True Blue Beauty


Conversation 5 minute read

The blue 'masquerade' kangaroo paw festive floral installation recently turned heads at Perth's COMO The Treasury. We speak to Digby Growns, Kings Park's Senior Plant Breeder who has lead research into plant science developments and released over 50 new varieties of Australian flora and fauna.

Digby Growns


Plant hybrids have historically been pitted against beauty found in nature. Yet science and beauty are equal partners in the Kings Park laboratories, where Western Australian native, Digby Growns has been working for the past 25 years to create highly decorative plant varieties with positive environmental impact.

A Man Wearing Glasses

Landscape artist Sylvia Crowe thought the more intense, synthetic colours – like blue, which is hardly found in nature – threw off the ‘subtle harmony of the wild plant’ (Garden Design, 1958). Jean-Jacques Rousseau even called hybrids ‘nature disfigured by man’ (La Botanique, 1805). However, by being more low-maintenance and disease-tolerant, plant hybrids reduce the impact of use of water, chemical-based pest control and fertiliser, while increasing habitat and food sources for wildlife.

Growns speaks about how his work aims to unite science and aesthetics, his response to common criticisms, his horticultural inspiration and his Western Australian pride of place.

A Room With A Chandelier And A Large Chandelier

What is your fondest festive memory?

When I was very young, Christmases were spent on a farm near Jerramungup town in an asbestos house with a tin roof. It would get astoundingly hot in the summer, especially with my mum cooking a hot roast on a wooden stove in our kitchen. The smells were fantastic.

How did your interest in plant hybridisation begin?

I was in Peru, travelling to Cusco on the Altiplano, when we passed a grove of Eucalyptus trees. I turned to my Peruvian friend and mentioned that the trees were from my country, Australia. My friend refused to believe me, saying the Eucalyptus were Peruvian and highly valued by locals.

Our conversation started me thinking about plant adaptability, about how genetics can allow a species to thrive so far from where it originates – and the benefit that adaptability brings. Upon returning from Peru, I enrolled in a Horticultural Science degree at Murdoch University.

A Group Of Potted Plants
A Group Of Insects On A Branch

In your plant breeding experience, how significant is the role of aesthetics in the process of creating plant hybrids?

Within the Kings Park breeding programme, the role of aesthetics is on equal footing to the environmental outcomes for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the plants need to be aesthetically pleasing for a significant public uptake. A large percentage of ornamental plants are bought on impulse, so if hybrids are beautiful, this influences sales. We need the plants to be bought in order to reap the environmental benefits of hybridisation.

The second reason is that we would like to promote interest in our incredibly beautiful native flora. Hybrids cannot only be hardy but need to reflect the splendour of our landscapes. We hope our work will encourage more people to conserve the environment we’ve been blessed with.

A Group Of Blue Flowers

Does any particular plant hybrid you’ve helped create hold a special place in your memory?

There are three. The first would be Pearlflowers: a suite of hybrid waxflowers. These hybrids had twice the vase life of the natural varieties grown at the time. They were adopted very quickly and are now grown around the world.

The second would be the ‘RSL Spirit of ANZAC’ Grevillea hybrids: Kings Park’s first Grevillea release created in partnership with The Returned and Services League of Australia’s Western Australian branch to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our involvement in World War I. Over 100,000 of this hybrid have been sold and it’s widely planted across Australia – including around the State War Memorial in Kings Park.

The third would be the blue kangaroo paw. This plant has captured local and international imaginations in a way I’ve never seen and could never have expected. Blue flowers are fairly rare to begin with, and there has never been a blue kangaroo paw before this.

A Close-up Of A Plant

As a plant breeder, do you still draw a line between man-made and natural plants?

Yes, I do draw a line between man-made and natural plants. But I don’t consider man-made plants ‘imposters’ – they just have a different role.

Naturally occurring species are components of highly complex ecosystems that have gone through long-term evolutionary processes. They have countless interactions among other plants, fungi, bacteria, animals and more that we are probably not aware of.

Hybrid plants are created to provide a higher level of utility to humans – across food, fibre and ornamental uses – than any natural plants can. Therefore, they also exist differently within natural ecosystems.

There were early critics of plant hybrids. Centuries later, do you think hybridisation enhances, detracts from or mimics natural beauty?

Not just early critics – there are current ones as well. The Kings Park breeding programme aims to reflect what occurs in nature, so that people can be inspired by their own gardens. In my view as a Western Australian, it’s very difficult to produce hybrids that outshine our natural flora, which is amazingly diverse and among the most stunning on the planet. Perhaps it’s possible in other parts of the world.

A Group Of Blue Flowers
A Group Of Plants With Flowers
A Group Of White Flowers
A Bunch Of Blue Flowers

What was the most interesting part of collaborating with Rebecca Const from Fox and Rabbit?

Rebecca is very young and smart, with a design ethos I’ve never come across before.  She is someone who works with plants in a very different way to myself – I’m fascinated by our collaborative process and excited to see how it evolves, and what the final outcome will be. I’m very humbled by this opportunity.

All image credits: Ridhwaan Moolla

See the Festive Floral Spectacle of 200 blue kangaroo paws for yourself at COMO The Treasury, up from November 28th 2022 to January 2nd 2023.

Digby Growns will be participating in several festive events at COMO The Treasury. He is hosting a morning tea at the Postal Hall on December 17th 2022, from 10.00am to 11.45am. He will also be in conversation with Rebecca Const at The Mark on December 14th 2022, from 5.00pm to 7.00pm. Find out more.

W. COMO The Treasury   |   E.   | T. +61 8 6168 7888