A Pause for Kangaroo Paws

kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos sp.)

kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos sp.)

The kangaroo paw, when properly grown, is one of the most dramatic plants for Los Angeles gardens. Its flower stems can grow to 6 feet, and it will bloom from spring to fall.
The most outstanding local example of this plant may be viewed at the Woodlake Elementary School garden, located at the corner of Woodlake and Hatteras, in Woodland Hills. The kangaroo paw has tubular, furry flowers with six splayed edges that are supposed to resemble kangaroo toes. Like most tubular flowers, those of the kangaroo paw attract hummingbirds.
Alas, I have seen many kangaroo paws die before their time. Most don’t seem to survive more than a few months in the garden. From Lynette Mathis, the horticultural wizard who designed and selected the plants for the Woodlake garden, I learned the secret to growing kangaroo paws. They should ideally be planted on a mound or a slope of fast-draining soil. Under such circumstances, they don’t mind getting watered just as much as the rest of the garden. However, in heavy soil on flat terrain, kangaroo paws should be watered with considerable restraint.
The kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos flavidus) is native to the eucalyptus forests of southwestern Australia. The toughest type of kangaroo paw – and the one growing at Woodlake – has yellow flowers. (‘Flavidus,’ the species name, comes from the Latin word for yellow.) The yellow kangaroo paw is unique among plants from western Australia in its ability to survive under moist, even humid conditions. Red-, pink- and green-flowered kangaroo paws are also available. However, according to the Society for Growing Australian Plants, none of these colors lives as long as the yellow when grown under cultivation in a typical garden. All, however, are highly prized in long-lasting cut-flower arrangements.
The kangaroo paw has clumping, spear-shaped foliage. A single clump may eventually reach 3 feet in diameter. To propagate, divide the clump after flowering ends or, alternatively, grow the kangaroo paw from its seeds, which germinate without difficulty.
One other important note: The kangaroo paw at Woodlake School is in an open exposure where every part of it gets all-day sun. Because of their mature height, kangaroo paws are often planted at the rear of a planter or flower bed, but this would appear to be a flawed design concept. In the back of a bed, the kangaroo paw’s clumping leaves would be shaded by the plants in front of it, depriving it of the maximum solar dosage that it requires.
The Woodlake School garden should be examined and emulated by any school seeking to provide its kids with a rich botanical experience, and by garden designers at large. The beauty of the Woodlake garden is not only in the selection of its plants, but in their accessibility. The garden is divided into Australian, succulent, California native, ornamental grass, herb, fern, wildflower, butterfly and hummingbird sections. All are interconnected by wide paths of decomposed granite. In this way, it is possible to get close to all the plants in the garden and fully experience their colors, textures and fragrances.
From time to time I am told by readers to devote more space to growing plants in containers, since many people have nothing more than a balcony or a patio upon which to garden. Now at last there is a book that, momentarily at least, takes me off the hook.
“Balcony, Terrace and Patio Gardening” (Fulcrum Publishing; $17.95) is a most readable and informative volume. The author, Margaret Davis, is an Australian who moved to Hawaii and is now settled in Santa Barbara. I have seen every plant she mentions growing in our city. This is not another boring book that catalogs a thousand and one different plants and how to care for them. Instead, Davis focuses on a few select types, devoting individual chapters, for example, to citrus, azaleas, camellias, roses and bougainvilleas.
“Wind Control” is the title of an early chapter.  “Wind,” Davis writes,   “is almost always the balcony gardener’s greatest problem.” Among the solutions she offers are putting up plexiglass or trellised arches behind balcony rails. She also mentions wide-meshed chicken wire, which she once saw completely enclosing a balcony and covered with decorative vines.
Citrus species are her favorite trees for containers. In large tubs – as long as they are root pruned and have their soil changed from time to time – she describes them as  “lifetime trees.” She sites a conversation with the superintendent of the Versailles garden near Paris, who claimed that certain potted orange trees under his care had been planted at the time of Louis XIV, making them more than 300 years old.
Tip of the week: From Margaret Davis comes this tip on growing balcony herbs: “Most of them can be kept small enough to fit around the edges of larger tubs or pots, and an edging of parsley, chives or basil looks quite attractive and saves space. Oregano is nice and compact for growing with other plants, and so are the various other kinds of thyme.”

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