Waratah and its Relatives - Background

Introduction

The Protea family (Proteaceae) is spread across what was once Gondwana, through Southern Africa, Australia and South America. A great many of them, including many of the more spectacular species (many banksias, grevilleas and proteas), come from Mediterranean or arid areas of low summer rainfall - wetter climes provide considerable (and in some cases insurmountable) challenges to their cultivation - ask any enthusiast living in Sydney or Brisbane!

The Tribe Embothrieae is a collection of plants from quite different climates to their abovementioned kin, the bulk of which grow instead in the rainforests and wet highlands of coastal eastern Australia - from tropical Queensland to southwest Tasmania, as well as in New Guinea, New Caledonia and forests in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. There are some exceptions - the New South Wales' Waratah grows in dry sclerophyll forests and the 3 species of the genus Strangea grow on sandy heaths and sclerophyll forest. Also, two species of Stenocarpus grow in dry areas of the Northern Territory and north west Western Australia but are inundated in the monsoon season there.

One genus, Lomatia, has representatives on both sides of the Pacific. Until recently, so did Oreocallis, however, the four species in Australasia were considered distinct enough to be placed in the closely related genus Alloxylon. Furthermore, fossil records seem to indicate the presence of Embothrium (now comprising a single species, E.coccineum or Chilean Fire Bush, native to southern Argentina and Chile) in Gippsland in Victoria. Given their current distribution and Antarctica's position between South America and Australia in Gondwanaland prior to its breakup in the late Mesozoic, one could assume waratah-like plants occurred in Antarctica (!).

Botanically the Tribe Embothrieae contains four subtribes. The table below lists the 9 genera in the Tribe and indicates the approximate number of species in each.


Genera in the Tribe Embothrieae*

Genus No.of Species* Distribution
Subtribe Embothriinae
Telopea
5
Eastern Australia
Embothrium
1
South America (Chile)
Oreocallis
6
South America (Ecuador and Peru)
Alloxylon
4
Eastern Australia, New Guinea
Subtribe Lomatiinae
Lomatia
12
Australia, South America
Subtribe Buckinghamiinae
Buckinghamia
2
North-eastern Australia
Opisthiolepis
1
North-eastern Australia
Subtribe Stenocarpiinae
Stenocarpus
27
Northern and eastern Australia
Strangea
3
Eastern and south Western Australia
*Approximate number only; some genera contain unnamed species and other genera are in need of botanical revision..

Characteristics

Generally the Embothrieae comprises plants of rainforests, open forests and mountainous areas. Within Australia, the group is generally limited to the eastern seaboard but certain genera (eg. Stenocarpus) extend across tropical Australia to northern Western Australia.

In many cases, the flowers are showy and and occur in clusters at the ends of the branches ("terminal" inflorescences). The individual flowers are small and occur in pairs, a characteristic shared by many other members of the Proteaceae, including the well known genus Grevillea - the Embothrieae, in fact, belong to the large sub-family Grevilleoideae, which includes Grevillea.

For the most part the flowers have little or no fragrance and many are red in colour, which suggests that birds rather than insects are the main pollinators being catered for. Blooms are generally followed by woody seed pods containing from a single (eg Strangea) to many seeds (eg. Telopea). The seeds are released from the seed pods when the pod is mature, some months after flowering is finished, Seeds generally have a membranous wing attached which aids in distribution of the seeds by wind.

Lomatia sp.    Winged seed on Alloxylon sp.

Many species can grow into large trees up to 30 metres in height in their natural forest habitat, though often much shorter in the garden. The genera which in general stay at shrub size are Telopea, Strangea and Lomatia.

Fire Response

The members of the Embothrieae vary in their responses to bushfire. Species native to areas where bushfires are a threat often have a lignotuber, a woody swelling at, or just below ground level. Lignotubers contain regenerative buds which can develop new plant stems if the above ground parts of a plant is destroyed. Lignotubers are found in most Telopea and Strangea species and in some Lomatia species.

Species native to rainforest areas usually lack lignotubers as bushfires are either very rare or totally absent from those habitats. These species rely solely on seed for regeneration.


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