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Wild about Waratahs

​The New South Wales 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 New South Wales 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 New South Wales Waratah is not the only species of Telopea.

All the other species of waratah grow on Australia's eastern seaboard 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) and the Tasmanian Waratah (Telopea truncata). A number of cultivars are also available, such as ‘Wirrimbirra White’ and ‘Shady Lady’.

If you're looking for a shrub that will thrive in partial shade with morning sun, you can't go wrong with Waratahs.

If you're looking for a shrub that will thrive in partial shade with morning sun, you can't go wrong with Waratahs.

History

Waratahs feature in Aboriginal legend, like the D'harawal story about how the white waratah became red. The flexible, new-growth branches were used by early European settlers for basket making and by blacksmiths to wrap around their implements when working with hot iron. 

The first written record of the plant’s Aboriginal name ‘Waratah’ which means ‘red-flowering tree,’ was made in the notebooks of the First Fleet's Lieutenant William Dawes. The botanical name ‘telopea’ means ‘seen from afar,’ and ‘speciosissima’ means 'most beautiful'. 

 

The Protea family has been around for a very long time. Varieties have developed and changed significantly over the years and as result we now have about 80 genera and 1600 species. Due to the fact that varieties in the protea family can be found in many areas throughout South Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Madagascar, there is strong belief that the family of plants spread throughout the southern hemisphere on fragments of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana when it split. The highest diversity is in Australia, followed by Africa.

Through the use of DNA sequence data, botanists have discovered that the Proteaceae family of plants lived on the ancient super continent Gondwana almost 120 million years ago. As the continent broke up, some of the varieties spread to countries we now know as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and other southern hemisphere countries. However, some of the varieties are much too young to have been around when Gondwana split, therefore this group of plants has dispersed across oceans to create new varieties in this large plant family. The spectacular genus Protea is undoubtedly Gondwanan proven by the DNA sequence data.

This varied genus of plants is named for the sea-god of ancient Greek mythology, Proteus, who was known for his ability to change his appearance at will. It’s said that the proteaceae family was named after him because of the incredible variety of shapes, sizes and textures it presents itself in.

There are numerous Proteaceae genera however some are more well know than others; Aulax, Banksia, Brunia, Grevillea, Hakea, Leucadendron, Leucospermum, Macadamia, Mimetes, Serruria, Waratah and of course Protea.

The most well know protea is the King Protea which is also the national flower of South Africa.
What makes them all part of the same family despite looking so different, is their root system. These plants have proteiod roots which are a specialised root system which form clusters of closely spaced, short roots. They enhance nutrient uptake and as a result, plants with proteoid roots can grow in soil that is very low in nutrients.

The first recorded Protea cultivations can be dated back to 1910 in South Africa were large scale protea plantation were planted to provide cut flowers. By the 1970’s protea cultivation had taken off, Protea were being commercially cultivated in California, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, South Africa and Zimbabwe. This led to the formation of the International Protea Association.

Research

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.

Inspiring artists and craftsmen

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.

Waratahs have been used for company logos and as architectural ornamentation, and the name has been used for towns, steamships and even football teams. 

If you would like to make your own Waratah artwork, download our activity sheet here (PDF).

The entire plant (waratah) lends itself to such a boldness of artistic ideas in all branches of Applied Art that it has few compeers amongst the representatives of the whole floral world.

R. T. Baker, circa 1915

The Wild About Waratahs Festival is sponsored by Proteaflora.