Waratah watch

One of the great joys of early spring is walking along the Elvina Track and seeing splashes of brilliant red enlivening Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. It’s waratah time. Less thrilling is the evidence of waratahs having been stolen – and yes, stolen is the correct word. Waratahs are protected by law and yet year after year it is painfully obvious many have been taken.

Waratahs – Telopea speciosissima – flower in late winter and early spring. They are aptly named. According to the Australian National Herbarium, “the generic name Telopea is derived from the Greek ‘telopos’, meaning ‘seen from afar’, and refers to the great distance from which the crimson flowers are discernible. The specific name speciosissima is the superlative of the Latin adjective ‘speciosus’, meaning ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’.”

The flowers are particularly precious because they are now far less abundant than in the past. “They used to grow massively throughout the Sydney basin and there are stories from early settler times of ships leaving so laden with waratahs that you could see the red all the way to the horizon,” says qualified bush regenerator Lisa Atkins. “Now there are just small pockets of them, basically in the national parks and perhaps a few council reserves.”

The name waratah comes from the Eora word “warada”, which also means “beautiful”. According to the organisation Flags for Australia, the waratah “features in many Dreamtime stories that relate to beauty, protection, love or creation”.

While some waratahs will have been souvenired by people unfamiliar with the plant’s protected status, others are taken for sale by professionals. “You can tell when the professionals have been through because they come with secateurs and cut the flowers off sharply. When it’s an opportunist, it’s a snap and rip,” Lisa says.

Unfortunately the flowers have to be marked to make them less attractive to remove. A smear of paint on the stem, some leaves and a small part of the flower is used as a deterrent.

A red waratah with a lick of protective paint. Photo by Deborah Jones

“They only flower once. If you pick them they won’t seed and there will be no more waratahs. That’s why we really need to look after them,” Lisa says.

A rare white waratah. Photo by Jimmy Turner/Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

Fascinatingly, there is also a rare white waratah, known as Wirrimbirra White, discovered only in 1967. NSW adopted the waratah – the red version – as the state’s floral emblem in 1962.

Story by Deborah Jones
Feature ImageA spectacular waratah blooms in Elvina Bay – Photo Deborah Jones

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