The vivid scarlet colouring of these flowers, shining out among the sombre blue green of the gum forests is certainly one of the most beautiful sights that the Tasmanian bush affords. Geoffrey Smith, 1909, A Naturalist in Tasmania, p 55
Geoffrey Smith M. A. was a fellow of New College, Oxford, who came to Tasmania for six months to study the flora and fauna. In his book he also mentions that:
the flowers are ‘so much prized by the colonists for decoration that the tree is becoming scarce in the frequented parts of Mount Wellington.’ p 53
The Tasmanian waratah, Telopea truncata, is a spreading shrub or small tree, up to 8 metres tall. It is found in wet sclerophyll forests or sub-alpine scrub, most commonly in high-level alpine woodlands. It is also now cultivated in gardens.
The glorious red flowers appear in clusters at the ends of the branches. They form in November and December, are typically from 5 to 8 cm in diameter and produce copious nectar.
The nature and appearance of the flowers are adaptations that encourage pollination by birds. Paul Nixon suggests the waratah has been this way for over 60 million years.
Or is that 70 million?
“Victorian sediments have yielded a 70 million-year-old pollen grain identical to those produced today by the Tasmanian waratah (Telopea truncata). Exquisitely detailed leaf imprints found in Tasmania, dating back 30 million years, also match this plant perfectly.” Tim Low.
Some specimens of Telopea truncata have fewer branches than others, depending on conditions. The leaves are dark green above and paler below, up to 10 cm long and they, too, might be clustered toward the ends of branches. The young branches are often have soft rust-coloured hairs. The fruit cases are 5 to 8 cm long and are present most of the year. They resemble small woody bananas.
Specimens of the Tasmanian waratah were collected by French botanist Jacques Labillardière in 1792–93, during the stays at Recherche Bay. He was the first to record a scientific description of the plant in his 1805 work Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen.
In 1934 the Royal Horticultural Society awarded the plant an Award of Merit and in 1938 it received a First Class Certificate.
References and Further Reading
Smith, Geoffrey (1909). A Naturalist in Tasmania. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/36242151#page/7/mode/1up
Nixon, Paul (1997) . The Waratah (2nd ed.). East Roseville, New South Wales: Kangaroo Press.
Collier, Phil (1992), Rainforest Plants of Tasmania. Hobart, Society for Growing Australian Plants Tasmanian Region, Inc.
Low, Tim (2016) “Can a Species Last 100 Million Years?” http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/wild-journey/2016/06/lungfish
Thanks to these people for the images
Private photos of waratahs by Martin Baker
“Two plants in cultivation in a Hobart car park” by Casliber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44499254
“Plant with developing buds and a previous year’s old seed pod” by brewbooks from near Seattle, USA – Telopea truncata (Tasmanian Waratah), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19904539
“Waratah and Native Arbutus 1860” Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waratah_and_Native_Arbutus.jpg
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