Pioneering plant breeder tells his story

Posted on Monday, January 16, 2023

Perth gardens have changed enormously over the past century with English style landscaping slowly giving way to include more native species. It’s a move that pleases Keith Oliver, a resident at Brightwater’s residential aged care home in Subiaco, Onslow Gardens.

Through his pioneering work as a plant breeder, Keith has been instrumental in helping to promote the beauty in Australian plants. But he admits it wasn’t easy at the start.

“People in those days thought there were garden flowers and there were wildflowers, and never the twain shall meet,” he says.

Well, I thought this was folly because all plants are wild somewhere or other. So, I set about breeding kangaroo paws to show what could be done.”

Kangaroo paws have been Keith’s great love and he is highly regarded as a pioneering breeder of the distinctive plants.

 At first, it was a hobby to be pursued around his full-time job as a carpenter and house builder. But what he describes as a ‘lifelong obsession’ slowly turned into a profession and a thriving business.

“I had my own garden at home and gradually that took over. Gardening and the kangaroo paws became the most important thing,” Keith says.

While still a hobbyist in the 1960s, Keith began to work on breeding hybrid kangaroo paws, with the aim of developing disease resistant varieties that could handle a range of climatic conditions. He focused on working with the tall varieties as these were tough, long-lived and more easycare than the smaller ones.

Keith saw that one variety in particular, Anigozanthos flavidus, could give him the results he was after, and his breeding program led him to release the landmark,

Anigozanthus ‘Big Red’ kangaroo paw. This showy plant continues to be one of the most popular kangaroo paws for landscaping, both in Australia and overseas.

Keith is still quietly proud of his work to bring the kangaroo paw to greater prominence in our gardens.

His contribution is recognised by many within the gardening world. This includes horticulturist, author and former television presenter, Angus Stewart who made a point of visiting Keith a few years ago when he was in Western Australia for the ABC’s Gardening Australia program.

“I’ve greatly respected Keith’s work and to finally meet with him after several decades was an incredibly rewarding experience,’ Angus told Perth horticulturalist Deryn Thorpe.

These days, Keith gets pleasure from watching the birds enjoy the native plants around his aged care home in Subiaco.

Onslow Gardens’ Service Manager, Jen Jenkinson, says Keith has been a big part of planning for more natives.

“When I met Keith, our first conversation was about kangaroo paws with a request for a native garden,” Jen adds.

“When one of our gardens was about to be renovated, Therapy Assistant John Oakes knew just the residents to band together, with Keith to guide our native garden project.

“The residents selected the plants, planned the layout of the garden and kept watch over the works as the garden was transformed with native plants and the star kangaroo paws. “They enjoy sitting in the new gardens and watching the birdlife visit.”

Keith’s advice for today’s gardeners choosing what to plant remains as it was all those years ago when he started out.

“Kangaroo paws are pretty drought tolerant so that would be a good start,” he says. And other plants to go with them? No, says Keith: “I just love kangaroo paws”.