With the common name kangaroo paw, it is not surprising to discover that these plants originate from Australia. Smaller Anigozanthos species are known as catspaws. All eleven species of Anigozanthos, plus several subspecies, are endemic to south-western Australia. Anigozanthos species are perennial herbs with a basal cluster of linear leaves from which long flowering stems arise, producing the most eye-catching and dramatic flowering heads.
The most spectacular flowers are seen in the red and green kangaroo paw, Anigozanthos manglesii ssp. manglesii, which was selected as the floral emblem of Western Australia and appears in the State’s coat of arms. Stems supporting the flower heads can reach up to 80 cm in height. Brightly coloured, branched woolly hairs cover the main body of the tubular flowers giving them a distinctive velvety appearance. Each flower consist of six tepals, in a whorl, with the lobes curling back at the tips, or spreading in some species, to reveal six pollen-bearing anthers, which hang downwards. The individual flowers resemble either kangaroo’s or cat’s paw. All flowers in the inflorescence face the same direction.
The robust flowers are not only eye-catching to humans. Birds, such as honeyeaters (Meliphagoidea), attracted by copious nectar, act as pollinators. When the birds feed, they brush the anthers and pollen lands on their heads. Pollen is transferred to the stigma of the next flower visited. The honey possum (Tarsipes rostratus), a small, nectivorous marsupial found only in Western Australia, which grabs at and climbs flowering stems with its toes and prehensile tail, may also pollinate some species of Anigozanthos.
Anigozanthos species have adopted two different strategies to cope with the ravages of harsh, fire-prone landscapes. Some species (‘sprouters’) have rhizomes (horizontal underground stems), which can survive hot dry summers and fires, producing new growth after rain. In other species (‘seeders’), the hard-coated, wingless seeds can survive for long periods as part of the soil seed bank. Remarkably, after bushfires and the first rains of autumn, ‘seeders’ can germinate and flower prolifically, especially in the first year following a fire.
The starch-rich, tuberous underground roots of Anigozanthos manglesii are eaten by Aboriginal Noongar Australians. The Noongar people call the plant Nollamara.
In cultivation, new horticultural Anigozanthos hybrids are relatively easy to develop, whilst tissue culture enables their mass propagation. Kangaroo paws are important in floristry, the international trade in these flowers from Australia has grown dramatically over the last 50 years.
City of Joondalup. 2019. Plants and people in Mooro Country: Noongar plant use in Yellagonga Regional Park. Perth, WA.
Hopper, SD 1993. Kangaroo paws and catspaws. A natural history and field guide. Department of Conservation and Land Management Perth, Western Australia.