Blue Rhododendrons and a White Waratah

Of the many, many plants vying for attention in the garden at the moment, a few of the more unusual ones have caught my eye.

First up is Rhododendron ‘Blue Admiral’ which a friend gave me as a housewarming gift:

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It’s a pretty thing, and its bloom seems a deeper shade this year. Now, while it isn’t ‘true-blue’, the rich violet-lavender shade is very striking and it is totally different from all of the other evergreen azaleas which always display red or white based flowers.

Last autumn I added another ‘blue’ Rhododendron called ‘Florence Mann’, and it too, lives up to the description of lilac blue blooms (the yellow poppy is a nice counterpoint).

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Of course, there is still the red base in both of these Rhododendrons, as these plants simply don’t possess the blue coloured gene. The violet/lavender/lilac shades can more easily be seen by picking out and isolating the main colour of each:

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But as far as blue goes, these are both quite a good job!


Another more unusual plant in my garden is the White Waratah, Telopea speciosissima x oreades ‘Shady Lady’.

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This is a garden cultivar of the Waratah that is endemic to the Sydney region and the standard colour – a brilliant red – is the NSW floral emblem. I also have a couple of these that I have grown from seed, but they are tiny and yet to flower.

To see Waratahs in the bush is quite amazing, and they are most unlike many Australian plants which are demure and subtle.

Out of flower the shrub – which typically grows to about 2m – has an appearance of a cross between an Oleander and a Rhododendron, and in flower, they are possibly the most showy Australian native, so much so that it is hard to believe these plants thrive in terrible, sandy soil.

I recently had the pleasure of re-visiting a garden I designed about 15 years ago, and was pleased to see the Shady Lady Red Waratah still doing very well…here, it is literally sitting atop a sandstone rock shelf with about 40cms / 16″ of soil placed on top of the boulder. So it is a very resilient plant indeed:

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They are reasonably hardy, and look very pretty when covered in spring snow:

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Waratahs are easy to grow – if you have the right climate and soil.

The soil needs to be really light and free draining; heavy clay will kill it.

But the ideal climate range is very narrow: USDA zone 8a-10a / RHS zone H5-H3. These plants really struggle where summers are hot and humid; thus excluding the south-east of the USA.

This plant would work well in California/PNW coast or the southern areas of the UK/Northwest Spain and coastal France.

Waratahs are an understory plant: here they grow in the light, dappled shade of tall Eucalypts; when planting in the garden, if you haven’t dappled shade (from say, a birch tree, dogwood or hawthorn) then at least give them protection from hot afternoon summer sun.

Removing the spent blooms and cutting back older shrubs by about ¼ after flowering ensures they stay bushy and floriferous. As with all Australian natives, don’t use phosphorous based fertilizers: half-strength seaweed based fertilizers are fine.

Happy Gardening 🙂

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48 thoughts on “Blue Rhododendrons and a White Waratah

  1. A big thank you for mentioning that about not using phosphorous-based fertilizers for the Australian plants!! You just might have saved a few in my garden as I rethink my fertilizing programme. btw, my compost piles are working nicely now – really appreciate your input on how to do it in the desert!
    That Waratah is magnificent; sadly I have clay so won’t being trying it. Must admit that I’m entirely unfamiliar with them, and when I saw the title, I expected an exotic bird 😉 And blue (or nearly blue!) rhododendrons – wow!

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    • Thanks Amy – I’m glad to hear the compost is working – it will save a lot of cash in mulch in the long run!
      They do make specialist Australian Native fertilizers which are very low in phosphorous and low in nitrogen, but I have found a combination of mulch and diluted seaweed fertilizer seems to do the trick when applied regularly during the growing season

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  2. What a great housewarming gift!
    I have always liked azaleas, probably even more than the larger leafed rhododendrons. They are not salt tolerant though which I learned the hard way years ago while living in a beach-side community.

    Rhododendrons are more popular here with greater availability, I thought to include azaleas in one of my schemes, but went with hydrangea instead – also more common here and widely available.
    We relocated a couple rhodos from our old house before we moved.

    They never looked as good there as they do here at the new house. Feeding them has made all the difference. They were never fed before I got my hands on them! 🙂

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    • Thanks Annette – these garden hybrids are quite cold hardy (as long as drainage is perfect) and I have seen them as lovely pot specimens…they hate wet feet in winter, which has seen me kill at least 3 of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. patsquared2 says:

    Love the colors, as usual. Were you / are you a landscape designer? I give you all the credit in the world having taken about 3 months to research native PA plants, determine which colors, shapes and sizes I wanted, sourcing and buying them and putting them in. I had no fingernails left by the time I was done planting — worrying about look, hardiness, health of plants. They have been in since mid-July and all of them took. But what a stressful job landscape architecture and design must be!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Pat – I had been doing garden design for many years part-time whilst working in the corporate world (which helped pay the bills), a few years ago, I was in a position to be able to swap the stresses of corporate life for one that involved gardens and design and I have loved it ever since! But you are right, picking plants for your own garden can be so involved!!!!

