Appearance"Telopea speciosissima", the New South Wales waratah, is a large, erect shrub up to 3 or 4 metres in height with one or more stems. Arising vertically or near vertically from a large woody base, or lignotuber, the stems are little branched.
In late spring, there is a spurt of new growth after flowering, with new shoots often arising from old flowerheads. The dark green leaves are alternate and usually coarsely-toothed, ranging from 13 to 25 cm in length.
Enveloped in leafy bracts, the flowerheads develop over the winter and begin to swell in early spring, before opening to reveal the striking inflorescences. The exact timing varies across New South Wales, but flowering can begin as early as August in the northern parts of its range, and finish in November in the southern, more elevated areas.
Spot flowering may also occur around March in autumn. Containing up to 250 individual flowers, the domed flowerheads are crimson in colour and measure 7–10 cm in diameter. They are cupped in a whorl of leafy bracts which are 5 to 7 cm long and also red.
Variations are not uncommon; some flowerheads may be more globular or cone-shaped than dome-shaped, and the bracts may be whitish or dark red. The tips of the stigmas of some inflorescences may be whitish, contrasting with the red colour of the rest of the flowerhead.
An individual flowerhead reaches full size about two weeks after first emerging from the bracts, and lasts another two weeks before the flowers fade and fall. In the first phase, the individual small flowers, known as florets, remain unopened—and the flowerhead retains a compact shape—before they mature and split open, revealing the stigma, style, and anther.
The anther is sessile, lacking a filament, and lies next to the stigma at the end of the style. The outermost florets open first, with anthesis progressing towards the centre of the flowerhead, which becomes darker and more open in appearance, and begins attracting birds and insects.
The ovary lies at the base of the style and atop a stalk known as the gynophore, and it is from here that the seed pods then develop. Meanwhile, a crescent-shaped nectary lies at the base of the gynophore.
The seed pods grow to 8–15 cm long. The pods eventually turn brown and leathery, usually in early winter, splitting open to reveal the winged seeds inside. In the wild, only two or three seed pods develop per flowerhead, but there may be anywhere from 5 to 50 in cultivated plants.
DistributionThe species is found in New South Wales from the Watagan Mountains southward to Ulladulla, with a relatively widespread distribution in the Central Coast region.
StatusAlthough largely protected within National Parks and conservation reserves in the Sydney area, most populations are small, numbering under 200 plants, and are often located near urban developments.
HabitatIt usually occurs as an understory shrub in open forest on sandy soils in areas with moderately high rainfall, receiving on average around 1200 mm a year.
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