Giving Nature a Helping Paw

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In a greenhouse at somersby, 90 km north of sydney, Angus Stewart is sizing up some potted talent. Before him is a kangaroo paw, whose red-and-green flowers resemble half-opened, velvet-gloved fists. Beside it is a cottonhead, a cousin of the "paw," its fuzzy flowers bunched like tiny yellow fingertips. A third plant, as yet unnamed, is in Stewart's head. "If you could cross these two, which is tricky because they're not that closely related," he says, "you might get a plant that's as hardy as the cottonhead and has these tight flowers, in the colors of the kangaroo paw. That would be interesting."

Stewart, a gardening broadcaster and breeder for horticulture firm Yates Botanicals, has spent two decades in search of the perfect paw. The 11 species of Anigozanthos may look spectacular, he says, but outside their southwest Australian habitat they are "cantankerous and hard to grow." By crossing them to create hybrids-or, as his friends like to joke, "buggering them up"-Stewart and other breeders have developed more than 60 new forms of paw, in a range of sizes and colors, that are as comfortable on a Tokyo balcony as in an Auckland garden. Here in Yates' research greenhouses, dozens more varieties are being trialed. "It's a blast when a new one flowers," Stewart says, feeling inside a fan of leaves for the hidden bud. But his quest isn't over yet. "We have hybrids that are an improvement on the wild forms," he says, "but they're still not as good as we'd like."

Australia's first breeder, evolution, designed the continent's 25,000 plant species for survival rather than sale. Some of the features it built in-showy, bird-luring flowers, woody seed pods that resist fire, silvery foliage to reflect heat-give native flora a bizarre beauty. Other quirks-an aversion to rich soil, a tendency to shed pollen on anything that comes by-can make them difficult to grow and market. For a long time, most Australians picked their wildflowers and fruits from the bush, leaving green-thumbed hobbyists to struggle with them in the garden. But growing consumer demand, better techniques for cloning plants and germinating seeds, and patent protection for recognized new varieties have made efforts to tame native flora more systematic-and ambitious. "In the past 10 years," says Stewart, "breeders have got much more commercially focused. Now it's, How can I tailor this for the market?"

At The Wildflower Farm, a few minutes' drive from the Yates nurseries, Jeremy Smith grows native flora for buyers in Australia and Europe. "Wandering round the bush and picking flowers is not viable anymore," he says. "Demand is too big. So we grow what our customers want." Smith's stock includes red Christmas bush, velcro-flowered grevilleas, banksias with tall orange candles, tea trees and purple-leafed wattle. Whether nursery hybrids or grown from wild seed, all have been bred with the cut-flower market in mind, with attractive foliage or colorful, long-stemmed blooms that last well in water.

Smith's favorite plant meets those criteria, but few people would have a vase big enough to hold it. The Gymea lily's crimson flower heads wave like giant feather dusters atop stalks up to 6 m high. Gathered under license in the wild, they sell for $A200 apiece in Japan, but plants take so long to bloom-seven years or more-that they can't be grown in big numbers. Smith, a horticultural science graduate, has developed a way to culture the lily's minute buds into viable plants. If his trial clones flower early, the Gymea lily could join the growing list of natives entering mass production.

In Yates' sterile propagation lab, technicians with tweezers push slivers of paw leaf into a nutrient jelly that will help them develop shoots and roots. Using this technique, thousands of clones of a successful new hybrid can be produced from a single specimen. Many end up abroad: Yates alone exports half a million kangaroo-paw plants a year. Recently, manager Lionel Henderson was amazed to see one in an English pub: "It was one of our cultivars, Bush Ranger. It had started here as a tissue culture, been shipped to a grower in Israel, then to a wholesaler in Holland, and finally to a florist in Somerset." It's overseas demand, he adds, that has "enabled Australia to commercialize native-plant breeding; the domestic market isn't big enough."

It could be huge, however, if Stewart has his way. "My dream," he says, "is to breed a kangaroo paw in the colors of every football team in Australia." It's a heroic goal: the colors of hybrid paws tend to be muddy, and the black species is disinclined to mate with its colored cousins. But to Stewart, the "blokey, boofy" flower is the perfect footy emblem. If evolution had seen it that way, we'd already have black-and-white and red-and-blue kangaroo paws. Fortunately, science and imagination stand ready to fill the gap.

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