Sturt’s Desert Pea

The Sturt’s Desert pea is a well-known Australian native flower that is the state floral emblem for South Australia. Although much admired these plants are notoriously hard to grow outside their natural desert environment as they are prone to fungal diseases and root rots.

There is good news however as a grafted Sturt’s Desert pea is now available. The rootstock is a New Zealand native plant, the New Zealand glory pea (Clianthus puniceus), which is not susceptible to root rot diseases. The rootstock will grow in most parts of Australia which means when grafted, Sturt’s Desert pea will also grow almost anywhere in Australia.

Plant details

Botanical name: Swainsona formosa (previously known as Clianthus formosus).

Common name: Sturt’s Desert pea. The flower is referred to as the ‘Flower of Blood’ by some Koori groups. This title comes from the legend which tells of a young woman who escaped marriage to an elderly gentleman by eloping with her younger lover. The shunned man and some of his friends tracked the couple down after some years and killed them both, as well as the relatives with whom they had lived. Sometime later, the old man returned to the place where he had slain the lovers and found the ground covered with the scarlet flowers that we know as the Sturt’s Desert pea.

New varieties: New colours can also be found in grafted Sturt’s Desert peas. As yet unnamed the colours are:

  • red
  • red with a black spot (known as the black boss)
  • white
  • pink

Colours may vary as, although the plants are grafted, the graft is taken from seed grown plants.

Description: In its natural habitat, the arid areas of central and Western Australia, the Sturt’s Desert pea is a plant that spreads across the ground reaching up to 2m (6′) across. The plants have scarlet, pea-shaped flowers, which are striking against the grey green leaves. It is found naturally occurring in sandy, well-drained soil.

Growing tips: Although grafted plants are less susceptible to root rot and fungal diseases due to the vigour of the rootstock it is advisable, especially in humid or coastal climates, to grow Sturt’s Desert peas in a well-drained soil or potting mix. Plant in a mound, unglazed terracotta pot or a hanging basket to ensure excellent drainage. Select a situation that is protected from rain. An ideal spot would be in the shelter of the eaves in a very well-lit position (eg north facing). Full sun is particularly important in winter. When watering, keep water off the leaves as much as possible particularly in humid climates.

To keep plants compact and flowering well: pinch out tips to encourage compact growth
cut back old stems after flowering (this will encourage new growth from the centre of the plant)
do not allow stems to become longer than 1m (3′) in length (tip prune)
fertilise with a liquid food while plants are actively growing or use a slow release fertiliser for native plants in spring

Getting started

Grafted Sturt’s Desert peas are available in 7.5cm (3″) pots from around $8. Larger pots (15cm or 6″) cost $16.95. Check your local garden centre or a specialist native nursery. If not in stock, ask the nursery to order plants for you. Make sure plants are grafted as Sturt’s Desert peas are traditionally grown from seed on their own roots.

Nurseries which have grafted plants in stock include: NSW – Sydney Wildflower Nursery South. Phone: (02) 9548 2818. Vic – Kuranga Native Nursery. Phone: (03) 9879 4076.

Hint: When buying a grafted Sturt’s Desert pea, ask for a set of cultural notes which are provided by the grower, Bushgraft Native Nursery, Victoria.

Further information

For more information on growing Sturt’s Desert pea contact your nearest specialist native plant nursery or the Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP). To find your nearest branch of the SGAP, contact the head office on (02) 9621 3437 or look at their website at www.ozemail.com.au/~sgap/

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