Growing Kangaroo Paws

This is an excerpt from Angus’s book Creating an Australian Garden

This remarkable group of Australian plants embody many of the qualities that make our native plants so distinctive. Their vibrant, almost iridescent flower colours are combined with a beautifully furry texture created by the hairs that cover the stems and flowers—and provide the latter’s colour. Another oddity is the way the colour varies according to temperature, with cooler days producing more intense shades. The amount of light intensity can also affect the flowers…. plants grown with some shading can have different colour intensity to ones grown in full sunshine. Thus the same species in bloom can look completely different in different environments.

They are now well established as garden plants, particularly the many named hybrids that have been released over the past twenty-five years. Having been responsible for a number of the new cultivars, I would like to give you my perspective on choosing the right kangaroo paw for your garden.

I would divide the kangaroo paws into three groups as far as home cultivation goes:

Group 1—Tall kangaroo paw cultivars (flower stems approximately two metres)

These are long-term perennial garden plants and comprise three basic types. First, there are hybrids between Anigozanthos flavidus and Anigozanthos pulcherrimus, whose flowers are yellow, orange, and red-and-yellow. Then there are the Anigozanthos flavidus x rufus hybrids. Their blooms range from burgundy to bright red or orange-red. All of these hybrids are long-lived; I have seen them survive for over twenty years as garden plants if the clumps are divided every few years to maintain their vigour.

Then there are the straight Anigozanthos flavidus varieties, which have been bred and selected for their good colours and plant habit. The plants in this group are very vigorous growers, are also resistant to the fungal disease leaf rust, and generally resistant to Alternaria leaf spot, the other major fungal disease in kangaroo paws, and the crown-rot diseases that kill many of the shorter paw species and cultivars in garden situations. They can still get some leaf blackening if under stress, which can be mistaken for fungal disease, but once the stress is removed they will grow unblemished leaves. A big advantage of the flavidus varieties is the quite large rhizome that they form, which helps them to be such a resilient plant.

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Group 2—Smaller cultivars

Many new cultivars have resulted from crossing the species A. flavidus (which confers a degree of adaptability on hybrids) with other smaller-growing species that are naturally short-lived, including A. humilis, A. bicolor, and A. gabrielae. Because the second parent usually lives for a couple of years at most, these hybrids also tend to be short-lived in the garden, even though they are technically perennial plants. So it is best to think of them as plants that will flower their heads off for their shortish lives but need to be replaced within a few years.

Another strength of the shorter cultivars is their long flowering; a number of them, including Anigozanthos ‘Bush Pearl’ and ‘Bush Diamond’, flower all year round in frost-free conditions. An outstanding way to grow these cultivars is as container plants. In a good-quality potting mix, you can grow a plant with fifty or more flower stems that can be moved around the garden for maximum effect. These stems can also be cut for indoor arrangements.

Group 3—Species kangaroo paws

There are twelve species of kangaroo paws, and every one of them is worth growing. Each has its own unique beauty, from the diminutive red-and-green flowered Anigozanthos gabrielae, with flower stems only a few centimetres tall, to the towering tall kangaroo paw Anigozanthos flavidus, whose flower stems can top three metres. Then there is the bizarre black kangaroo paw, Macropidia fuliginosa, which creates a ‘wow’ effect in any garden, or the Albany catspaw, Anigozanthos preissii, with its spectacular claw-like flowers. Then, of course, there is the floral emblem of Western Australia, the red-and-green kangaroo paw, Anigozanthos manglesii, which also comes in a host of other colour schemes.

Growing and maintenance tips for kangaroo paws

As mentioned above, the different types of kangaroo paws vary enormously in their ease of cultivation. Unless you are prepared to give them some tender loving care it is best to stick to the taller types, with flower stems around the two-metre mark. These will generally perform well over a wide range of conditions, except in areas that receive heavy frosts (a proviso that applies to all the paws). Maintenance of these taller varieties is simple. They can be chopped right back to ground level to clean up any dead or blackened foliage.

They have an underground rhizome, which is an enlarged root structure that stores food for the plant and has new growth points that will sprout in the right conditions.

A handy tip to prolong the flowering season of the taller kangaroo paws is to cut out the top half of the flower stem as soon as the first flower opens and use it indoors as a cut flower. Its removal stimulates the growth of the dormant flower buds that remain on the bottom half of the flower stem, the part still on the plant. These dormant buds develop into side branches that extend the flowering period (usually from late spring to mid-summer) by at least a month or two. The two pictures below show this, the blue arrows are where the old finished stem was cut, and the red arrow shows the new stem shooting.

With the smaller hybrid cultivars, it takes a bit more work to maximise their relatively short lives. Each flower stem arises from a fan of leaves (usually six), which gradually die and turn black as the flowers finish. A number of dwarf paws, such as ‘Bush Pearl’ and ‘Bush Diamond’, flower all year. A savage cutback will often kill the smaller hybrids, so rather than chopping the whole plant down to ground level, it is best to remove the spent flower stems one at a time. As you do so, make sure you take the old leaves that are associated with them.

With the exception of the tall kangaroo paw (A. flavidus), the wild paw species tend not to be long-lived in the garden, particularly if drainage is poor. Give them a well-drained position with as much sun as possible, such as in a rockery. Otherwise they can be grown quite happily in containers, where I have had them flower well for ten years or more. A good tip with pots is to use a free-draining mix but apply plenty of food and water while the plants are actively growing and flowering. The flower stems are very succulent while they are developing and do not react well to lack of moisture. Anigozanthos flavidus is a much more adaptable kangaroo paw, and will suit a wider range of soil types including clay loams, and will handle wet spells. They now come in a wide range of colours.

Using kangaroo paws in the garden

It is hard to go past kangaroo paws when you’re looking for a vibrant splash of colour in either pots or garden beds. The crucial point is to select the right variety for your purpose. Although the smaller varieties tend to be not quite as long lived as the taller varieties, they can provide a spectacular display in a feature garden bed, particularly if you have a smaller garden, and of course they are also fabulous in pots.

If you want a more permanent display of kangaroo paws, the tall varieties are ideal and can survive for many years in most non-frosty areas of Australia. Placed at the back of garden beds, they are a perfect backdrop for low-growing plants of contrasting or complementary colours.

Both the tall varieties s well as the shorter ones will also provide long-lived cut flowers in a stunning array of colours, all with that fabulous furry texture.

The tubular flowers of kangaroo paws are adapted for pollination by nectar-eating birds with long beaks, so try to position them where you will be able to watch the delicate spinebills and honeyeaters that will seek out the flowers in many parts of Australia. Placing paws near the windows of your house or the deck, where you can sit still and observe, will bring you a wonderful wildlife reward.

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