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Telopea is endemic to Australia, the five species being found in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Waratahs are multistemmed shrubs or small trees, usually with a lignotuber. The leaves are simple, with entire, dentate or lobed margins. The inflorescence is a terminal head surrounded by red or pink bracts. The flowers are in pairs; they are 4-merous and usually red. The perianth is tubular and strongly incurved in bud, splitting to expose the conspicuous, curved style, and bearing the anthers on the perianth segments. The fruit is a woody follicle that curves backwards away from the stem. It opens until almost flat to release the numerous winged seeds (Crisp & Weston 1987, 1995, 2002).
The waratahs are spectacular flowering shrubs and small trees that clearly have considerable but unrealised potential for garden use within our area. Perhaps people have been scared off by their exotic looks. The genus has recently been thoroughly reviewed from a horticultural standpoint by Jeff Irons (2006), in an article that is essential reading for anyone wishing to grow these plants. It gives exceptionally thorough cultivation advice, including a league table of palatability to gastropods (a major problem), and detailed recommendations for fertilising plants in pots. Like all members of the Proteaceae, Telopea prefer relatively infertile, well-drained acidic soils, forming masses of fine roots to extract any available nutrients. A mulch of leaf mould is very beneficial. They will do best in areas with high summer rainfall. Propagation is from seed sown in heat, or by cuttings (see Irons 2006). As with many slightly marginal species, it is wise to allow seedlings to develop some bulk (and in this case, a lignotuber) in a pot before planting them out.
Irons’ article is remarkably encouraging on the prospects for growing waratahs outside in our area, citing specimens of four of the five species established in the open ground in the British Isles. The hardiness of T. truncata has been recognised for many years, and it is a mystery that this species is so seldom seen. Telopea oreades (described below) and T. mongaensis are perhaps not quite as hardy, but worthy of attempt in milder, moister parts. Telopea mongaensis is more shrubby than the others as it produces suckers; its inflorescences, however, are just as attractive. It is very rare in cultivation but plants are known to grow outside in Devon (Irons 2006). The most magnificent species, T. speciosissima, is indubitably the most tender, although Irons mentions one specimen growing against a boilerhouse wall in Kirkcudbrightshire, southern Scotland. In the wild it would seldom experience a frost below –4ºC; hardier provenances could be sought, but even without this, such a tolerance would make it eligible for many coastal areas in western Europe and the Pacific coast (as it is in California). Hybrids between the different species have been developed in Australia, to combine the floral effect of T. speciosissima with the hardiness of others: ‘Burgundy’, for example, is the product of T. oreades T. speciosissima, and is said to be hardy to –7 ºC (Irons 2006).
A genus of three or four species in E. Australia and Tasmania (which has the endemic T. truncata described below). It belongs to the same subdivision of the Proteaceae as Embothrium, from which it differs in having the flowers clustered in condensed racemes, surrounded by an involucre of coloured bracts.
The generic name derives from the Greek 'telopos' and alludes to the conspicuous flowers, which can be seen from afar.
For an account of the cultivated species by A. D. Schilling, see The Plantsman, Vol. 6(3), pp. 145-51 (1984).