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a member of the Protea family

Jeanette Closs

The genus Adenanthos-was first described in 1805 by Labillardiere, a French botanist, who collected specimens of the genus during the D'Entrecasteaux voyage in 1792. It is one of the lesser-known genera of the Proteaceae family. The name is from the Greek aden, a gland and anthos, a flower, referring to the prominent nectaries of the flower

It is an endemic genus of 33 species of which 31 are confined to the southwestern corner of Western Australia. Adenanthos terminalis extends into South Australia and western Victoria and A.macropodianus is endemic to Kangaroo Island. Adenanthos species range from small shrubs to small trees.

The flowers, which are tubular in shape with 4 to 6 overlapping bracts, are usually borne singly in the leaf axils or terminally. The fruit is an achene, which is a dry one-seeded fruit, and is hard and covered with hairs.

These plants grow naturally in sandy soils, gravels, clays and rocky areas. In cultivation they mostly like good drainage and will do well in dappled shade or full sun. A.detmoldii and A.obovatus are exceptions as they come from moist, swampy places. However, they seem to prefer good drainage in cultivation.

Adenanthos obovatus

One of the most commonly grown members of the genus is Adenanthos obovatus, a shrub to about 2 metres high by about 1.5 metres wide.
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Many species do not display their flowers well, but some have flowers which are bright and showy. They attract nectar-feeding birds and it is thought that Adenanthos may be pollinated by birds. Sometimes the flowers are called 'jug flowers' after their shape and the plants are often called 'woollybush', referring to the hairy foliage of many of the species. As with many members of this family, the leaf shapes and forms vary considerably - some have fine hairy leaves and others are oval or lobed.

Here are three species to look out for.

Adenanthos detmoldii F. Muell.

Adenanthos detmoldii   

This species is named after William Detmold, who was a friend of Baron von Mueller. My particular plant came from cuttings given to me some years ago and it has flowered profusely ever since, attracting honeyeaters constantly. The narrow leaves are arranged spirally and there are numerous glands on the surface.

This species is regarded as being at risk in the wild. It is known to occur in a very restricted habitat in the far south of Western Australia.

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The Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants notes that it grows from 2 to 4 metres high by 2 to 3 metres. wide. I only hope that this is not correct as mine is planted beside a path! The yellow and orange colour of the flowers is uncommon in the genus which mostly have red or pink flowers.

The typical flower form of the Proteaceae family can be clearly seen in specimens of this species. Prior to maturity, and while the slightly thickened style end is still enclosed by the perianth limb, pollen is released from the anthers onto the style end. At this time the stigma is not receptive and, although pollen adheres to the stigma, pollination does not take place. The style is finally released as the flower opens (at anthesis) and it becomes a pollen-presenter to nectar-feeding birds. Pollen rubs off on the head of the bird, which carries it to another flower a little older than the first whose stigmatic surface is now receptive. Pollination thus takes place.

Adenanthos cunninghamii Meissner *

Adenanthos cunninghamii   

This species (see footnote) is named after Allan Cunningham, the botanist and explorer. The species was lost to science until rediscovered in 1973 by Charles Nelson. There are only about a hundred known plants in the wild, so it is very rare. It grows up to 1.5 m. high with silvery-grey, hairy leaves which have three linear lobes. Flowers are dull red.

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Adenanthos cuneatus Labill.

The specific name of this species refers to the wedge shaped leaves that are silvery-grey, or, when young, a beautiful bronze-red.

This species has several common names - 'Bridle bush' (Esperance area, Western Australia), 'Sweat-bush' (Hopetoun area), 'flame bush' and 'coastal jug-flower'. The first two names refer to the apparent liking of horses for this species and it is claimed that they begin to sweat after eating the young tips.

The plant is common along the south coast of Western Australia. It is a spreading small to medium shrub up to 2 metres. The flowers are dull red with a greenish base. It was introduced into Great Britain in 1824 and appears to be hardy but possibly short-lived in some areas.

From "Eucryphia", the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Tasmania), December 1999.

* In the Flora of Australia Vol. 16, A cunninghamii is regarded as "a confusing and enigmatic plant which is now considered a hybrid between A.sericeus and A.cuneatus." Thanks to Jim Barrow, Wildflower Society of Western Australia Newsletter, August 2000, for this clarification.


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Australian Plants online - September 2000
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants