Sturt Pea, a Most Splendid Plant - David Symon and Manfred Jusaitis
Reviewed by Tony Cavanagh
As far as I am aware, this is only the second book on a single species of Australian plant (the first was S.P. Sherry's "The black waffle (Acacia mearnsii De Wild)", published in South Africa in 1971).
Although many of us have wanted to grow Sturt Pea in our gardens, it has proved to be a most difficult subject, highly susceptible to humidity and damp weather, or dying, literally overnight, often while in full flower. Yet despite these negatives, it is probably one of Australia's best known and most iconic flowers. It has astonished explorers since it was discovered by the buccaneer William Dampier in 1699, probably on East Lewis island off the north west coast of Western Australia, and created sensations when flowering specimens were exhibited in English and Continental horticultural shows and in gardening magazines during the late 19th century. Many coloured forms, with pink and white petals and keels (and even some with all-white flowers), were cultivated, but the most popular, then as now, was the striking "standard" form with a glossy black "boss" in the centre and vivid scarlet petals, wings and keel. So recognisable is this flower that it has appeared on Australian stamps and coins, on commercial products such as road maps, wine labels and postcards and tea towels, as well as organisation logos, on fabrics and costumes and in many art works and craft items. It also features in several aboriginal legends. These are just some of the facts that we learn from this delightful and well presented book, but the authors, both professional scientists with a long association with the Sturt Pea, are also keen to cover every conceivable aspect of this enigmatic plant, so there is much more.
The part I found most fascinating was the detailed account of what we now know of the biology of the Sturt Pea (known to many of us as Swainsona formosa, but recently also named Willdampia formosa), based on research over the last 20 years. There was always a demand from home gardeners for plants but it was a perceived commercial interest (especially from overseas) in cut flowers and as container-grown ornamental plants that prompted substantial research into understanding the growth habit, floral characteristics, disease resistance and cultivation requirements of domesticated forms. The main aim was to try, through breeding and selection of plants from a large number of sources, to produce reliable plants for cultivation. Many spectacular colour forms were grown, most of them shown among the hundreds of beautiful colour illustrations in the book, and much was learned about growing plants under glasshouse production systems. But as the authors admit, there are still major hurdles to successful commercial exploitation, among them difficulties with propagation of sufficient numbers of selected forms and how to package for export. For the home gardener, "the major garden problem (is) sudden collapse due to root failure".
This is a specialist book and may not appeal to everyone. The illustrations and layout are superb, the technical information is presented clearly with extensive references for those who wish to follow up matters, and I am sure that everything you would ever want to know about Sturt Pea is here! It would make a nice gift for anyone with an interest in flowers and their history. I was disappointed to see that no mention was made of the pioneering work of Victorian Doug McKenzie, and later his son Pete, with cotyledon grafting as a means of reducing root failure. Their work began in the early 1980s and they have probably grown more than 10,000 Sturt Peas subsequently; they also experimented with a range of colour forms. As root collapse is known as the major cause of failure of garden plants, then grafting onto suitable rootstock such as some of the compatible Swainsonas would seem worthy of more attention. And on a minor point, in the soft cover version that I saw, the cover was separating from the bound text along the glued back. Let us hope that this was a one off.
Sturt Pea, a Most Splendid Plant
David Symon and Manfred Jusaitis
Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium, and Department for Environment & Heritage, Government of South Australia, Adelaide, 2007.
A4, softcover, 151 pages, colour illustrations.
From Growing Australian, the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria), March 2009.
Australian Plants online - 2009
Australian Native Plants Society (Australia)