If there is one Australian wildflower which spells ‘Australia’ to visitors, surely it is the spectacular kangaroo paw.
As the name implies, the kangaroo paw flower is remarkably like the hand or paw of that great Australian icon, the kangaroo. The kangaroo paw makes an excellent cut flower. It is also grown commercially in the United States, Japan and Israel.
The kangaroo paw belongs to the plant genus Anigozanthos. There are eleven species in this genus. Macropidia fulginosa or the Black Kangaroo Paw is closely related. The kangaroo paw is a native Australian plant (West Australian actually) and is now grown commercially and exported to many countries.
Both the Anigozanthos and Macropidia genera are endemic to the south western corner of Western Australia. The different species occur in a variety of habitats and soil types. The main differences between the species occur in the size, colour and height of the flowers. Deliberate hybridisation has resulted in many new forms becoming available.
Anigozanthos is a sword-leafed evergreen with dark green foliage which varies from grassy to strap-like. The tubular flowers are furry and have a velvet feel to the touch.
Pollination takes place mainly through birds. The anthers of the flowers hold pollen. Due to the specific shape of the flower and the position of the anthers, pollen is deposited on the head of the bird and thus transferred to other plants. Generally, pollen from different species is deposited on a different area of the head so there is no danger of pollination from one species to another.
During the flowering season of spring and summer, the flower stalks grow taller than the foliage and are thus quite conspicuous and attractive. Flowers appear during spring and summer.
Anigozanthos manglesii (Mangles’ kangaroo paw) is best regarded as an annual. It is also known as the red and green kangaroo paw. The striking flowers grow to about 1 metre high on a red stalk. It is the floral emblem of Western Australia. The cultivar ‘Bush Emerald’ is generally considered easier to grow. It occurs naturally on well-drained sandy soils, sometimes on limestone and along the western coast of Western Australia. The smooth leaves are flat and grey-green in colour.
Anigozanthos flavidus (Tall kangaroo paw) is vigorous and adaptable but susceptible to heavy frosts. The flower stalks grow to 2 to 3 metres tall. In the wild, it is found on sandy or gravelly soils and in moist areas.
The colour can be variable so it is best to buy this species when it is in flower. It adapts to full sun or dappled shade. It is a clump-forming plant with long, strap-like leaves. Anigozanthos flavidus has been important in the development of hybrids.
Anigozanthos bicolour (Little kangaroo paw) grows to 0.6 metres. The tubular flowers are a deep red with green. It is suited to fairly sunny positions and does well either in garden beds or in containers. It is attractive to birds and will tolerate slightly saline conditions and light frosts.
Anigozanthos humilis (Cat’s paw) is a deciduous perennial and grows to 1 metre. The leaves of the cat’s paw are not always hairy. Flower colour varies from creamy yellow, to orange, red or pink. It flowers mainly from June to December. It likes a sunny position and is ideal for container planting. It is attractive to birds (also to slugs and snails!) and tolerates light frosts and seaside positions.
Anigozanthos rufus (Red kangaroo paw) grows to 0.75 metres. It forms clumps and has smooth, green leaves of around 60cm long. The margins of the leaves are rough. The flower stems may reach 1.5m tall. The tubular flowers are a deep red. It occurs in seasonally wet sandy soils along the southern coast and prefers fairly good drainage. It flowers from September to February.
Anigozanthos viridis (Green kangaroo paw) is also clump-forming with yellow-green to emerald green flowers from July to December. The grey-green leaves are almost cylindrical and are long and smooth. It tolerates a moist position but flowers best if planted in at least partial sun.
The Black kangaroo paw (Macropidia fulginosa) grows best in well-drained soil and a sunny position. A dense layer of black hairs covers the flowers and stalks with green colouration barely visible through the black. The flower stalks can reach 1 metre. This plant is difficult to propagate from seed or by division.
Anigozanthos “Bush Ranger’ is a drought tolerant cultivar with orange flowers. Anigozanthos ‘Dwarf Delight’ has apricot flowers and is more long-lived than some varieties. Both these cultivars have some resistance to frost. ‘Mini Red’ is a compact plant with dense clusters of red flowers while ‘Velvet Harmony’ has very dark, woolly, purplish flowers.
Kangaroo paws often suffer from a fungus which causes large black splotches to appear on the leaves. This ‘ink disease’ is difficult to treat. Most Anigozanthos species are attractive to birds (also to slugs and snails!). Most species become dormant over winter so do not over-water at this time. In late winter, kangaroo paws can be cut back to about 10cm. This will remove any frost-damaged leaves and will help keep the plant healthy.