Waratahs are spectacular spring-flowering Australian native shrubs. Indeed, the large flowers are so striking, the New South Wales waratah is the state's floral emblem.

The New South Wales waratah (Telopea speciosissima) is one of five species of waratah found along the east coast of Australia and the one that has been most highly developed for gardens.

These plants are not just beautiful to see in flower in bushland. With their large red (or sometimes pink, yellow or white) flowers, they are highly desirable as cut flowers and as garden plants.

The flowers have a large central cluster of curved flowers surrounded by colourful bracts that resemble petals. The flowers are held on shrubs with long, serrated, leathery, dark-green leaves.

I am lucky enough to have several well-established waratahs in my garden and they outshine any other spring-flowering shrub in the garden in October when they are in full bloom.

My plants grow under a light canopy of taller trees so they receive morning sun but are sheltered from hot afternoon sun and from hot or very cold winds. My plants are around 3 metres high and 2 metres wide, but these are growing in ideal conditions. In the wild and in gardens, waratahs are usually around 1-2 metres high and wide.


Growing tips

While waratahs can be a little challenging to grow, there are tips to follow for success.

Waratahs are part of the plant family Proteaceae, so are closely related to banksias and proteas and grow well with these plants. Members of this plant family are highly sensitive to phosphorus, which is commonly found in improved garden soils and in fertilisers. To avoid damaging waratahs by over-fertilising, only use a fertiliser formulated for native plants which has no or very minor amounts of phosphorus and keep other fertilisers away. Take care when fertilising near shrubs and lawns. Waratahs need a slightly acidic soil.

In their native habitat, waratahs grow among native trees, particularly eucalypts. They grow in well-drained soils, which are usually well mulched with fallen native leaves, bark and twigs.

To mimic these natural growing conditions, waratahs need well-draining soil and respond well to a light mulch of shredded and composted native bark or leaves. This can also help encourage beneficial micro-organisms to grow among the waratah’s roots. Plants also need to be well watered, especially during dry periods.

These native shrubs benefit from pruning after flowering to remove spent flower heads and also to encourage a bushy shape and good flowering the following year.

Waratahs have few pest problems however they are susceptible to root rot diseases such as phytophthora. Well-draining soils and native mulches help protect plants from disease. Waratahs can be grown in containers or raised garden beds if soils are not well draining.


Waratah varieties

There are now many exciting waratah varieties. Some are only available for the cut flower trade – including some of the small-flowered forms. Current breeding work is working to extend the flowering period for waratahs into late spring and early summer as well as developing varieties with ribbon-like bracts and contrasting colours within the flowers.

Varieties in the Shady Lady series are excellent garden specimens. As well as the red form (Shady Lady Red) there are also crimson (Shady Lady Crimson), white (Shady Lady White) and yellow (Shady Lady Yellow) varieties.

Also offering reliable growth and large red flower heads is ‘Braidwood Brilliant’.