greatly from extra fertilizer, however, if they are planted in a bed with other native plants such as banksias that are sensitive to phosphorus then it is best to stick to a specialist native plant food as this will still give good results.
Pruning your kangaroo paws annually is also the key to managing blackened foliage. Wear long sleeves and trousers, protective goggles and a dust mask to prevent the hairs on the flowers causing you irritation.
Maintenance of the taller cultivars is simple, they can be completely chopped back to ground level each year to really clean up any dead or blackened foliage. This is best done in late summer or autumn after flowering has finished. I use a whippersnapper or hand hedging shears for a small job or mechanical shears, motor mower or tractor slasher for the big jobs.
The smaller cultivars require a bit more work to maximise their relatively short lives. Each flower stem arises from a leaf fan that is comprised usually of 6 leaves which will gradually die and turn black as the flowers finish. A number of dwarf Paws such as ‘Bush Pearl’ and ‘Bush Diamond’ flower all year which makes it a bit tricky to decide when to cut them back. Rather than cutting the whole plant back to ground level it is best to remove the spent flower stems one at a time as a savage cutback all at once will often kill the plant. As you remove the stems one by one, also ensure that you take the old leaves that are associated with them.
How to use Kangaroo Paws in the Garden
It is hard to past kangaroo paws for providing a vibrant splash of colour in either pots or garden beds. The crucial point is to select the right variety for your purpose. The short-lived dwarf types can provide a spectacular display in a feature garden bed, particularly if you have a smaller garden, and of course they are also fabulous in pots.
If you want a more permanent display of kangaroo paws, then the tall varieties are ideal and can go on for many years in most areas of Australia, with the exception of very cold climates. Placed at the back of garden beds, they are a perfect backdrop for low growing plants of either contrasting or complementary colours. The tall varieties will also provide long-lived cut flowers for the home.
The tubular flowers of kangaroo paws are adapted for pollination by birds with long beaks seeking nectar so place them in the garden in positions where you will ideally be able to get a close look at the delicate Spinebills and Honeyeaters that will seek out the flowers in many parts of Australia. Placing them near the windows of your house or outdoor decking where you can sit still and observe over a period of time will bring you a wonderful wildlife reward.
Kangaroo paws are not all born equal so make sure the cultivar you are putting into your garden matches your expectations.
Remember long stems=long lived; short stems=short lived.