The Telopea genus has only five species. It is part of the protea (Proteaceae) family and is endemic to the south-eastern region of Australia. Its main claim to fame is the spectacular flower-heads which are generally a brilliant red, producing a sumptuous show. The accepted common name for the genus is ‘waratah’, originally an Australian aboriginal name for T.speciosissima which comes from New South Wales. This species is now the floral emblem for the state. All waratahs are highly decorative and very popular as garden plants.
The genus consists of evergreen shrubs and small trees. The leaves have prominent veins and are a dark green in colour. The edges are often toothed or lobed. The large, waxy flowers, often with a ring a bright red bracts, give way to leathery pods which contain many seeds.
Probably the best known species is T.speciosissima. This is an erect, slender shrub which grows to 3 metres. The leaves are toothed and leathery with the prominent veins so typical of the genus. It is grown commercially for the stunning, red, dome-shaped flowerheads. Cultivars produced from this species include:
* Corroboree which has large, domed blooms with inconspicuous bracts and rather narrow leaves. It is a vigorous grower.
* Flaming Beacon has large bracts of a very rich red colour. The red florets are tipped with white.
* Olympic flame is a tall variety with exceptionally large flowers with high domes. This variety was developed to mark the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
* Wirrimbirra White attracts much attention from gardeners as it has creamy white flowers.
Telopea speciosissima prefers the root area to be kept cool. Some sun on the foliage area will encourage an abundant display of flowers. The plant responds well to pruning after flowering. This species is frost resistant and is attractive to birds.
Telopea mongaensis grows to 3 metres. It is a multi-branched, bushy shrub with dark green, smooth, leathery leaves which are a yellowish-green when young. It flowers from late spring to early summer with large, open crimson blooms appearing at the ends of the branches.
Telopea oreades (Gippsland waratah) is found in sheltered wet forests of south-eastern Australia. It has smooth, lance-shaped leaves and globular deep crimson blooms which may reach 8cm across. It flowers from late winter to early summer and is a good choice for areas of shade.
The Tasmanian waratah (Telopea truncate) is endemic to, surprise surprise, Tasmania. Its native environment is mainly in subalpine, mountainous country. The red flower heads are slightly flattened and appear in late spring. New growth leaves are deep green and smooth-edged. The undersurfaces of new leaves and unopened flowers are usually covered with soft, brown hairs.
The cultivar T.Braidwood Brilliant is a hybrid between T.mongaensis and T.speciosissima. It is compact and bushy with leathery leaves and deep crimson flower heads.
Waratahs needs a position in full sun or partial shade. They like a deep, well-drained acidic soil and are allergic to large doses of phosphorus! Indeed they don’t like over-feeding with any fertilisers. Tolerance to frost varies from species to species. Pruning the tips while the plant is young will encourage branching. Old flower-bearing stems can be pruned back to halfway after flowering.