Plant profile – the Haemodoraceae

One of the mainstays of my Zone 1 garden, the native front yard, is the Haemodoraceae family – the kangaroo paws, cottonheads and bloodroots. They’re fun plants to work with. They tend to have strappy, grass-like leaves and tussocky shapes, they flower beautifully and in most cases boldly, they’re local natives so they love this climate and more importantly they LOVE this sand-I-mean-soil. I haven’t yet written about Zone 1, but in a nutshell it’s a (primarily local) native garden that
* should be low maintenance and to some extent self-propagating,
* that helps form a corridor and extend habitat for the river we’re very close to,
* that includes some bush foods and useful local plants
* that is very decorative by design rather than just being a big blobby mass of shrubs
* that gives clear views through the garden to points of interest and especially to the front door.

Native gardens can have flowers year-round, but for best effect with our locals you still want to cluster plants-of-a-season together and design the garden around textures of plants and leaves rather than around the flowers. So the Haemodoraceae with their year-round grassy tussocky appearance are wonderful balances to both the trees overhead and the small softer-looking shrubs scattered through.

Soft grey strappy leaves out of focus, with a cluster of bright gold flowers on the end of a top-heavy stalk

A grey-leaved, golden-flowered cottonhead – Conostylis aurea – in flower

There are grey-leaved Cottonheads, Conostylis aurea and candicans, under the Acacia coriacea, so that the silver dangling leaves above are reflected at ground level. There’s a low-growing, green-leaved and yellow-flowering Conostylis aculeata mixed in with the equally-green-leaved-and-yellow-flowering, but taller and softly shrubby, Verticordias. The black kangaroo paw, Macropidia, grows out of some rocks that are swathed with the soft-leaved and rampantly-flowing black-and-yellow-flowered vine Kennedia nigricans. I had Haemodorum spicatum, one of the black-flowered local bloodroots growing there too but it didn’t take (I will be trying again in November). Near another similar cluster is a grouping of Anigozanthos viridis, the little emerald green kangaroo paw. Two tall Yellow Kangaroo Paws frame the view into the garden towards the path and the Acacia coriacea tree, and they’ll start flowering around the time the Cottonheads finish.

After several attempts to have the jewel-bright state emblem Red and Green Kangaroo Paw growing in front of the front door I’ve given up and planted the Federation Flame kangaroo paw there instead, with bluer leaves and more rusty-red flowers. The Red-and-Greens are now over by the Balga, where I first had Anigozanthos gabriellae and then, when they didn’t survive Perth summer, Anigozanthos bicolor (both species of kangaroo paw with similar flowers to the Red-and-Green but much much smaller plants). The gabriellae were beautiful, very small and fine leaves that reflected the texture of the Balga (local Aboriginal name for a grass tree). But they need swampy conditions, which I couldn’t give them. The bicolor would have coped with the conditions fine but they were poor quality plants when I bought them with quite a bit of fungus. The paws are all quite susceptible to fungal attack if watered from overhead or kept in humid conditions, which is why they don’t thrive so well in Sydney. I tried to keep these ones dry, but it wasn’t enough for them to recover. I have bought several tiny Catspaws, Anigozanthos humilis, to use as a border on the front door bed but the seedlings have been heavily attacked by snails before I could get them planted so I’m rethinking that idea.

So you can see that there’s plenty of colour options. There are even more if you go into the hybrids, and that’s not counting the effects of tussock-height, flower stalk height and whether they’re branched or singular. It could easily become garish, but grouping them with similar-coloured beds has made lots of little corners that each glow in their own way. And they don’t all flower at exactly the same time, so you can stagger the colouring a little bit. I’ve tried to avoid hybrids because I want this garden to self-seed to some degree. However, I’ve begun to shift my resistance a little thanks to our friendly garden snails. The snails are most active at the same time as the kangaroo paws are beginning their spring flush and starting to grow flower stalks, and they have a very fond preference for the Red-and-Green. They’ll cover quite some distance and obstacle to get to it. So in order to get surviving, flowering plants, I’ve resorted to buying quite advanced paws, and planting them late in first-spring when the snails have finished mating and laying eggs and are beginning to reduce their activity. I’ll have to water them a little in summer to ensure they establish, as they won’t have had enough time to do so before our rains end. The snails are also less keen on eating the hybrids, which is why those have made it into the garden. I don’t mind feeding the snails a little, but I object to outright and total slaughter of my flowers.

Golden yellow roots intertwining at the base of a kangaroo paw that's had its pot removed

These golden roots are from an Anigozanthos manglesii, or Red and Green Kangaroo Paw. All members of the Haemodoraceae, the bloodroot family, have colourful roots.

On to the less obvious garden qualities of the family. The roots of the Haemodoraceae are quite interesting. They’re mostly sand-lovers, and in fact the Conostylis are notable for their use in restoration because their roots are very very good at binding sand together and stopping erosion on sandy slopes. While only one genus (Haemodorum) is actually called bloodroot, all the family have brightly coloured roots. The roots of the bloodroots are even edible, forming a blood-red tuber that I think is harvestable in secondsummer (I’d have to check that). Be warned, though – there’s a potential correlation between the soil type they grow in and the level of heat the tubers achieve, and some can be ring-of-fire worthy.

Being local natives, there’s some good ecological connections. The kangaroo paws are all bird pollinated. We have a lot of neighbourhood cats in the area so I’ve been a little concerned that I’m encouraging the honeyeaters to stick around near ground level, but it doesn’t seem to have been a problem so far. I certainly enjoy seeing the birds come through. The bloodroots are pollinated exclusively by native bees – apparently those black flowers that we barely notice on our bushwalks look quite different if you can see into the ultraviolet. But they’re not pollinated by the European honeybee, only the native bees. I’m not sure what goes for the cottonheads, but I’m sure I’ll find out watching them this season.

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One Response to Plant profile – the Haemodoraceae

  1. Pingback: Zone 1 – a story in photos | AgriTapestry

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