Last month I was asked to speak at the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne’s Kangaroo Paw Symposium about the value of kangaroo paws for wildlife habitat. I thought I would put an overview of my talk here for others to read.
Creating habitat for wildlife is something that is very close to my heart. I have always been interested in visiting our local bushland, as well as private gardens, and it is always so heartening to see areas that attract a lot of local wildlife. And the great thing is that you can do the same thing at your place, even if you don’t own the property or if you have a small garden.
Why use kangaroo paws?
So, why use kangaroo paws in your garden? Well, they can be rather colourful and eye-catching; they can be hardy if you give them the right conditions and as far as attracting wildlife goes – they attract nectarivorous birds who find many of them as eye-catching as we do, which is just as well as they don’t have a fine perfume or even a bad smell to attract other pollinators.
When a bird visits a kangaroo paw, it will insert its beak into the centre of the flower and down the perianth tube, so that it is able to drink the nectar from the base of the flower. Whilst doing this, it is rubbing the top of its head against the stamens, which are covered in pollen. When the birds fly off, they will still have pollen grains stuck to the top of their head.
They will then shift to another flower and when poking their beak into the other flower, the pollen may make contact with the stigma. This will then allow for cross-pollination to take place. Not every kangaroo paw is the same either, so if the bird visits another kangaroo paw flower, the pollen may not be placed in the right position on its head and therefore, it may not be brushed onto the stigma of the flower of a different species. However, this does sometimes happen and this produces hybrid offspring.
It is also important to note that not every bird is going to be able to feed from a kangaroo paw. They need the right-shaped beak, which is long enough to reach the nectar at the base of the flower. It is also important to note that birds have different sized beaks, so some birds with smaller beaks will prefer kangaroo paws that have smaller flowers. They are not really shaped to be suitable for most insects.
These birds also need to be partial to nectar. There is a special word for this, which is “nectarivore”. Other feeding builds for builds are granivores (seed-eaters, e.g. finches), carnivores (meat-eaters, e.g. butcherbirds), frugivores (fruit-eaters, e.g. fruit doves) and insectivores (insect-eaters, e.g. Willie Wagtail).
One example of a bird that fits the category of a nectarivore is the New Holland Honeyeater, which you can see plenty of at the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens. Other examples are wattlebirds, Lewin’s Honeyeater, Eastern Spinebill, Noisy Miners, Noisy Friarbirds, Brown Honeyeaters, Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters. In the United States, they are also visited by hummingbirds.
However, it isn’t just birds that are nectarivores. Although, they aren’t found in Victoria, it is important that I also mention Honey Possums, which are also known to feed on kangaroo paws in its limited range in the south-west of Western Australia. The Honey Possum has a long tongue, which can reach down into the flower to collect the nectar.
I can’t forget to mention other visitors that kangaroo paws may attract into your garden, which are not pollinators. One example shown here is the Blue-Tongued Lizard. My husband’s aunt lives on a suburban block in Inverloch, and told me the other day that she has Blue-Tongued Lizards that like to hang out amongst her kangaroo paws. She has quite a number of kangaroo paws that have been there for years and have been left to grow quite large, therefore, she does get quite a few snails that like to hide under the dense foliage. The lizards, presumably, love to visit here and munch on the snails that have congregated. The kangaroo paws are also situated directly next to a paved patio, so they also enjoy sunning themselves when they are not catching snails.
Suitable kangaroo paws
I did have a good think about what species or cultivars of kangaroo paws would be suitable for a wildlife garden. All of them have their merits, however, some will attract more than others. The big hardy cultivars, like ‘Big Red’, ‘Orange Cross’ and ‘Yellow Gem’ will last a long time and attract a lot of birds into your garden compared to some of the smaller, short-lived cultivars. So keep this in mind when you are picking your kangaroo paws, however, it is up to you what you would like to put in your garden.
I should add as well that some of the shorter-lived varieties can be as good at attracting birdlife, but you will have to replace them more often in your garden. Anigozanthos ‘Bush Tenacity’ instantly comes to my mind. I have seen quite a number of New Holland Honeyeaters frequenting them in the Australian Garden – they just love them!
