Essie's Waratah and Others
Essie Huxley's yellow waratah remained an unchallenged celebrity for more than forty years. It's true the original one planted at the old family cottage had died but several of its offspring accompanied Essie to her new home across the road. You could pick the seedlings by the lighter colour of their leaves. A few were distributed amongst friends and some to those who asked, but not everyone, Essie never was one to be put upon. Heavens knows what happened to most of them, more than likely gone to God.
Waratahs are touchy souls at the best of times, and the yellows have proven difficult, all have a propensity to drop dead when planted in the average garden. Like many natives, Telopea truncata has a root association with a specific mycorrhizal fungus, which ensures successful establishment and growth, and is very susceptible to fungal root diseases. As with many mycorrhizal plants, they are also phosphorus-intolerant which means that most garden fertilisers, or even being planted in gardens that have been fertilized in the past, are poison to it. Gardeners "in the know" use bush soil taken from around wild growing waratah plants, in the planting hole to provide the essential mycorrhizare. Essie, as was her want to be that little different, swore by the rubbly scree found in the flood defence "battlements" of bull ant and jack jumper nests, this not only had deleterious consequences for the residents, but quite often for the excavator as well!
During the 1990s a group of Hydro workers discovered a group of about 50 yellow Waratahs near Queenstown on the West Coast and these joined Essie's as the only known plants of this colour. These have all been described as forma lutea but have no taxonomic status. They were described by taxonomists as being in every way the same as the red ones and only mere colour variants. What they forgot to add was that this colour variant is as rare as "dragon's teeth"!
The "West Coasters" have been successfully brought into commercial production by John Gibson of Plants of Tasmania Nursery. These have proven to come almost 90% yellow from seed which is to be reasonably expected given they originate from a self supporting wild population. The same nursery also lists a multi-coloured plant that was found in the northeast of the state sold under the name of St Mary's Sunrise. Its flowers are a delicious confection of cream and pale pink but it has proven difficult to propagate in large numbers.
One family who have been highly successful with Essie's Yellow are the Crowdens at Nietta on the North West of Tasmania. They have some advantage of living in "waratah country" right under the glowering massif of Black Bluff, but I think their skill as gardeners has a lot to do with their success. Thriving in their extraordinary garden, as testament to this wizardry, is a great mountain of a plant, its cloak of deep green leaves a perfect foil for the vast number of swirling, creamy-yellow flower heads that appear in early summer. It is an obvious feature, a great draw card and talking point for the tremendous number of visitors who visit there. And the family appear content with this; a wonderful memento of a fine friend and a touchstone to the past. An unbroken chain of camaraderie and exchange down the years, for after all, many of us who garden share the same children.
Some people saw different possibilities. The idea, indeed the opportunity of introducing yellow into a very limited palette of flower colour created a flurry of interest riding on the back a recent publication The Waratah, by Paul Nixon. This book was the first to explore the waratah's commercial possibilities especially when associated with hybridization. There had recently been a white flower discovered and named Wirrimbirra White, and some other shades of pink, but Essie's waratah now opened up exciting new vistas.
First amongst those who were to make contact with Essie was Graeme Downe from the Dandenongs in Victoria and she found in him a kindred spirit. While they shared the same passion for waratahs, they discovered that this extended to other cool climate shrubs, including rhododendrons, pieris etc. Their friendship continued on over the ensuing twenty years. In that time Graeme made numerous visits to Essie at "Telopea" in Lower Longley and she supplied him with pollen from her yellow. He also mentioned that Essie had two other yellow waratahs, one found near Maydeena and another from the nearby Wellington Range but I have no way of confirming this.
Breeding any plant, particularly from "unimproved" phenotypes, is hard work and the results are often hit or miss. Growing shrubs extends the difficulty because of the additional length of time to flowering. All of the action starts in the second generation or F2 because it's at this stage recessive genes potential are "unleased" and breeders will see for the first time new colour possibilities.
By "digging" in the F2 generation Graeme did unearth some treasures, which have now been brought into commercial production. Three of these are particularly beautiful, two of them sharing the yellowish tones of Essie's yellow. Golden Globe ......... and Champagne, while the other has thrown to the sparkling white of its other parent.
As luck would have it Brian Fitzpatrick was working for Protea Australis, a specialist protea and waratah nursery in the late 1980's when Protea Australis was given the role to propagate and release the recently found 'Wirrimbirra White" waratah. Paul Nixon had a role in its development and it was through him that Brian got to know of Essie.
His interest in breeding had been triggered by new colour possibilities and it was further piqued when he saw a documentary on the history of the rose. "I thought it was such an opportunity, and I seemed in the perfect position to breed arguably one of the most magnificent flowers in the world, and most likely one of the few primary flowers still untamed", he told me in a chance conversation when Essie had sent me to pick him up from the airport back in those early days.
Brian had written to Essie about is his work with Wirrimbirra White and asked if he could use some of her yellow's pollen. They hit it off from the start and at first she sent cuttings and seed in the mail, then the 'pièce de resisistance', freshly cut flower stems of her yellow arrived packed with consummate care. In recent correspondence Brian reminisced, "I remember my children seeing the flowers for the first time and I myself too wowed at how luminous they were, as if they harnessed their light from the night skies". As the Tasmanian season was later, Brian had to freeze the pollen in test tubes for nine months until the following Sydney Spring, when he would select some suitable T speciosissima seed parents.
Over the years Brian also visited Essie several times during flowering period so he could pollinate the yellow, as well as other unusual forms she'd picked up along the way. He tells me it was always four seasons in one day, as it can be at that time of the year "Down South", sleet, snow, brilliant sunshine and misty rain. "I'd be busy like a honeyeater moving from flower to flower covering each in bridal veil and she'd be out splitting wood for the fire or quietly going about her garden, fiddling with this or that. I'd think to myself what a wonderful day, "The Gods Must be Crazy", Meeting Essie was both a beautiful and most memorable part of my life and a huge contribution to the breeding"
From these early beginnings Brian has gone on to build the 'Wild Brumby' range of waratahs. One of his luckiest breaks came via a cadmium red seedling he raised from Essie's original yellow. He crossed this with another carrying a complex mix of pink, red and Wirrimbirra White genes and it yielded one pod of eight precious seeds. So he sowed, waited and hoped ... . "Believe it or not that one pod gave me five colours; pink, salmon, cream, white, red. Three of those are in the wild Brumby range: Digger, Georgie Girl and Snow maiden, how special is that!"
These beautiful telopeas have been available in South Australia and New South Wales for several years but now the whole gardening public will have the opportunity to grow these very special creations when a new series will be released in all states this coming spring. This series is to be called "A Waratah Affair" which sums up perfectly Brian's and Essie's working relationship and the marriage of the rare Tasmanian yellow waratah T. truncata with the best of the NSW species, T. speciosissima. Most aptly, the first in this series is to be called "Essie's Gift"
A special thank you to Brian Fitzpatrick for his picture of Essie Huxley taken in her garden at Telopea.
A special thank you to Lesley Crowden for the picture of the yellow waratah taken in the family's garden at Kaydale Lodge.
A special thank you to John Gibson for the picture of the West Coast waratah.
A special thank you to David Marrison for the picture of "St Mary's Sunrise"
A special thank you to Graeme Downe for the pictures of "Golden Globe", Champagne" and "Bridal Gown".
A special thank you to Maria Hitchcock for the pictures of "Digger", "Georgie Girl", "Snow Maiden"