Australian Native Plants
The Kangaroo Paw
The kangaroo paw has the name Anigozanthos manglesii. 'Anigozanthos' means a wide-open flower so this is not a particularly apt name for the kangaroo paw. The 'manglesii' is to commemorate Captain James Mangles, an Englishman who visited Western Australia during the 1830s.
When not in flower, the kangaroo paw looks like a perfectly conventional perennial. It is very like an iris having sword-blade leaves coming from tough rhizomes. It has a similar stature and a similar habit of forming a tight clump. But then it blooms....
The branching spikes develop into airy sprays of flowers. Each bloom is a narrow tube a few centimetres long. At the end the tube opens abruptly and widely suggesting the paw of a macropod. These 'paws' are fashioned, surely, from suede or velvet and it is almost impossible not to stroke them. The colours are suede-like too – russets, lime greens, dusky pinks, acid yellows, orange, black – often lined with a contrasting tone such as a pale grey.
The most striking is the floral emblem of Western Australia, the red-and-green kangaroo paw. The petals are an emerald green, the stalks and ovaries ruby red. The flowers stand a metres above the narrow dark green leaves.
The new hybrid varieties are easier to grow and have some resistance to the dreaded ink disease. The Bush Gem series ranges from miniatures of 40cm ideal for containers to giants of nearly head height. Most of these hybrids have been developed from A.flavidus (below), which is itself a beauty coming in russet, yellow or acid green. Flavidus means yellow. A.pulcherrimus is usually chest high with greyish leaves. The flowers are gold or lime-yellow with touches of red on the stalks. A.rufus has blood-red flowers and stands about a metre tall.
The dainty little A.humilis is known as the cat's paw which rarely grows more than half a metre. The yellow flowers are suffused with red and orange. The temperamental black kangaroo paw is almost jet-black with pale yellow-green throats. It has its own genus, Macropodia (kangaroo paw) fuliginosa (sooty). Kangaroos belong to the genus Macropod, meaning 'big foot'.
In temperate climates with low summer humidity and not-too-severe frosts, kangaroo paws are not difficult to grow, apart from suffering from ink disease. They like really good drainage and a sunny spot. They are quite happy in pots. Once established, they prefer not to be disturbed. The plants flower first in spring with further flushes through summer and into autumn. They will flower even better if you remove spent blooms and feed with blood and bone or a slow-release fertilised. Don't forget natives are a bit touchy about too much fertiliser.
Ink disease shows as black blotches. If you seen any of these telltale signs, cut out the affected leaves and burn them. If the attacks are severe, you would be better to remove and burn the whole plant. Don't replant new plants in the same spot. Like many natives, the kangaroo paw does not live for very long so plant them among other plants where their vertical growth and airy grace will contrast with more rounded forms.