I can’t talk about planting kangaroo paws in a garden without talking about their placement. They should be highly visible, both for the birds and for you. My kangaroo paws are out in the open and easily seen by passing birds, however, I have made the mistake of placing them away from most of our windows so I often can’t view birds feeding from the kangaroo paws. I only notice later that the flowers are on a lean, having copped the heavy weight of a Red Wattlebird. If you are going to attract wildlife I think most people would want to admire them as well, so it is important to consider.
Whilst on the topic of placement, I think another great idea is to have them in pots – even better if on wheels on a paved surface or deck area. That way you can wheel them into a good vantage point when they are in full flower and then you can wheel them away when they are not flowering, and move in another plant that is in flower later. The other bonus for this, is that there would be no issue with doing this in rental properties or places that only have enough room for a balcony or a courtyard garden. And kangaroo paws do really well in pots.
Obviously, it is a no brainer that you place your kangaroo paws somewhere where they are exposed to suitable conditions and that you care for them well so that they thrive, have more flowers for longer and therefore attract more wildlife into your garden.
Another take-home message that I have is to place kangaroo paws near other nectar-producing plants. Many people don’t consider this, but I think that it is quite important. As discussed earlier, kangaroo paws attract nectivorous birds like Red Wattlebirds, Noisy Miners and New Holland Honeyeaters. Many of these birds can be very bossy and so will chase away other birds in the area, including small birds like thornbills and wrens.
If you are interested in having a garden that attracts a diverse range of birdlife, then I think it is important to place other plants that don’t produce large amounts of nectar in other parts of the yard (which I will talk about later) and to group many of the nectar-producing plants (including kangaroo paws) together to keep those bossy birds away from the smaller birds and to keep them in one place. For example, I have planted the majority of my kangaroo paws next to our neighbour’s Grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’, Callistemon salignus and Callistemon citrinus.
Lastly, it is important to have a water source for the wildlife that is visiting your garden. This can be in the form of a birdbath, including one placed on the ground, hung in a tree or a pedestal birdbath. If you have several different ones, you will notice that many of the birds will prefer one over the other. Some also prefer shallow water, so you can always place a rock or a branch in the birdbath so that they are more likely to visit. The water source should also be in a safe area where they can get away quickly from any pesky bossy birds, cats or dogs. This water source may also be welcome to any Blue-tongued Lizards visiting your yard!
Other plants in your garden
Another thing to take into account is that kangaroo paws do not generally flower all year, although I have to say that I’ve noticed many of kangaroo paws in the Australian Garden flower almost all year around, and I’m very jealous of that fact! For most people, they are going to flower from spring to summer and so if you want some of these nectarivorous birds to continue visiting your garden you will need to consider planting other plants that will flower for the rest of the year and produce enough nectar for them. Or you could do what I have done, and borrow your neighbour’s landscape by relying on their large showy Grevilleas and Callistemons to feed them throughout the rest of the year.
As I mentioned earlier, if you want to attract a diverse range of birds, and also insects, into your yard, then you should ensure that you have pockets of other plants in your yard if you have the room. These include thorny shrubs like Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) and Needlebush (Hakea sericea), which protect small birds, provides a place to nest and attracts a lot of insects.
I should also mention that just because I referred to Wattlebirds and honeyeaters as nectarivores, it doesn’t mean that they only feed on nectar. They also need to supplement their diet with protein in the form of insects, so plants that attract insects are just as important for them.
It is important to include multiple layers of plants in your yard at different heights as many birds prefer different settings, for example some birds like Noisy Miners and Magpies prefer open areas, whereas thornbills and wrens will prefer bushy shrubs, where they can quickly evade predators.
It is also important to include plants that are not big nectar producers to attract other wildlife. This can include grasses, Acacia species, Philotheca wax flowers, native bush peas – the list goes on and on. If you are not sure what else you could plant to complement your kangaroo paws, then observe what plants around you are attracting or have a look at a book Birdscaping Australian Gardens by George Adams. There is plenty of information on the web as well as by most local councils.
However, despite me pushing the importance of a diverse range of plants, I really do think that everyone should have a kangaroo paw in their garden – or even better – a cluster of them! They are so colourful, pleasing to look at and are really loved by many birds.
I hope this information inspires you to look at your garden a bit differently – maybe more in the eyes of your local wildlife.