There was eighty years experience breeding kangaroo paws when Angus Stewart met 82 year-old pioneer breeder Keith Oliver in his Perth garden recently. Angus had wanted to meet Keith for thirty years and took the opportunity to check out Keith’s garden while in Perth filming a segment for Gardening Australia.
While meandering through the garden and discussing the merits of Keith’s introductions, which are dotted through his garden, they talked of the best varieties for hybridising, seed collection, diseases and the quest for longer-lived dwarf varieties.
Keith’s plant breeding hobby started in the 1960s and transformed into a career in the 1970s when he released the landmark variety ‘Big Red’. This is still one of the most popular kangaroo paws for landscaping worldwide, especially places like California which have a similar climate to South-West Western Australia, the only place where kangaroo paws grow in the wild.
His first kangaroo paw introduction was soon followed by ‘Yellow Gem’, and ‘Gold Velvet’ and ‘Amber Velvet’ were released in more recent years. All have also proved very popular and almost 40 years later the early releases are still available in nurseries.
Kangaroo paws consist of 12 species of perennial herbs which are mostly fire opportunists and colonisers of areas of secondary regrowth. Both breeders strive to hybridise to create plants with good form, flower colour and disease resistance. Angus has continued Keith’s work with the tall varieties bred from the tough, long-lived species Anigozanthos flavidus and his most recent introduction are the pastel coloured Landscape Violet, shows that there are still more opportunities to breed new kangaroo paw colours.
“I love the way the almost iridescent flower colour is created by the velvet- like fine hairs that cover the flowers and some of the stalks.”
“These tall varieties grow to 1-1.5 metres tall, flower in spring and summer and are long-term perennial plants which will survive in most parts of Australia for over twenty years as garden plants if the clumps are divided every few years. These tall kangaroo paw varieties, like most of the varieties bred by Keith, are also resistant to the fungal disease leaf rust and generally tolerant to Alternaria leaf spot, the other major fungal disease in kangaroo paws.”
He said that plants could still get some generalised leaf blacking if under stress such as frost, poor nutrition or snail damage but once the stress was removed or addressed, new unblemished leaves emerged. Blackening caused by fungal leaf diseases shows up as rounded spots rather than irregular black marks. Removal of diseased foliage generally keeps these leaf spots under control.
Angus said that as gardens became smaller the shorter growing varieties were becoming increasingly popular around the world and made excellent as potted colour but were generally shorter lived than the tall forms. He feels it is very important that gardeners have the right expectations of kangaroo paw varieties. If a long-lived perennial garden plant is desired then it is best to select one of the tall varieties that will thrive under most Australian garden conditions.
Keith said that in his early days of plant breeding he collected the seed of small, pink flowering kangaroo paws in bushland in Margaret River, land that is now a housing estate. One of these plants he released as ‘Pink Joey’, one of the first pink kangaroo paws available commercially. Angus later used this plant to breed ‘Bush Pearl’, widely considered one of the most outstanding varieties because of its ability to flower year round.
“I’ve greatly respected Keith’s work and to finally meet with him after several decades was an incredibly rewarding experience.”