The spectacular waratah (Telopea) is the state emblem of New South Wales, and so much a part of the beautiful Blue Mountains, where I live. The plants flower both in our gardens and in the local bush. They are part of our identity.
In 1912, an article in an English magazine read;
The traveler who passes through the Australian bush sometimes comes suddenly on a burned-out ridge, the undergrowth of which has been destroyed by fire. Among the charred trees, tongues of fire still seem to rise. These are the waratahs, each stem of which is about six feet high, and bears a flame like flower; heart shaped and about the size of a man’s closed hand.
It’s sobering to think that the wild waratahs could have been wiped out. They were simply too special for their own good, and it wasn’t just the plant’s remarkable flowers that made them so desirable;
From The Australian Town and Country Journal in 1881;
The waratah is found in such abundance over the greater part of our mountains and coast regions, and the usual style of growth combined with the quality of the wood for toughness, and fine appearance when varnished, that a large trade in the rods might easily be established. The rods would answer for walking sticks, and umbrella and parasol handles, for which there is enormous demand.
A man might collect from 30 to 40 dozen of these rods per day, so that excellent wages might be earned if only 6d per dozen could be obtained for them…… With such easy means of earning money, what are we to think of the many able bodied men so often walking Sydney streets with their hands in their pockets and pestering the Government with their false cry of lack of employment? Why! one day a week amongst the waratah sticks would provide them with a living, while the earnings of the other five might be put into a savings bank, and accumulate in a year or two into a sum large enough to secure a nice freehold farm.
And from the Lithgow Mercury in November 1912;
WARATAH BLOOMS FROM BLACKHEATH
By Monday night’s mail two thousand waratah blooms were forwarded to Melbourne for use as decorations at the ball given by the Governor-General during Cup week. This consignment, which is perhaps the largest ever forwarded from this State in one lot, weighs nearly half a ton, and comes from Blackheath. All the flowers are beautiful specimens, in first-class order, and were gathered within a few miles of Blackheath railway station. Waratahs are plentiful this year about the locality, and large bunches are gathered every day by visitors to this mountain resort.
Good grief…..two thousand! What were they thinking? Thankfully, the flowers are now strictly protected. They can still be seen at their most beautiful; glowing through a mountain mist in spring. The photo below was taken by my lovely neighbor Nicole, who grew up in Blackheath. Nicole took me to one of the best places they can be viewed in the wild, along some of the old fire trails at the end of Ridgewell Road.
I have the hardy Tasmanian cultivar Shady Lady in my garden. Sadly, the largest of my trees was almost destroyed in a storm, but is recovering well. Waratahs love good drainage and as we live on a slope, they thrive. The cut flowers last for ages and are tough enough to transport easily. When my mother-in-law was in residential care they were the best blooms to take to her in Sydney.
Plant breeders have now cultivated white waratahs, and I now have a couple myself. There is also a yellow one.
However, white waratahs are very rare in the wild. Here is a touching ‘dreamtime’ story of why most of the blooms are blood red;
Wonga pigeons mate for life, so everywhere they went, they went together. They built a nest together and looked after their young together.
They had two rules. One rule was to never go out of each other’s sight. The other rule was to never fly up to the top of the trees where the hawks could get them.
One morning the pigeons went out to gather food. They walked around on the ground, busily picking up food. After a while, the female pigeon realized that she could not see her mate. She began to worry so she started to call out for him. There was no reply. She looked and looked and called and called, but she could not find her mate.
She became so worried that she forgot the rules. She flew up to the top of the tree to look around. Suddenly a big hawk grabbed her around the chest. He began to fly with her to his favourite eating place. The Wonga struggled from his grasp and freed herself. But as she pulled away the hawk’s sharp claws cut into her chest and she began to bleed. She was badly wounded.
She flew until she became so tired she could not fly any longer. Finally she came to rest on a white waratah tree. The blood from her chest dropped onto a waratah flower and it changed to red. As she few from flower to flower all the waratahs changed from white to red.
The poor little Wonga pigeon never found her mate. She died from the wounds on her chest, sad and lonely.
Most waratahs are still red. If you poke your finger into the centre of a waratah flower and bring it out again it will be stained red, like the blood of the little wonga pigeon. White waratahs are rarely found.
We have gentle wonga pigeons in our garden at Blackheath and I adore them. Oddly enough a fox, rather than a hawk, has recently taken one of our resident breeding pair. It’s very sad, as the lone bird calls incessantly….just like the bird in the story.
However, it is the raucous wattle birds I most associate with waratah blooms. They adore the nectar, and I can’t resist snapping photos of them.
Bees are attracted to the flowers as well.
The natural design of a waratah bloom is so strong that it has often featured in fine art. Here is a gorgeous example;
Waratahs are often used in wreathes on Remembrance Day and Anzac Day.
The Waratah was the name of a very famous ship in Australian history, but one which suffered a tragic and mysterious fate. It was dubbed AUSTRALIA’S TITANIC.
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