Telopea speciosissima


Family: Proteaceae

An upright shrub, to about 3 to 4 metres high and usually with a narrow spread; often seen shorter and multi-stemmed, bearing a lignotuber. 

It has a natural distribution mainly in the Greater Sydney Area or Basin, from Ulladulla in the south, north through Wollongong and Sydney and the Southern Highlands, as well as the Blue Mountains, to the Watagan Mountains, west of Morriset on the central coast. 

It is typically found on sandy soils including Hawkesbury and Narrabeen Sandstone substrates, in shrubland and dry sclerophyll forest and woodland. Populations can be high along sandstone creeklines. 

Telopea spp. have simple and alternate leaves, although unevenly distributed in a spiral around the stems. In this species, they are leathery, to about 30 cm long – including the petiole (often much shorter) and 6.5 cm wide, with prominently raised veins on both surfaces and with margins variably toothed to rarely entire.

Telopea spp. have inflorescences referred to as “condensed heads” which are actually made up of racemes of pair flowers, fused together in a conflorescence. The head is surrounded by a involucre (overlapping whorls) of enlarged leafy-bracts. Each flower is a typical Proteaceae flower with a perianth of 4 tepals, 4 anthers and 1 carpel. In this species, the flowers, each about 4 cm long, occur in a tight cluster at the ends of the erect stems; with the cluster-head to over 150 mm or more in diameter and consisting of over 250 flowers; brilliant red in colour. Large, red leafy bracts occur at the base of the inflorescence to about 9 cm long. Flowering occurs from mid spring to early summer.

The fruit of Telopea is a follicle. In this species, they are up to 15 cm long. Seeds have one wing.

In the garden

This species has a reputation as a hard-to-grow plant and the author has never successfully grown one in the ground or in pots – not for lack of trying. So I am not the best one to give growing advice.

Keep points for success appear to be:

  • Water drainage ideally to a metre. The waratah naturally grows in poor, sandy soils where it thrives due to the soils excellent water-draining properties.
  • A good fertiliser program. But be careful which one is applied. Organic and well-composted is likely the best approach. 
  • North facing aspect ensures a maximum of sun exposure.
  • Pruning is a very important consideration for the commercial growth of waratahs in the effort to design a shape for the plant that will encourage the maximum production of saleable blooms. The aim is to get as many growing tips as possible as it is on these that the flowers will develop.

Once established, waratahs are long-lived woody perennials although not without a few pests and diseases.

Editor’s notes:

I, too, have never grown one of these successfully but have placed a few tubestock on a sandstone slope in a southern Sydney-garden and am hoping for the best! Some of our members have been very successful with some plants, likely placed in the perfect position. They seem to do best on a slope with fast drainage. 

They are a plant that can be doing well one week and then drop dead the next week. But well worth trying, especially in a sloping sandstone or sandy garden.


The propagation of waratah for commercial production is relatively easy in comparison to other stages of the growth cycle. Plants are usually propagated from cuttings as well as seed. Cuttings are best taken when plants are producing new growth and taken from firm wood that is less than 1 year old. If plant material is scarce, single nodes can be used for cuttings. Fresh seed has a good germination rate but deteriorates fairly rapidly unless stored at low temperature and low humidity. Dry seed will last a few years in refrigerated storage but should be treated with a general purpose fungicide prior to storage and at propagation to ensure good germination rates and healthy seedlings. 

When propagated from seed, the transition from seedling to flower takes about 5 years. Cuttings may take only 2 years.

Other information

Telopea is an endemic genus of five species of large shrubs or small trees. There are currently four recognised species in NSW with one of these, T. oreades,  occurring in Victoria. One other species, T. truncata, occurs only in Tasmania. 

Telopea speciosissima is the best-known species in this genus and is the NSW state emblem. 

A number of selected forms of T. speciosissima and hybrids with other Telopea species have been brought into cultivation. These exhibit variations in the colour of the flowers and/or the bracts. Some examples include: 

  • ‘Fire ‘n’ Ice’ – red flowers with white tips
  • ‘Songlines’ – inflorescences are pink in bud, opening flame-red
  • ‘Dreaming’ – flower styles open white and mature to pink
  • ‘Shade of Pale’ – flowers are cream tinged with pink
  • ‘Brimstone Blush’ – flowers are red with a pink blush
  • ‘Braidwood Brilliant’ – red flowers (T. speciosissima x T. mongaensis)
  • ‘Wirrimbirra White’ – almost pure white flowers
  • ‘Shady Lady’ – blood red flowers (T. speciosissima x T. oreades)

Telopea spp. usually cope with fire well and regenerate from the lignotuber as well as any seedbank. A fire event usually promotes good flowering displays, usually two to three years after fire.

Telopea – from Greek tilopos (τηλωπος) meaning “seen from afar” or “one who sees at a great distance” a reference to the conspicuous flowers which are conspicuous at any distance. The genus was first described by Robert Brown in 1810 from the type species Telopea speciosissima.

speciosissima Latin from speciosa meaning ‘beautiful’ and issimo which adds ‘extremely’ or ‘remarkably’.

This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild. 

NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) Telopea speciosissima profile page https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&name=Telopea~speciosissima&lvl=sp

Gardening with Angus Telopea speciosissima profile page https://www.gardeningwithangus.com.au/new-waratah-telopea-varieties/

Australian Native Plants Society (Australia) Telopea speciosissima profile page https://anpsa.org.au/plant_profiles/telopea-speciosissima-and-cultivars/

Australian Native Plants Society (Australia) Australian Floral Emblems –    Telopea speciosissima  https://anpsa.org.au/APOL5/emblems5.html

Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2001). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 4th edition. New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia.

By Jeff Howes. Editing and additional text by Dan Clarke