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  4. We have an Admiral Semmes Rhodo (yellow flower, heavenly scent), but not a Blue Admiral, and of course no Waratah, white or red. Nice to know about these plants. The violet/blue is certainly striking and I see lots of unopened buds; it looks very happy in its spot.

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    • Thanks Marian! It’s a beauty, this one….They sell them under a different cultivar name in the US, but similar ones – which should do very well in the South – go by the names of ‘Blue Bailey, Blue Bird or Blue Baron’ – each one has a slightly more or less lavender tone, but they all look quite lovely

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    • Thanks! It really is quite striking: I saw a few for sale recently, but they were more lilac – I think this one is very happy with just 4 hrs of morning sun each day as it is far bluer than when I first received it

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  5. We have two Tasmanian warratahs, a huge blood red variety and a gorgeous yellow. I bought both at a Tas native nursery in Hobart and one died but by that stage, Earl the wonder dog had eaten all of the tags so I have NO idea which one is currently growing in the middle of a clump of aggressive agapanthus and only getting the odd squirt of water when I remember to fill up the water bowls in front of it. We have heavy clay soil about half a metre down but the topsoil (if you could call it “soil”) is pretty much silt. I am guessing that the warratah should do OK here as we have a very similar summer climate to France. Our horticulture lecturer used to wax on about “Our Mediterranean climate”. I think he had aspirations to retiring to a vineyard with olives 😉

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  6. Anyone interested in hunting out the Tasmanian warratah, as your nursery for “Telopea truncata”. It’s available in both a very deep blood red colour (with very large blooms) or yellow.

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  7. I now have a terrible case of waratah-envy *sigh*. Worse yet, I don’t even live in the few parts of the USA where I might reasonably expect to not kill it. Drat!

    I do love blue rhodies and have added your two to my NGWL (Next Garden’s WantList)!

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    • Thanks – I’ve managed to kill a few in my time, too! Too much water in winter and they curl up and die, too many consecutive summer nights that don’t fall below 70F and they also pack up and leave 🙂 Thankfully here in the mountains nights above 60F are very uncommon, so I’ve had the most success up here!

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  8. Oh, the Waratah plants–just gorgeous!! I’ll have to second Ms. Chatsworth above–totally jealous, I am!! And the Rhododendron ‘Blue Admiral’ is not so bad, either!! Lovely plants!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tina! You might be able to get them to grow in a pot in Texas as long as your summer nights don’t stay above 70F for too long (they can cope with high daytime temperatures, but hot nights seem to kill them)…but mind you, they would need a bit of protection from the freezes that you occasionally get in winter

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  9. You blew me away at the start with the ‘Blue Admiral’ Rhododendron but Telopea, which I’ve never heard of much less seen, knocked my socks off (or would have if I’d been wearing socks – it’s too hot here for socks).

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  10. ‘Blue Admiral is gorgeous! It reminds me of one called ‘Starry Night’ that used to be carried by a nursery near me. I love the whole Proteaceae family. I visited a garden on the Oregon, USA coast in August that had Telopea truncata and oreades. Such gorgeous plants. I wish my own garden didn’t have such heavy soil.

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  11. Thank you for showing us 2 beautiful plants. The blue of your azaleas is stunning and your Waratahs are gorgeous, but I haven’t seen any for sale over here, I will just have to admire yours!

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  12. Waratah’s are interesting – somehow they don’t look like other natives. I’ve never seen a white one before, and love it. Also never even heard of a blue rhodie. I used to grow rhodies but they didn’t stand up to the tough love regime imposed on them. Great post, Matt. Also interesting background info about you changing a corporate lifestyle for landscaping. Good on you!

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  13. nice blooms Matt, I do like your white Waratah, an unusual flower, I enjoyed reading about them too, Australia has some very different plants to other continents, it’s interesting to see and hear about them, Frances

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  14. Blue Admiral is beautiful, but what really caught my eye is that red Waratah. I think it would be a wonderful alternative to all the Rhododendron hybrids and Azaleas that are succumbing to the Azalea lace bug over here in PNW. And, as you say – their narrow range fits us to a T. I specified one of those Blue Admirals for a client, and much to my chagrin, shortly thereafter it was completely brown. I’m sure you are familiar with the disaster they have caused over here, but if not, I wrote about it here. https://flutterandhum.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/pesky-little-buggers-azalea-lace-bugs/ Happy spring to you, Matt!

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  15. To Matt and all his friends,
    I have been concerned for months about the his absence. The abrupt end of his posts and lack of response to comments left me with a horrible feeling that something must have happened to our mutual friend. After searching the Sydney NSW death notices, I sent an inquiry to a Sydney funeral home asking for some help to verify whether Matt had died.
    Matt if you are able, please let us know you are okay. I hope to receive a reply from the TJ Andrews funeral home soon. If anyone else has a better idea or suggestion about confirming the welfare of Matt, please let us all know!

    Thank you,

    Kathryn Schneider
    Finland
    sweetk8@pekkakate.com

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  16. ‘Blue Admiral’ is such a lovely rich shade. Wish I could grow them on my soil, but it is not to be! Waratahs are totally new to me so thanks for sharing. I have not seen them on sale in the uk.

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