Alice wondered why the playing cards in the Queen's garden were painting the white roses red. Sydneysiders might have wondered why scientists were painting red waratahs blue.
I can confirm it had nothing to do with State of Origin. In fact, it was a cunning plan to stop the illegal harvesting of waratah blooms from bushland on New South Wales' Central Coast. A plan that didn't work.
Doug Beckers from the Parks & Wildlife Division of our State's Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, and Cathy Offord, from the Botanic Gardens Trust, were testing a curious solution to a crime that threatens the survival of some populations of Telopea speciosissima - flower poaching.
Beckers and Offord began by painting 100 waratah blooms blue with Berger Paints 'Burton Blues' low sheen acrylic, leaving 200 unpainted as 'controls'. The hypothesis was that the blue paint would reduce the commercial value of the 100 blooms (around $12 per stem at the florist) and they would be left intact.
Well, the Burton Blues, if I can call them that, were poached slightly less often than the unpainted blooms and overall the total number of blooms 'borrowed' in the test year was slightly less than the previous year. That said, around a quarter of the stems were still ripped off.
Not surprisingly painting the flowers blue reduced fruit set - what self-respecting pollinator would be seen hovering around a Burton-Blue-low-sheen-acrylic coloured pollen trap? That said, plants with a single bloom had a reasonable fruit set in painted specimens, which is odd.
Although painting blooms blue detered the collection of those particular flowers a little, it didn't have much impact overall. Sensibly, Beckers and Offord recommend that painting not be continued.
What might be hard to understand is why any of the Burton Blues were poached. Surely they wouldn't have any value as a cut flower. Beckers and Offord suggest that thefts may take place in the night, to avoid detection, when the blue hue may not be as obvious. Perhaps an irridescent paint could be tried?
So what can we do to protect these plants for criminal vandalism? The authors suggest some kind of surveillance, perhaps even a 'Waratah Watch' program by locals.
If you want to read more about this study, see the latest issue of the Botanic Gardens Trust's ecological journal, Cunninghamia (volume 11, number 3, pages 287-293). The full issue will appear on-line in due season (probably 'sprummer).
Images: The picture at the top is my feeble attempt to create a blue waratah bloom. Below is Cathy Offord sizing up a waratah bloom, perhaps considering how it would look in Burton Blue.