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Growing Callistemon from Seed

Byron Williams

There is something magic about creating a beautiful Callistemon plant from a tiny seed whilst nature looks over your shoulder.

Callistemons are some of the easier of our native plants to grow from seed. Just sprinkle the seed onto some soil in a pot just like you do with poppy or petunia seed, add moisture and a little warmth and after two or three weeks - 'bingo', you have lots of little bambino callistemons, all competing to survive like young chicks in a nest. Whilst germination and the first two weeks are relatively straight forward, after that you do need to give your tiny Callistemon seedlings daily attention to ensure they are watered, have good air circulation, kept sheltered plus a little TLC and a dash of common sense, to grow them on successfully.

Because individual species of Callistemon come in a number of forms and hybridise so readily, you can't be sure seed grown callistemons will be the same as the parent plant. So if you want to reproduce an exact replica of a particular Callistemon, it is essential you grow your new Callistemon from cutting material and not from seed. Unless the seed you plant is pure species seed, not contaminated by the pollen of other forms of Callistemon, the chances of producing plants quite different from the parent are the norm rather than the exception; which makes the practice of growing callistemons from seed all the more fascinating. It never ceases to amaze me the variety of seedlings that can be produced from a small amount of fertile seed; all sorts of shapes, sizes and forms. It's a bit like a lucky envelope draw at the local show ; you just never know what you will get!.

".....if you want to reproduce an exact replica of a particular Callistemon, it is essential you grow your new Callistemon from cutting material and not from seed. "

If your seed has come from a hybrid Callistemon often your seedlings may take on the features of one or the other of the parents or a combination of both - or produce a brand new hybrid where further cross pollination has taken place. This can be illustrated very effectively by planting some seed from the lovely brilliant red "Harkness" that originated in South Australia. Some of the seedlings appear to exhibit C.viminalis species features ie gently weeping foliage, while others seem to be of a more upright type along the lines of C.citrinus. From time to time the seed will throw up a seedling with very small leaves similar to the early forms of C.recurvus (originally C. "Tinaroo Falls") just to add a little mystery and confusion to the plot. It's just like a time machine, when your seed germinates and you get all these little seedlings, some showing features of callistemons of a by gone age.

The variability of brush colour in seedling grown plants is just as fascinating. Plant seed from a pink hybrid Callistemon and often the seedlings when they eventually flower will have brushes of various shades of pink, red and from time to time pure white. For example, seed I have planted from the lovely C. "Western Glory" (which has dark red brushes with a mauve tint), has produced seedlings which eventually flowered with brushes in shades of red, pink and mauve. On the other hand C. "Harkness" seedlings always seem to produce seedlings that have red brushes, which probably means both parents were red flowering callistemons. Another example that readily comes to mind is the well known group of Victorian callistemons of suspect C.citrinus origin, which have been available for many years in Melbourne. C. "Reeves Pink", has clear pink brushes; seed from "Reeves Pink" is said to have produced two well known cultivars in "Mauve Mist" (pinkish-mauve brushes) and "Burgundy" (deep burgundy-red brushes). A lesser known seedling that "Reeves Pink" is said to have produced was "Starlight", which had white brushes. It is also thought that another not so common Callistemon called "Violet Clusters" was a seedling of "Reeves Pink".

An example of just how easily callistemons mate was given in a very interesting article by Norm McCarthy in the October 1998 issue of Native Plants for New South Wales titled "Strange but True". It tells the story of how many years ago he planted some Callistemon seed from a packet labelled C.polandii (a beautiful red Callistemon from Queensland) which produced some seedlings with three distinct leaf forms and pink flower brushes. The first form was thought to be a relict form of C.citrinus, the second resembled an existing pink form of C.polandii. and the third form had foliage similar to C.pachyphyllus (NSW/Qld) and ended up appearing in the nursery trade as Callistemon "Pink Champagne". All from the one packet of Callistemon seed! Fascinating isn't it?

Callistemon citrinus Callistemon viminalis  
Parents of many bottlebrush hybrids. Callistemon citrinus (left) and Callistemon viminalis (right).
Select the thumbnail image or plant names for higher resolution images (30k and 43k).

Callistemon 'Western Glory' Callistemon 'Violaceus'
Two popular bottlebrush cultivars.
Callistemon "Western Glory" (left) and Callistemon "Violaceus" (right). Both of these need to be propagated by cuttings.

Select the thumbnail image or highlighted name for a higher resolution image.

The species of Callistemon that most commonly are alleged to have been involved in producing hybrids are the commonly grown C.citrinus and C.salignus (originating mainly from New South Wales), C.polandii (Queensland) and, of course, particularly the many forms of C.viminalis (Queensland). There is some botanical question as to whether C.viminalis should be classified as Melaleuca rather than a Callistemon because of the arrangement of its stamens, although in the garden it seems quite happy to inter- breed only with callistemons and not with melaleucas - but the botanists can work that one out.

While growing callistemons from seed is an interesting hobby it should not be forgotten there is an incredible number of Callistemon forms and cultivars growing out there in home gardens and available in nurseries. This has led to much confusion in defining the species under their correct botanical names and the many horticultural forms and cultivars. So as not to add to the confusion, when growing callistemons from seed, it is prudent to keep a record of the species or cultivar name of the parent plant(s) if known, the source or location from where the seed came and details of the Callistemon species or cultivars growing near the parent plant if you collected your own seed. In this way you will know your seedling's pedigree if in fact it turns out to be a good one.

.....and who knows, with the passage of time you might find that tiny little seedling you germinated under plastic in a dish of water out the back, has turned into a magnificent hybrid every bit as good as some of the well known cultivars presently available in nurseries and written about in gardening magazines. The fascination of growing callistemons from seed!

From the September 2000 issue of "Growing Australian", the newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria).


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Australian Plants online - March 2001
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants